Weather Out of Whack

In past years, climate change has been relatively easy for deniers to deny. Most people don’t live alongside glaciers and polar bears, and those long-term projections of impacts—50 years, 100 years—seemed, if not comfortably far off, at least far off enough that they didn’t induce panic. In the national conversation, climate change was soundly trumped by rising gas prices, Tiger Woods, home foreclosures, Kim Kardashian and political gaffes. But then the extreme weather events started. And they kept getting worse.

In March 2011, the World Meteorological Association released the report Weather Extremes in a Changing Climate” that summarized the dramatic weather events the world has endured over the past decade. They include Alaska having the warmest winter on record in 2001, the same year Canada recorded its 18th straight warmer-than-average season; record heat waves in 2003, including Europe’s hottest summer since at least 1540; a record 10 tropical cyclones in Japan in 2004, and, in 2005, “an unprecedented 27 named tropical storms, including 14 hurricanes” across Central America, the Caribbean and the US. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the U.S. in 2005, killed over 1,300 people. In 2006 came the worst flooding in Africa in 50 years, the worst wildfire season in the U.S. and tropical cyclones across Asia, one of which killed nearly 1,200 in the Philippines. In 2009, Australia saw exceptional heatwaves and brushfires, while 2010 was the warmest year on record marked by extremely cold temperatures in parts of Europe, Asia and North America. That year, Pakistan experienced its worst flooding ever, which left more than 1,700 killed and damaged or destroyed at least 1.8 million homes.

And this report didn’t even include 2011—the worst year yet for freak weather events. A Seattle Times story from August 2011 examined the year for one state—Oklahoma—which saw the lowest temperature in the state’s history (31 degrees below zero), the most snowfall in 24 hours (27 inches) and the most tornadoes in one month (50 in April). Across the country, there were record ice storms and snow, 875 tornadoes in April, record droughts and wildfires in Texas. What Oklahoma associate state climatologist Gary McManus has called “the new normal” is a frightening picture of relentless storms, flooding, droughts and wildfires with climbing death tolls and billions in damages.

These are the snapshots of what altering the climate can do. The more we ignore our emissions problem, skewing the world warmer, the more we raise the risk of increasing freak weather events and their terrible aftermath. It’s no longer possible to simply deny the problem away when it is happening outside our front doors. This issue’s cover story details the connection between climate change and extreme weather and examines the unsettling implication that what we’re seeing now, with just a little over a one degree Fahrenheit warming of the planet, is only the beginning. It’s a sobering message for this Earth Day—April 22—but one that demands our attention.