Is Extreme Weather The Deadly New Normal?

June 9th 2015

Earlier this summer, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that 20 Texas counties were added to the original three requesting federal disaster aid in the wake of torrential Memorial Day rains and subsequent flooding. Shortly after the announcement, the body of a man was found amidst the debris, bringing the total death toll there to at least 23

Texas and neighboring Oklahoma were pulled out of a five-year drought in May, which were their rainiest months. And according to federal meteorologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they weren't alone. 

According to researchers, May was the wettest month on record for the contiguous United States going back to 1895, with an average of 4.36 inches of rain and snow falling, up slightly from October 2009's 4.29 average. Scientists calculate that to be more than 200 trillion gallons of water in the month alone. States in the middle of the country seem to have gotten the brunt of the rain and snow; Colorado had its wettest May on record, while Arkansas, Nebraska, and Utah had their second wettest month on record, the New York Times reports. In fourteen other states, last month was the one of the ten wettest on record––all, of course, east of California. 

May marked just the seventh time that the entire U.S. got more than four inches of rain, which for some signals that this is a patterned--if not anomalous occurrence. But the Times notes that heavy rainfall like last spring's is usually associated with massive global climate patterns like the El Nino phenomenon, which warms temperatures in the central Pacific and ripples out across the globe over the next year, changing weather patterns. Still, a NOAA scientist warned that one supremely wet month could not necessarily be contributed to climate change. 

But it's not just heavy rainfall in the U.S. 

New research published from Switzerland's Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in April found direct links between increasingly regular extreme weather patterns worldwide and manmade climate change. That means that extreme heat waves, like the one in India that has already taken more than 2,500 lives over the past few weeks, happen with much greater regularity––four to five times more often than the previous per 1,000 days. The study also showed that a warming atmosphere and the concurrent rise in extreme-heat days evaporates greater quantities of water from the oceans, ultimately leading to a generally hotter, wetter climate worldwide, one in which elongated extreme weather events can blossom.


Greater frequencies of extreme weather will likely put a squeeze on developing countries, and already-vulnerable populations like elderly people. It will make already hot places hotter, and dry places drier. Around the equator, for example, tropical countries with already weak infrastructures can expect more than 50 times as many extreme-heat days, and 2.5 times as many rainy days down the road even if governments keep temperatures within agreed upon ranges. "The increased probability of high rainfall events will enhance the adverse impacts of these events in many parts of the world, particularly for vulnerable communities," Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist involved with UN climate negotiations told the Guardian. "For example short bursts of intense rainfall in Dhaka already cause huge traffic jams and misery for its citizens." 

Attributive science––linking specific weather events like May rain in the U.S. and climate change––is both complicated and certainly loaded with competing ideologies. But the sense that climate change is not the far-off, esoteric disaster some conceive it as, but rather a potential factor in present-day disasters is an important one to foster. After all, extreme weather events have devastating effects on developed countries, too; around 45,000 died in August 2003 heat waves across Europe, and about 54,000 people in western Russia died in summer heat waves in 2010, the New York Times noted over the weekend. 

In June, G7 world leaders, convened in Germany, pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out reliance on fossil fuels by the end of the century. Environmentalists hailed the move as historic, but it's worth asking: in light of floods, droughts, and heat waves, will that be enough? 

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