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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Record Drought, Wildfires & Record Flooding in U.S. = New Normal

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If you encounter national news with any regularity, you’ve probably heard separate news stories that are very much connected.  The first are the record wildfires plaguing Texas – while relatively few in number, the acreage they’ve burned has set a number of records.  The wildfires are accompanied by record drought conditions.  The extreme drought conditions cover a large majority (73.73%) of Texas as of May 3, 2011, as the figure below from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows.  Exceptional drought conditions now affect a whopping 25.96% of Texas.  No part of the state is doing better than abnormally dry this week, which is actually somewhat of an improvement over conditions a week ago.

For many parts of the state, these conditions are more severe than those encountered at any time during the Dust Bowl years, or at any point since record keeping began.

Combine this terrible news with the ongoing saga of record flooding occurring across the middle and southern Mississippi River as well as water sources that feed the river.  Depending on the specific location, this is either the highest the river has ever been or comes in at a close 2nd place.  Those 2nd place finishes are largely a result of decades of levee construction designed to prevent flooding in population centers.  In order to spare those places, planned destruction of levees has taken place in selected locales.  The high rivers and flooding are expected to affect the region for weeks to months to come.  Look at the before and after picture near Memphis, TN.

These sets of simultaneous disasters have preliminary cost estimates of hundreds of millions of dollars.  That figure is likely to rise.

What’s causing these disasters?  The effects of the strong La Nina of 2010-2011 that is currently subsiding.  These effects are likely to continue for a few more months before conditions return to a more normal state.  Underlying the La Nina effects is, of course, global warming.  These type of conditions have been projected to occur for years.  And now the important part: as bad as things are today, they are only likely to get worse in the years and decades ahead.  Precipitation patterns are expected to grow in intensity but fall in frequency.  That means fewer days with rain every year, but when the rain does come, it will come hard and fast.  Worsening drought conditions are likely to spread across the country’s interior.  Those conditions are likely to be interspersed with record rainfall and record flooding.

The science has indicated that these conditions would occur.  The only thing that was mis-projected was the timing: these conditions weren’t supposed to occur for another decade or two.  These conditions will probably grow less severe in the months ahead.  That’s the nature of both the climate system and weather conditions over time.  As stated above, the waning La Nina should allow “normal” weather patterns to return by this fall.  What won’t go away are the new base conditions from which daily weather and future El Ninos and La Ninas exist.  The next flood or drought or wildfire season may not be as bad as this one.  In fact, they probably won’t be.  But the next 10 or 100 floods, droughts and wildfire seasons are likely to be worse, on average, than this one because of the man-made global warming conditions that continue to worsen because of our decision not to act.  Those next sets of disasters will only grow more expensive in terms of lives lost, crops lost, towns affected and ecosystems permanently altered.

The point at which we realize those costs are too high and the cost of taking action on global warming has always been lower will mark a momentous change in our societies.  The bad news is that change will not instantly reduce the severity of disasters yet to come – decades’ worth of warming will still exist in the climate system.  If you don’t like this drought or this wildfire season or this flooding, the solution is clear: it’s time to stop polluting our planet with man-made greenhouse gases.

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