What went wrong? It may seem odd to be asking questions about a bug in July — but look closer. This week, with temperatures falling below the freezing mark in parts of the United States, the National Weather Service placed alerts over 48 million Americans urging them to plan on practicing “winter skills.” This week’s “seasonal cold snap” comes after months of extreme weather across much of the country this summer. The worst natural disasters of 2018 — wildfires, hurricanes, storms, and droughts — have killed hundreds of people and caused billions of dollars in damage.
And the United States has seen its share of mega-infernos this summer, with wildfires in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Montana, Washington and Oregon racking up nearly 1,000 square miles of land, or about the size of Pennsylvania. In August, several wildfires charred a huge swathe of Northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, while Texas is still recovering from the second-worst disaster of the summer, Hurricane Harvey, which killed dozens of people and caused billions of dollars in damage in mid-August.
Last year, Kansas ranked 13th in the country in household energy costs, due to weather-related outages.
With the National Weather Service warning Californians to stockpile emergency supplies such as flashlights, bottled water, batteries, a first aid kit, and paper plates, new kinds of disasters are becoming more and more likely. Climate change models predict more frequent and more intense storms, potentially leading to a doubling of extreme weather-related death. Already, it seems that climate change has a much more indirect effect than previously thought.
When a climate-warming volcano erupted in Hawaii in early May, for example, experts expected more moderate level of ash and debris, or HASHES, to occur. But that was not the case. That month, a near-silent ash cloud nearly paralyzed travel in the state, forcing airports to shut down and keeping travelers stranded on both sides of the Pacific. The volcano spewed 2,000 times more ash over a couple of days than normal, only rising 1,500 feet above the base of the volcano. For example, 10,000 small, stationary, HASHES last occurred in 1979 and 1970. “The magnitude of the last eruption was very high because of what was happening in the atmosphere,” Kenneth Gundersen, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a member of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory, told the Wall Street Journal. “When you have all these powerful winds blowing, you get big stuff like the December storm and the big El Niño-related storm of 2013.”
With wildfires and drought ravaging the western states, not to mention hurricanes Florence and Michael, hurricane alley already looks scorched. In Utah, for example, many forests are nearly bone dry, and there are already more wildfires and wildfire-related deaths than average. And with the next hurricane season scheduled to begin on October 1, and severe weather patterns expected to become more erratic, wildfires could become increasingly worse. “The tropics are not going to go anywhere,” said Kathy Nesbit, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Salt Lake City. “The main focus will be on Florida, and the tropics will be burning more and more. It will become a longer season than in past years.”
Indeed, last year, Kansas ranked 13th in the country in household energy costs, due to weather-related outages. In Colorado, costs rose by 13.3 percent, while in Kansas City, Missouri, energy bills were up by 16.6 percent — “a direct result of severe weather,” wrote Dennis Cheng, the Kansas State Climatologist, on his blog. Two summer storms have caused record water levels in Colorado’s Cache la Poudre River, which has forced record floods in the state.
With all the outside pressures on U.S. energy, population and political structures today, the very concept of “what if” is almost irrational. But is it possible that we actually dodged the “storm of the century” during the “summer of hell?” An interesting conversation at The American.
Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he specializes in environmental and regulatory policy.