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‘Extraordinary is no longer extraordinary’: US scientists on a year of climate disasters | Climate crisis in the American west

‘Extraordinary is no longer extraordinary’: US scientists on a year of climate disasters | Climate crisis in the American west

The town of Grizzly Flats, which was destroyed by the Caldor fire in August.

In 2021, the American west was confronted with unprecedented climate disasters.

A cold wave in February triggeredTexas experienced temperatures 50F below the average, killing at least 150 people and leaving millions without water and power. Over the summer heatwaves broke Temperature RecordsMany people were killed in the west, including in different states. Fires blazed through large swathes west, razing Greenville in northern California and destroying groves full of massive sequoia trees.

This summer, the GuardianInterviewA panel of climate scientists spoke about their experiences with the crises predicted by climate research. As the year ends, they share their reflections on what’s happened – and what gives them hope, even as climate catastrophe looms.

The climate scientist: ‘The extraordinary is no longer extraordinary’
Daniel Swain, Colorado
Climate scientist, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability University of California, Los Angeles

These are some of the most prominent global climate and weather extremes in recent years. This year is a great example of that. It’s quite remarkable to see the magnitude and frequency of what has happened in the last 12 months. The extraordinary and unprecedented is no longer extraordinary or unprecedented because it’s starting to happen so often.

In June, there was an unprecedented heatwave in the Pacific north west and British Columbia. The glacial valleys of British Columbia saw Death Valley-like temperatures. This was, for me, one of the most shocking heatwaves I have ever seen. We had fires across the west, which were followed by record-breaking temperatures. extreme precipitation – sometimes in the same towns and cities that were affected by heatwaves and fires.

The evidence of climate change caused by humans is clear. And what we’re starting to see is that a lot of these impacts of climate change are outpacing our efforts to deal with them. The infrastructure for emergency management, transportation infrastructure, and water conveyance infrastructure are all failing. We’re seeing implications for things like energy infrastructure, as we saw in Texas, and for water infrastructure, in places like California. Even infrastructure in wealthy nations is designed with a limited tolerance for extremes.

Both the good and bad news is that we are responsible for this. We are the ones responsible for climate change, and we must fix it. Of course, we can also choose not to fix it – and that’s the tension I constantly feel.

The meteorologist: ‘Maybe this will be a wake up call’
Simon Wang, Utah
Professor of climate dynamics Utah State University

The natural disasters, the drought, the heat – it’s hardly surprising any more. Everything that has happened has followed the trend that was predicted 10-20 years ago. I hate to say: ‘I told you so.’ But I just want to make clear that when scientists predict something, there are usually good reasons for that. Science should be trusted.

More people are now suffering. But maybe it will make more and more people realize that these extreme weather events and fires will keep happening – maybe this will be a wake-up call. With each year of extreme weather events, maybe we’ll start to see policy change.

Even politically conservative states are starting feel the pain and are starting take action. Utah is an example. Utah is the Great Salt Lake. Record low. The lake is shrinking. This is a sign that there are bigger issues – declining snowfall and melting snow, declining water supply for household and industry. As the lake shrinks, more water is being exposed to the lake bed, and winds could cause it release toxic dust into our atmosphere. All of this has caused panic.

I’ve been studying the effects of climate change on the Great Salt Lake for over a decade. This is the first year that I have seen so many calls to action from all sides. There is a chance to save the natural balance, as people are becoming more aware of its fragility. Scientists will now have federal funding and will collaborate with other agencies and task forces to study the problem, inform policy changes, and take conservation measures to save Lake Michigan.

That’s where I am. I try to be both alarmingly optimistic and positive.

The paleoclimatologist: ‘There’s a lot we can all do’
Kathleen Johnson, California
Associate professor of Earth System Science at the University of California Irvine

Central and northern California were hit with yet another unprecedented fire season. This was one that was incredibly devastating and had profound social, economic and environmental impacts. It was then followed by this large, extreme rainfall event. In the paleoclimate record, we can see that these big swings between extreme drought and extreme wet conditions has been a normal feature of California’s climate. However, we know that climate changes are likely to increase the intensity of these extremes. We know that increasing temperatures will cause more droughts, and fires to become more intense and frequent. These extreme events are likely to bring about more rain.

One of the things that has really hit home to me about this year is the fires’ impact on giant sequoia trees in the Sierra Nevada. I’ve done research in the Sequoia national park and it’s one of my favorite places in the world – these trees are just amazing. And they’re actually fire-adapted trees – they require fire to live and propagate. But the fires have been so extreme this year and last year that they’ve permanently killed thousands of sequoia trees. A recent report indicated that up to 20% of the sequoias have been killed in the last two years alone – and that just makes me really sad. It makes me worry that future generations won’t be able to appreciate the beauty of these trees.

See Also
A destroyed farm is seen in New Jersey in September after record-breaking rainfall brought by the remnants of Storm Ida.

The town of Grizzly Flats, which was destroyed by the Caldor fire in August.
The Caldor fire of August destroyed the town of Grizzly flats.Photograph by Ethan Swope/AP

As a paleoclimatologist, it also motivates me to look back at the idea of trying to develop better records of fire in the Sierras, and so better inform and understand what is happening and what’s to come. There’s a lot we can all do.

My students are also so incredibly motivated – they care deeply about sustainability and environmental justice. As an educator, that is my role: To help these scientists get out there and advise on policy issues and make these changes.

The atmospheric scientist: ‘It’s like being knocked over by a wave’
Katharine Hayhoe (Texas)
Chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy and climate scientist

These massive disasters keep on coming. A recent study by the AnalysisBack in the 1980s, there were three months between each billion-dollar weather and climate event. Today, it takes on average 18 days to get between them. So it’s not only that individual events themselves are getting more dangerous and more damaging. It’s that there’s no respite.

It’s like being knocked over by a wave. You’re struggling to your feet, when another one comes. There’s no time to take a breath in between, there’s no time to recover.

To those living in the west, and experiencing the fires, heatwaves, and flooding – I would say you have good reason to be anxious, your fears are valid, your concerns are real. How can we all use our voices to push for action at every level? It’s not about saving the planet. The planet will be orbiting the sun long after we’re gone. It is about saving us – our civilization, and many of the other living things that share this planet with us.

I see that the majority of people are worried that we don’t know what to do. And if we don’t know what to do, that fear will paralyze us. If fear paralyzes us, it is our doom. It gives people a sense if they can make an impact. And it’s not just you know, changing your lightbulb or cutting out your meat consumption. It’s engaging and using your voice and advocating for change in your community in your place of work. In the school that you would have your child attends or the organization that you’re part of.

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