How climate change impacts extreme weather across America
The phrase “global warming” may sound fairly innocuous. A few degrees of temperature difference spread out over a century doesn't sound like much to many people, and the most compelling images associated with the phenomenon often involve glaciers and polar bears, which makes the threat seem distant. The reality, however, is that climate change is real, it's impacting the United States right now, and its effects will be magnified in the near future. According to a Harvard study, “climate change will affect every American in the coming decades.” In many cases, it already has.
Although it's unclear if there is a direct correlation between climate change and phenomena like tornados and thunderstorms, there is an established and undeniable link between rising temperatures and heat waves, increased precipitation, reduced snowpack, flooding, fires, and intense tropical storms and hurricanes. Some climate change-related weather patterns will hinder energy production while simultaneously placing a greater demand on energy providers. Others will bring massive storms to regions that were historically spared from their wrath, as New York and New Jersey experienced with Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
In other cases, extreme weather will trigger water shortages like the kind that have recently plagued the Southwest and much of the rest of the country. Food shortages likely will lead to higher prices at the grocery store, property values will decline in the hardest-hit areas, and millions of acres of forest will burn or die. It's important to note that these are not hypothetical situations. Every scenario just described has already happened, is happening, and/or is predicted to happen with greater frequency and ferocity in the near future.
Read on to learn about climate change and how it's affecting weather and other natural phenomena in the United States, which regions are being hit the hardest, and where these weather events are most prevalent.
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Climate change is making hurricanes more powerful
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), it's hard to tell if climate change will lead to more hurricanes and significant tropical storms. What is clear, however, is that hurricanes are becoming more powerful as temperatures rise. The last two to three decades have seen an increase in the frequency of intense hurricanes, and scientists predict that the strongest storms, Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, will increase by 45% to 87% in the future.
Sea surface temperatures are rising
Hurricanes are becoming more intense, in part, because of the effect climate change has on ocean surface temperatures, according to C2ES. Tropical storms and hurricanes gain power over warm water, and higher surface temperatures are expected to increase average hurricane wind speeds by 2% to 11%, while also generating 20% more precipitation.
Rising sea levels make storm damage more severe
Not only are rising sea levels making hurricanes more powerful, according to C2ES, but they're resulting in hurricanes that cause more damage. With sea levels expected to rise by one to four feet over the next century, coastal flooding, the main contributor from hurricane damage, has been, and will continue to be, amplified.
Climate change intensified Hurricane Harvey
The data regarding climate change and hurricane intensity are not just numbers on a fact sheet or images on a scientific model. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “human-caused climate change” made Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall, which devastated Houston in 2017, three times more likely and 15% more intense.
Climate change caused greater flooding in Hurricane Sandy
While Southern and Gulf states have long grappled with violent hurricanes, climate change has opened up broader regions of the country to storm devastation. Exceptionally high lunar tides no doubt contributed to the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy across New York and New Jersey in 2012, according to the UCS. Severe flooding affected 27 square miles that would have been unscathed had the storm hit in 1880—man's effect on climate change has forced an 8-inch rise in global sea levels since then.
Droughts will be more frequent and more intense
Like much of the world, climate change is making droughts more likely and more severe in the United States, according to C2ES. Even areas that don't experience precipitation shortfalls will struggle with increased water demands and faster evaporation as temperatures rise. During the drought of 2012, a full 81% of the contiguous United States endured abnormally dry conditions or worse.
The Southwest will be hit particularly hard by climate-induced drought
Just as with hurricanes, drought in the United States has gotten worse over the past few decades compared with virtually any other period on record, and the Southwest will likely be the hardest-hit region moving forward. It already has been, in fact. In 2011, Texas experienced its 12 driest months on record, according to C2ES.
Increased drought could lead to food instability
Increased food prices and food insecurity likely will result as droughts intensify in both frequency and severity, according to C2ES. When droughts hit so-called breadbasket regions, as they did in 2012, damaged agriculture operations could lead to food shortages. At the height of the 2012 drought, the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared 2,245 counties, or 71% of the United States, to be drought disaster areas, as corn, soybean, wheat, and livestock production all were diminished.
Severe drought will likely impact energy supplies
According to C2ES, increased droughts caused by climate change could hamper energy production and cause energy costs to rise. Electric plants will have a harder time procuring the large stores of cooling water required to maintain safe operations and hydroelectric power might be diminished, all while more water is needed to grapple with drought and heat waves.
Drought could squeeze river-based transportation and commerce
As climate change drives more severe and frequent droughts, commerce rivers will begin to dry up, according to C2ES. Transport barges, for example, require a depth of at least 9 feet of water. In 2013, just after the drought of 2012, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had to blast and dredge a key portion of the Mississippi River to make barge transport possible again.2018 All rights reserved.