Heatwaves, wildfires, droughts, floods, superstorms: The future is here

Last year my family and I weathered (in all senses of the word) the great Texas drought-heatwave-wildfire apocalypse of 2011. Twice within a span of three weeks, my wife and I stood on our back porch and watched the smoke from a major fire several miles away billowing up from behind a span of folds and ridges in the countryside. We talked seriously with our son and daughter-in-law, who live right across the street from us, about staying alert and being ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.

The view from my back porch on September 5, 2011. Wildfire near a local dam and lake system.

So presently I feel not just sympathy but empathy for those who are suffering through the epic wildfires in Colorado, and the epic heatwave gripping the middle part of the U.S. (including my home state of Missouri), and the dramatic superstorm that hit Washington, D.C. and Virginia yesterday, and the recent torrential rains and floods that hit Florida. And that’s not even to mention the similar phenomena being endured by people elsewhere in the world.

As I was looking up information on yesterday’s D.C. storm, I was struck in particular by the reporting in The Washington Post, not just because of the facts, which are startling enough, but because of the tone. Reading the Post‘s coverage, one gets a distinctly creepy feeling about the shape of the future we’re now entering:

Virginia, D.C. and Maryland officials declared a state of emergency as power companies across the region warned that it might take as long as a week to fully restore electricity. More storms were possible Saturday evening, though they were not expected to be as widespread or severe as Friday’s. The storm, which took at least 13 lives across the eastern United States, caused widespread damage, leaving more than 3 million people without power.

The storm’s ferocity made light of the trappings of urban order.In Montgomery County alone, 500 of the county’s 800 traffic lights were out.Drivers dodged fallen trees, downed wires and pools of standing water. As late as 4 p.m., Arlington officials characterized 911 service as sporadic, and advised residents to call or personally go to stations to report emergencies. As of 5 p.m. Saturday, 1.2 million customers remained without power in the region. Pepco was reporting 420,000 customers without electricity in the District and neighboring parts of Maryland. That represented more than half of the 778,000 homes and businesses that Pepco serves.

…Authorities rushed to open libraries, swimming pools and cooling centers to give residents respite from the sweltering heat, which was expected to break the 100-degree mark for the second consecutive day Saturday…Malls were jammed as people sought power outlets to charge their phones and computers, and long lines were reported at gas stations that still had power to run their pumps.

…Maryland officials announced that if another round of storms materializes, they may close the Bay Bridge on Saturday evening due to potentially unstable scaffolding on the bridge. Amtrak halted train service Saturday between Washington and Philadelphia, and Metrobus riders faced delays on more than two dozen routes as drivers attempted to navigate around downed trees, downed power lines and large pools of standing water, said Metro spokesman Dan Stessel. Metrorail service opened on time Saturday, but at least five stations were operating on back-up power — Forest Glen, Takoma, Twinbrook, College Park and Clarendon.

— “D.C. thunderstorms knock out power across region, leaving at least 5 dead,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2012

It doesn’t even brush up against hyperbole to say that this situation offers a window into an unpleasant future that looks like an apocalyptic disaster movie. Yesterday’s storm “made light of the trappings of urban order,” the Post says, and in the process underscored the fragility of our technologically dependent way of life. As everybody from wild-eyed doomers to the more sober among the peak oil and climate change set has been warning for many years now, everything about the way we live today hinges on fossil fuels and electricity. Mess with access to either, and all hell breaks loose. (Reread the above descriptions of people converging on shopping malls and other public places to get access to air conditioning and electricity for charging their computers and phones, and on a limited number of functioning gas stations to fuel up their cars, which had to drive in many cases through a maze of streets with non-functioning traffic lights.)

And of course none of this is unpredicted or unprophesied. It all comes on the heels of a growing awareness that the future we’ve been warned about really is shaping up to become our present. Lots of savvy dot-connecting has been done in the past couple of years, spurred by the fact that real life is overtly beginning to reflect all of those Armageddon-like warnings. We’re well-advised to contemplate with care the picture that’s emerging.

See, for example, the following analyses, which come from both last year, which was bad enough, and this year, which is shaping up to be worse.

From Scientific American:

In this year alone [i.e. 2011] massive blizzards have struck the U.S. Northeast, tornadoes have ripped through the nation, mighty rivers like the Mississippi and Missouri have flowed over their banks, and floodwaters have covered huge swaths of Australia as well as displaced more than five million people in China  and devastated Colombia. And this year’s natural disasters follow on the heels of a staggering litany of extreme weather in 2010, from record floods in Nashville, Tenn., and Pakistan, to Russia’s crippling heat wave…So are the floods and spate of other recent extreme events also examples of predictions turned into cold, hard reality? Increasingly, the answer is yes. Scientists used to say, cautiously, that extreme weather events were “consistent” with the predictions of climate change. No more. “Now we can make the statement that particular events would not have happened the same way without global warming,” says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. That’s a profound change — the difference between predicting something and actually seeing it happen. The reason is simple: The signal of climate change is emerging from the “noise” — the huge amount of natural variability in weather…[I]t’s not just that we’ve become more aware of disasters like North Dakota or last year’s Nashville flood, which caused $13 billion in damage, or the massive 2010 summer monsoon in Pakistan that killed 1,500 people and left 20 million more homeless. The data show that the number of such events is rising.

— “Storm Warnings: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change,” Scientific American, June 28, 2011

From The New York Times:

The spring of 2011 is shaping up as one for all the wrong kind of records. Flooding, twisters, Texas wildfires, deaths by fast-moving air that has its own awful category known too well by millions — the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the worst being EF5, winds 200 m.p.h. or more. In a year when almost 500 Americans have died from tornadoes, and 60 or more twisters touch down in a single day, even the cable weather jockeys look humbled as they stand next to flattened neighborhoods…[T]he consensus of fair-minded research — ignored by those who assume to know better in the Republican Congress — is that an earth warmed by an excess of man-caused carbon emissions will cause more weather extremes. Warm air holds more water vapor than cold air — that’s an axiom that a congressman with a set of talking points paid for by Exxon cannot wish away. Torrential flooding in all parts of the world could easily be part of a new phase brought on by just a few upticks in ocean temperatures. The forecast is simple: You ain’t seen nothing yet.To recognize this threat, even with its implicit calls for sacrifice in a country that cannot tolerate $4 a gallon gas, is not to be alarmist…Listen to people who have lived long lives in the American midsection, a place of peril, and a place that is deeply loved. They tell us to be prepared, to be humble in the face of nature, to think about the worst thing that could come from the sky. If this is radical advice, then common sense has surely met an early death.

— “Twister’s Tale,” Opinionator at The New York Times, May 26, 2011

From Newsweek:

Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began. From these and other extreme-weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven’t seen anything yet. And we are not prepared…Across the U.S., it’s just beginning to dawn on civic leaders that they’ll need to help their communities brave coming dangers brought by climate change, from disappearing islands in Chesapeake Bay to dust bowls in the Plains and horrific hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet only 14 states are even planning, let alone implementing, climate-change adaptation plans, says Terri Cruce, a climate consultant in California. The other 36 apparently are hoping for a miracle.

Changing temperatures will have a profound effect on the plants and animals among us. Crops that flourished in the old climate regime will have to adapt to the new one, as some pests are already doing. Tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever are reaching temperate regions, and ragweed and poison ivy thrive in the hothouse world. Yet most of us are naive about what climate-change adaptation will entail. At the benign extreme, “adapting” sounds as easy as home gardeners adjusting to their new climate zones—those colorful bands on the back of the package of zinnia seeds. It sounds as pleasant as cities planting more trees. But those steps don’t even hint at how disruptive and expensive climate-change adaptation will be. “Ten years ago, when we thought climate change would be slow and linear, you could get away with thinking that ‘adaptation’ meant putting in permeable pavement” so that storm water would be absorbed rather than cause floods, says Bill McKibben, author of the 2010 book Eaarth. “Now it’s clear that’s not going to be at all sufficient, as we see already with disruptions in our ability to grow food, an increase in storms, and the accelerated melting of Greenland that could raise sea levels six feet.

…[T]ime is getting short, and the stakes are high. Says Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University: “Not to adapt is to consign millions of people to death and disruption.”

— “Are You Ready for More?Newsweek (The Daily Beast), May 29, 2011

Springing forward to 2012, this is from The Guardian:

Scorching heat, high winds and bone-dry conditions are fueling catastrophic wildfires in the US west that offer a preview of the kind of disasters that human-caused climate change could bring, a trio of scientists said on Thursday. “What we’re seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author for the UN’s climate science panel. “It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster…This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future.”

— “US wildfires are what global warming looks like, scientists warn,” The Guardian, June 29, 2012

From Bill McKibben, writing for The Guardian:

Global warming is underway. Are we waiting for someone to hold up a sign that says “Here’s climate change”? Because, this week, we got everything but that:

  • In the Gulf, tropical storm Debby dropped what one meteorologist described as “unthinkable amounts” of rain on Florida. Debby marked the first time in history that we’d reached the fourth-named storm of the year in June; normally it takes till August to reach that mark.
  • In the west, of course, firestorms raged: the biggest fire in New Mexico history, and the most destructive in Colorado’s annals. (That would be the Colorado Springs blaze: the old record had been set the week before, in Fort Collins.) One resident described escaping across suburban soccer fields in his car, with “hell in the rearview mirror”.
  • The record-setting temperatures (it had never been warmer in Colorado) that fueled those blazes drifted east across the continent as the week wore on: across the Plains, there were places where the mercury reached levels it hadn’t touched even in the Dust Bowl years, America’s previous all-time highs.
  • That heatwave was coming at just the wrong time, as farmers were watching their corn crops get ready to pollinate, a task that gets much harder at temperatures outside the norms with which those crops evolved. “You only get one chance to pollinate over 1 quadrillion kernels,” said Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a Omaha-based commodity consulting firm: “There’s always some level of angst at this time of year, but it’s significantly greater now and with good reason. We’ve had extended periods of drought.”

…As one scientist put it at week’s end, the current heatwave is “bad by our current definition of bad, but our definition of bad changes.”

— Bill McKibben, “While Colorado burns, Washington fiddles,” The Guardian, June 29, 2012

To say that it’s ridiculous, or that it indicates you “hate capitalism” or “hate America” or whatever, to see the connections these various scientists and journalists and activists are talking about, would be, basically, insane. And yet that’s exactly what a lot of people are doing. The cover feature for the current issue of Texas Monthly consists of a series of excellent articles and essays about the troubling future prospects for Texas’ water supply. One of these pieces, titled “Industrial Evolution,” begins by introducing the official Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, and recounting one of his inevitable encounters with a climate-change skeptic:

Last November, John Nielson-Gammon, the state climatologist of Texas, traveled to Amarillo to talk to a gathering of farmers and ranchers. The day was unseasonably warm, with temepratures reaching into the mid-sixties, and typically dry. Amarillo had, at the time, received barely a quarter of its normal annual precipitation. Speaking from a raised stage in the Grand Plaza room of Amarillo’s civic center, Nielsen-Gammon wrapped up his presentation, as he usually did, by telling the one hundred or so people in the audience that while predicting future precipitation was hard, he had little doubt that temperatures in the state were slowly rising over the long term. After he finished, a listener raised his hand.

“You don’t believe in all that Al Gore global warming nonsense, do you?” asked the man, who looked to be in his fifties.

Nielsen-Gammon, a native Californian with three degrees from MIT and a ready laugh, smiled at the question and fielded it easily. He acknowledges that parts of Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth were exaggerated or oversimplified. That was probably the answer the man was looking for. But Nielsen-Gammon wasn’t done. He added a version of his standard line: “The earth is getting warmer, mankind has a lot to do with it, and we’re going to have to deal with the consequences.”

— “Industrial Evolution,” Texas Monthly, July 2012

As a college student circa 1990, I discovered Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh and was positively enchanted by it. Hoff’s presentation of Taoist principles and concepts, and, as importantly, his conveyance of an exquisite mood of lightness, joy, depth, harmony, and enlightened living via the Winnie the Pooh books, struck a chord that has never stopped sounding. The book instantly entered my list of favorites, and I well understood why it was so beloved by such a wide audience.

When the sequel or companion book, The Te of Piglet, appeared in 1993, I instantly ran out and bought it , and found it similarly wonderful. But at the same time, I found it much more serious and even, in places, ominous in tone. These passages in particular, appearing in the latter half, caught my attention, and have come to mind many times over the years:

If we appear a bit Hesitant to embrace the belief that we can go on behaving in such an irresponsible manner without paying the inevitable price, perhaps it’s because we live on a planet on which five to ten species of life are driven to extinction every day, over seventy-five acres of trees are cut every minute, one third of the land area has become desert, and life-threatening droughts and floods are becoming increasingly common year after year…And so when we hear Big Talk about growing environmental awareness and about man’s ability to solve any problem, observing all the while how man continues to treat the earth and its life forms that run, fly, swim, and slither away from him for all their lives are worth — those that aren’t rooted in the ground, unable to move — we can’t help but wonder Who’s Kidding Whom.

Then we go to the natural world, watch, and listen. And it tells us that a Great Storm is rising, and that before long things will become very Interesting — very Interesting, indeed.

We would like to pass along something that we’ve learned directly from the earth, as well as from Taoists, Tibetan Buddhists, Native Americans, the writings of the prophet Isaiah, and others: A new way of life is coming — one so unlike today’s that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to describe in today’s terms…Before it begins its approach, we’d say to those people who haven’t had the inclination or the time to become acquainted with the natural world: Never mind — you’ll be getting acquainted with it, anyway. Because over the next few years, the natural world will be coming to you (although not necessarily in the way you’d like it to). Perhaps you might benefit by beginning your acquaintance with it now. Just a suggestion.

…Whether many people realize it yet of not, man, the Inferior Animal, has by now proved himself incapable of keeping his own species — and others — alive for very much longer. So the earth has begun its own plan to set things right. True to its generous, gentle, and loving spirit, it has been giving us one warning after another of what it will be doing — doing, we wish to emphasize, for the sake of human survival. The sensitive are receiving the messages. But one day when they least expect it, the insensitive will suddenly find themselves Out in the Cold, rather like the mammoths found every now and then up north encased in ice, with once-fresh vegetation in their mouths and an “I say — who just shut off the heat?” look in their eyes.

— Benjamin Hoff, The Te of Piglet,1993

Hoff wrote those words two decades ago. As indicated by their striking resonance with current events, it’s impossible to dismiss his warning, prophecy, forecast, as mere radical environmentalist cant. In his introductory chapter he pointed out that while “this book may seem a bit more serious than its predecessor…a better word would be quieter.”

Presently, I’m thinking we all need to get very quiet indeed (a seeming impossibility if you focus your attention on the insane franticness of our current outward culture, but an always-available possibility if you learn to become aware of subtler, more intimate realities) and tune into what’s really going on with mother earth and climate change. Because — to borrow Hoff’s penchant for emulating Milne’s creative capitalizations — what’s going on is Big, and Serious, and Disastrous, and Transformative. And also, most pointedly and pertinently, it’s Happening Right Here and Now.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on July 1, 2012, in Environment & Ecology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I hate to have to bring this up but those states (and Colorado) voted for OBAMA in 2008. Is this the angry fist of God bearing down on faithless heathens who have turned to IDOL worship? I’d say yes! This is what happens when a nation turns from God and worships a man.

    • I can’t tell if you’re speaking ironically or seriously, since your tone halfway implies that you are but the actual content of your words doesn’t follow suit.

      Assuming that you’re speaking with serious intent, I would like to pose a couple of questions for you:

      1) What exactly do you mean by “idol worship?” And how exactly would voting for Obama be an example of it?

      2) Colorado Springs has suffered worse devastation from the current rash of wildfires than any other city in the state has ever suffered. You may be aware that Colorado Springs is famously the headquarters of Focus on the Family, the powerful and ultra-right wing fundamentalist Christian organization headed by the powerful and ultra-right wing James Dobson. In fact, both the organization’s headquarters and the homes of a number of its employees were directly threatened by the fires a few days ago. I could easily make a case that there’s a connection here, and that the devastation of Colorado Springs represents divine judgment for allowing the presence of Dobson and Co. This would be fully as logical as what you’re saying. How do you respond? (I’ll tip my hand and say that I personally find such an argument to be outrageous and morally repugnant. Which is why I’m glad that I don’t mean it, and am only raising it hypothetically.)

  2. Matt, it sounds like you’re urging on the Apocalypse with all your might and can’t wait for something eschatological in its import to befall. Bear in mind, though, that people will always be people. The Poles have a saying, ‘Do not expect too much from the end of the world’. Worth reflecting on.

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