Evidence for ongoing climate change is growing, and historical data show that humans should be worried about environmental disruption. Previous climate change episodes may have pushed early people into extinction through habitat loss and food scarcity. There also may be a connection between climate change and natural disasters in our modern era. Wilder storms, intense droughts and all-consuming wildfires seem more frequent, but just how does climate change affect natural disasters and is this the whole story?
Randall Alliss, a Fellow and atmospheric scientist at Northrop Grumman, suggests that to get the whole picture, much more quantitative data must be gathered and analyzed before drawing conclusions.
“There’s a lot more to learn about climate science and weather prediction than can be simply explained by what we’re currently seeing,” he says. “Data collection needs to continue, and the technology and computing power needs to improve to start seeing the patterns.”
Climate Change 101
Anthropogenic climate change — manmade climate change due to human activity such as emissions from fossil fuel combustion and intensive farming — is warming up the world. Greenhouse gas abundance in the atmosphere is wrapping us in a cozy blanket, trapping warmth from the sun and raising the average surface temperature. It’s affecting conditions in the polar regions, warming them faster than the tropics. This means there is less of a gradient between the poles and the equator, with warmer oceans in between.
Temperatures and the Water Cycle Are Key Factors at Play
So far, the evidence is not yet extensive enough to draw firm conclusions. The potential comes down to rising temperatures and the effect on the water cycle. Changes in surface temperature are largely what’s fueling the potential link between climate change and natural disasters. It’s all about water uptake; changes in vapor and evaporation into the atmosphere are likely driving more frequent and more ferocious storms and rainfall while also paradoxically contributing to drought and wildfire intensity.
In short, even though the rise is less than two degrees Fahrenheit, water is evaporating, and atmospheric humidity is rising. According to NOAA’s Climate website, the average surface temperature of the planet in 2021 was 1.51 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th-century average of 57 degrees and 1.87 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial period of 1880-1900.
Changing Weather Patterns Bring Disasters Closer to Home
This change, though, is sufficient to alter weather patterns the world over, and it’s being felt by folks on the ground who are getting a personal experience of extreme weather. The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, describes an increase in the possibility of both droughts and intense storms as land temperatures increase and water vapor loads up in the atmosphere.
Hurricanes and Storms
Hurricane Ian hit Florida with faster winds and more rain. The combination was devastating. Though researchers cannot definitively pin worsening hurricanes on climate change, The Atlantic notes that planetary warming is having some effect.
The combination of heat and warmer oceans boost wind speeds, and with the planet’s poles warming faster than the tropics, this means that hurricanes form maximum intensity further from the equator and therefore closer to population density. The likelihood of these storms making landfall is therefore much greater, and we see more hurricane natural disasters reported as a result.
Floods and Storm Surges
Rising sea levels combine with these storms making landfall closer to populous areas, which causes flooding and storm surge natural disasters with greater impact on human life. Removal of coastal habitats like mangrove beds and saltwater marshes that offer protection increase the impact.
Inland, not only is climate change increasing precipitation, but The Conversation notes that it’s also leading to more and earlier rainfall on snow melt. In combination, these two factors lead to worse floods as rivers cannot cope with the higher volumes of water.
Human activities combine with adverse weather events to make flooding worse, as noted by The Narwhal. Heavier precipitation from an atmospheric river over southern British Columbia in November 2021 led to flooding in an extensive area of land reclaimed from a lake.
Although global warming means more rainfall, the soil is drying out faster and less water is reaching rivers and lakes. In other areas, the traditional patterns of rainfall have changed, impacting reservoir accumulation. For example the Environmental Protection Agency notes that during spring, snow melts earlier and there is less accumulation of snowpack.
Shifting biomes move agriculture zones and the wildlife contained within regions. In areas that rely heavily on local agriculture and maintaining a water supply, these changes are devastating. EarthSky reports worst drought conditions in Europe in 500 years among other global regions hit hard. Reduced rainfall combined with prolonged extremes of heat result in greater evaporation; as a result, lakes dry up and fresh water supplies dwindle. In the Horn of Africa this affected thousands of people and their livestock, with many dying as a result.
Closer to home, NASA defines drought as a year with below-average rainfall. The agency notes that the American west has seen its driest years in the last two decades, impacting ranch country by decreasing valuable grassland grazing.
During droughts, vegetation dries out and becomes more flammable. There are also changes in water availability throughout the year, impacting growing seasons. This sets up dry conditions well ahead of the usual seasonal dry spells, and stresses vegetation, setting up banks of dead scrub and tinder. Climate change also leads to pest migration into previously safe areas, with pine beetle for example killing off more trees.
Wildfires in forests and grasslands can therefore be much more intense and uncontrollable since there is more fuel. People are also living closer to urban interface regions meaning that more lives and property are threatened when fires cannot be contained. This has certainly been noted over the past decade as seen in California, across Europe and within British Columbia, where each dry season seems accompanied by severe wildfires.
Does Climate Change Affect Natural Disasters?
While scientists have made observations such as a five-fold increase in weather-related disasters over the last 50 years and have made predictions that we’re more likely to see more natural disasters overlapping chronologically, data collection and analysis are still needed to conclusively link climate change and natural disasters.
And Alliss suggests that climate change might not be the whole answer.
“What causes the jet stream to be strong or weak is the difference in the temperature between the equator and the poles. And if that difference in temperature is decreasing because of climate change, we would expect the jet streams to become weaker,” Alliss suggests. “If the jet streams are becoming weaker, then in fact, we should see fewer severe winter storms, not more.”
There’s clearly still a lot of analysis and number-crunching needed to explore how climate change affects natural disasters. That’s where remote sensing technology and more powerful computing play important roles.
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