Communities Hit With Extreme Drought and Flood ‘Whiplash’
PNorthern Texas is mired in severe drought. It is a drought.
Does this sound familiar? You should. The Dallas region is just the latest drought-suffering-but-flooded locale during a summer of extreme weather whiplash, likely goosed by human-caused climate change, scientists say. Many parts of the planet are suffering from deluge to drought.
Early in July, 88% of Kentucky and the St. Louis region were considered to be abnormally dry. Then the sky opened up and the rains began pouring in Biblical proportions. Communities were devastated by the torrential downpours. In Yellowstone, the same happened in June. Death Valley experienced a record-breaking rainfall this month. This caused floods and was still suffering from severe drought.
China’s Yangtze River is drying up, a year after deadly flooding. China has been experiencing a heat wave that is unprecedented in length. The first report indicates that the temperature overnight was only 94.8 degrees (34.9 degrees Celsius), in Chongqing. A sudden downpour in west China has caused flooding that killed at least a dozen.
The Horn of Africa is experiencing a humanitarian crisis as a result of the drought and devastating famine. Europe was hit by record flooding in 2013, and has now been hit with 500 year droughts that are drying out rivers and threaten power supply.
“So we really have had a lot of whiplash,” said Kentucky’s interim climatologist Megan Schargorodski. “It is really difficult to emotionally go through all of these extremes and get through it and figure out how to be resilient through the disaster after disaster that we see.”
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In just two weeks in late July and early August, the U.S. had 10 downpours that are only supposed to happen 1% of the time — sometimes called 1-in-100-year storms — calculated Weather Prediction Center forecast branch chief Greg Carbin. That’s not counting the Dallas region, a likely 1-in-1,000-year storm, where some places got more than 9 inches of rain in 24 hours ending Monday with several inches more forecast to come.
“These extremes of course are getting more extreme,” said National Center for Atmospheric Research climate scientist Gerald Meehl, who wrote some of the first studies 18 years ago about extreme weather and climate change. “This is in line with what we expected.”
Weather whiplash, “where all of a sudden it changes to the opposite’’ extreme, is becoming more noticeable because it’s so strange, said climate scientist Jennifer Francis of the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Her current research is on whiplash.
World Weather Attribution is a group of volunteers that quickly analyze extreme weather to determine if there has been any climate change. They have strict requirements for events they must investigate. So far this year they’ve been swamped. There have been 41 events — eight floods, three storms, eight droughts, 18 heat waves and four cold waves — that have reached that threshold point, said WWA official Julie Arrighi, associate director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center.
In the United States, many of the big heavy summer rains are traditionally connected to hurricanes or tropical systems, like last year’s Hurricane Ida that smacked Louisiana and then plowed through the South until it flooded the New York, New Jersey region with record rainfall rates.
But this July and August, the nation had been hit with “an overabundance of non-tropical related extreme rainfall,” the National Weather Service’s Carbin said. “That’s unusual.”
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Scientists believe climate change may be at work in two ways.
Simple physics is the best way to go. According to scientists, the atmosphere holds more water as it warms. That’s 4% more per degree Celsius and 7% each for degrees Celsius.
According to Daniel Swain, a UCLA climate scientist and Nature Conservancy climate specialist, the air is like a sponge. It soaks up more water from parched ground like a sponge “which is why we’re seeing worse droughts in some places,” he said. When a weather system moves further and is nourished with more water, it can dump more, which causes downpours.
Another factor is the stuck and wavier jet stream — the atmospheric river that moves weather systems around the world — said Woodwell’s Francis. Storm systems don’t move and just dump huge amounts of water in some places. Some places like China are left with warm weather while cooler and wetter conditions move around.
“When that jet stream pattern gets amplified, which is what we’re starting to see happen more often, then we notice more of these big whiplash events,” Francis said.
When the ground is so hard from drought, water doesn’t seep in as much and runs off faster in flood, Francis and others said.
This will only get worse as climate change worsens, so “it highlights the type of events that we need to adapt to, that we need to harden ourselves against,” said Princeton University climate scientist Gabriel Vecchi.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized what it called compounding weather disasters as a future threat.
“Frankly how fast and how badly it’s now playing out is a surprise to many of us,” said IPCC report co-author Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in the Netherlands. “It’s scary how quickly it is appearing in front of our eyes.”
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