On Extreme Weather and Environmental Catastrophe

For the September issue of National Geographic, Peter Miller writes about weather gone wild:

There’s been a change in the weather. Extreme events like the Nashville flood—described by officials as a once-in-a-millennium occurrence—are happening more frequently than they used to. A month before Nashville, torrential downpours dumped 11 inches of rain on Rio de Janeiro in 24 hours, triggering mud slides that buried hundreds. About three months after Nashville, record rains in Pakistan caused flooding that affected more than 20 million people. In late 2011 floods in Thailand submerged hundreds of factories near Bangkok, creating a worldwide shortage of computer hard drives.

And it’s not just heavy rains that are making headlines. During the past decade we’ve also seen severe droughts in places like Texas, Australia, and Russia, as well as in East Africa, where tens of thousands have taken refuge in camps. Deadly heat waves have hit Europe, and record numbers of tornadoes have ripped across the United States. Losses from such events helped push the cost of weather disasters in 2011 to an estimated $150 billion worldwide, a roughly 25 percent jump from the previous year. In the U.S. last year a record 14 events caused a billion dollars or more of damage each, far exceeding the previous record of nine such disasters in 2008.

On the gloomy prediction of weather by end of the century:

By the end of the century the average world temperature could rise anywhere from three to eight degrees Fahrenheit—depending in part on how much carbon we emit between now and then. Scientists expect the weather to change substantially. Basic circulation patterns will move toward the Poles, just as some plants and animals are doing as they flee (or take advantage of) the expanding heat. The tropical rain belt is already widening, climatologists report. The subtropical dry zones are being pushed poleward, into regions such as the American Southwest, southern Australia, and southern Europe, making these regions increasingly susceptible to prolonged and intense droughts. Beyond the subtropics, in the midlatitudes, including the lower 48 of the United States, storm tracks are moving poleward too—a long-term trend superimposed on the year-to-year fluctuations triggered by La Niña or El Niño.

If that’s not depressing enough for you, I have a book recommendation. Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us is a remarkable thought experiment: what would happen if the human species were suddenly extinguished? How would the weather affect our remaining infrastructure? What would happen to weeds and trees as they take over the remnants of human civilization? It’s the best book I’ve read on environmental science.

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