Floods, flames and heat: Images of this year’s extreme weather offer a stark backdrop for COP26 climate summit
Scientists say the impact of climate change is no longer an abstraction
Intense rainfall, raging wildfires and deadly heat waves. The effects of climate change are no longer an abstraction. They are happening now, and with greater frequency.
At least 85 percent of the world’s population has felt its effects, according to research published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The devastations from the past 10 months alone have stunned climate experts.
“This was a really extreme year,” said Radley Horton, a research professor focused on climate extremes at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Right now we’re seeing the climate extremes changing so fast that that alone is demonstrating that going past 1.5 Celsius will be something we won’t adapt to.”
Despite the 2015 Paris climate conference promise to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, country commitments have not come close to that goal. The United Nations says the world is on pace to experience an average temperature rise of 2.7 Celsius by the end of the century.
As leaders descend on Glasgow, Scotland, for this year’s climate conference, most of the world is already feeling the repercussions of their inaction.
From China to Germany, California to Siberia, the extreme weather events of 2021 have broken records and destroyed lives.
Parts of the world were inundated with deadly, record-breaking precipitation. Infrastructure buckled under torrential downpours. Hundreds of people died in the ensuing floods.
In July, Germany’s heaviest rainfall in a century left over 150 people dead.
“We have never experienced something like this,” said Franz-Josef Molé, head of the German Weather Service’s Forecast and Advisory Center. “It’s beyond comprehension.”
Scientists linked the heavy rainfall to climate change, since a warmer atmosphere retains more water.
“The air is now hotter, and it can hold more moisture, as such it will give you more rain in intense storms than before,” said Xuebin Zhang, a senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.
In South Sudan, October flooding from torrential rain affected more than 700,000 people, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR). The organization described people “marooned on islands surrounded by water, sheltering under trees and unable to cross to safety.” There were also fears that waterborne diseases would spread.
UNHCR stressed that the impacts of climate change are “profoundly felt in East Africa,” where communities “are facing unprecedented floods and storms, unreliable rainfall, and distress under hotter and drier conditions as their basic needs and rights to water, food, livelihoods, land, and a healthy environment are hit hard.”
China and New York City also saw extreme rainfall this year. In July, a deadly downpour fell on the city of Zhengzhou, the heaviest ever recorded in the country with nearly eight inches of rain in one hour. More than 300 people died in floods and landslides as the rain turned subway stations into swamps and highways into rivers.
In New York City, Central Park had record rainfall on Sept. 1, with 3.15 inches coming down in just one hour. The deluge filled up basements and tunnels within minutes. More than 40 people were killed.
In October, more than 29 inches of rain fell in northwestern Italy in just 12 hours, setting a record for all of Europe.
The extreme flooding proved that the effects of climate change were taking hold “faster than our climate models predicted,” with effects “way beyond what any of our aging infrastructure was designed for,” Horton said.
Other places saw unexpected heat waves that left many dead and showed that even regions accustomed to cooler weather are not immune to the effects of a warming world.
Brutal temperature spikes swept through the Pacific Northwest this summer, killing hundreds of people in the United States and Canada. Streetcar cables in Portland, Ore., melted. Pavements in Washington state cracked from the pressure.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” David Markel, an emergency physician at a Seattle hospital, told The Washington Post as he treated a barrage of patients for heat illness.
The heat pushed many into cooling centers for shelter and emergency rooms for care. It also drew lines between the privileged and the vulnerable: Access to air conditioning and proper health care were, for some, the difference between life and death.
While heat is not officially deemed a disaster as fire or flooding is, it can be even more deadly. Sixty-four percent of Americans live in places that saw multiday heat waves this summer, according to a Post analysis.
LEFT: Residents find relief at a cooling center in Portland, Ore., on June 28, days after the city posted its hottest day in history. (Bloomberg News) RIGHT: A volunteer found Tracy Wallace, 42, struggling from the heat in her tent and took her to the Sunrise Center cooling center in Portland, Ore., on June 27. (Alisha Jucevic for The Washington Post)
July was the Earth’s hottest month on record. The United States and Europe recorded their hottest summers ever in 2021.
The mercury rose to nearly 120 degrees on the Italian island of Sicily — a temperature that, if confirmed, would be the highest ever recorded in Europe.
Heat waves left landscapes dry and brittle, paving the way for an apocalyptic fire season in the Northern Hemisphere.
“We knew this was coming,” said Merritt Turetsky, professor of ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder. “Fire was going to follow those heat waves.”
Wildfires in North America, Siberia and the Mediterranean contributed to record-high carbon emissions in July and August, according to Copernicus, the European Union’s atmospheric monitoring service.
The Dixie Fire became the second-largest blaze in California history, destroying nearly 1 million acres of land. More than three months later that fire is still burning.
In September, evacuations were ordered in Old Station, as strong winds created a “fire whirl,” a tornado-like phenomenon that can fling flaming embers miles ahead of it.
In northeastern Siberia, blazes grew in August to become larger than all of the world’s other active fires combined. The resulting cloud of smoke traveled over the North Pole. The flames consumed more than 40 million acres of land, according to Greenpeace Russia, and resulted in the worst fire season ever recorded in the country.
Wildfires also broke out in densely populated tourist destinations along the Mediterranean Sea, prompting evacuations of thousands of people. Blazes raged in Greece, Italy and Turkey, after prolonged heat waves in southeastern Europe.
The year of extreme weather presents a devastating new reality as leaders meet in Glasgow.
“The climate system is going to keep shocking us,” Turetsky said. It’s going to happen again.”