The next 30 years of extreme weather may make today’s disasters look benign

This year’s extreme weather is a preview of even more turbulent times that will bedevil us for at least the span of a 30-year mortgage.
Andrew Freedman, October 2, 2021

This year’s extreme weather is a preview of even more turbulent times that will bedevil us for at least the span of a 30-year mortgage.

Why it matters: Extreme weather events are the clearest way we’re feeling climate change in our daily lives, and they will reshape where and how we live, work and play.

  • This year, we’ve already seen tens of billions in damage and more than 1,000 people dead in the U.S. and Europe alone.
The big picture: The geography of climate risk will transform desirable communities as homes and businesses quickly become uninsurable — and potentially uninhabitable — due to the escalating prevalence of wildfires, hurricanes and floods.
  • This is already happening in parts of California, due to wildfires, and coastal Florida because of hurricanes and coastal flooding.
  • Heat waves, wildfires, droughts and floods can upend entire communities, cities and regions, hitting the most vulnerable populations among us the hardest.
  • And these events are virtually assured for the next three decades, even if greenhouse gas emissions are immediately and sharply curtailed to reduce long-term warming, due to the inertia of the climate system.
  • It will take several decades for the beneficial effects of emissions cuts to be noticeable, climate scientists told Axios.

Details: The 1.1°C (2°F) of average global warming since the preindustrial era has been enough to tip the scale toward more frequent and intense extreme events.

  • So many off-the-charts weather events have happened this year — from the California wildfires to the Pacific Northwest heat wave and the record-setting New Jersey and New York City deluge — that scientists are questioning whether they’ve missed important tipping points.
  • Precipitation extremes — both an overabundance and a lack of precipitation — are becoming more likely, more severe, and in some cases, longer-lasting, scientists have found. So too are heat extremes.
  • Researchers have also shown that hurricanes are dumping more water, on average, than they used to, and more hurricanes are making sudden leaps in intensity.
  • While cold snaps are becoming less frequent, even some cold extremes may be tied to climate change via rapid Arctic warming, as a recent study showed with the deadly Texas cold snap that knocked out much of the electricity grid last winter.

Yes, but: Not every type of extreme weather event is tied to climate change. Researchers don’t know, for example, whether tornadoes are shifting in frequency or intensity in response to warming.

What they’re saying: “We are playing a game with chance that becomes more and more stacked against us with every ton of CO2 we emit,” Claudia Tebaldi, a climate scientist for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told Axios.

  • Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M, warns that if we cross any number of unpredictable “thresholds built into the system” — for example, the water level in a reservoir drops so low that hydroelectric power shuts off — that could cause climate impacts to suddenly and dramatically increase in their impact on society.
  • “This is what keeps me up at night,” he told Axios.

Threat level: If the weather was this bad in 2021, that portends far more trouble for 2040 and 2050.

What’s next:

  • In the West, water scarcity, wildfires and heat waves are projected to worsen in coming years, potentially driving people away from the region.
  • In the Midwest, a weather whiplash effect — with conditions swinging between drought and flooding — and more precarious agricultural conditions are in the offing.
  • Across the South and Southeast, more powerful, rapidly-intensifying and wetter hurricanes could spin ashore. Heat waves will also be a greater concern.
  • And along the East Coast from Florida to Maine, a key task will be managing the impact of so-called sunny day flooding, when rising sea levels plus astronomical high tides cause flooding in sections of Miami, Charleston and Norfolk.

The bottom line: The future need not be a Hollywood dystopian hellscape. A combination of resilience measures to boost our ability to withstand extreme events, along with emissions cuts to rein in warming over the long term, can ensure that we avoid the worst-case scenarios.

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