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Hansen: 2011 Texas, 2010 Russia, and 2003 France Heat Waves Caused By Climate Change: The Dice Are Loaded Towards Warmer Events
Max Wilbert, USA
Original Post: Jan. 19, 2012

Record-breaking heat waves and droughts that have stricken the globe over the past decade are a direct result of global warming caused by industrial activity, according to a new article by climate scientist James Hansen and his colleagues.

Over the past decade, massive heat waves have grown in size, severity, and regularity. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed thousands and caused to billions in crop losses and fire damage, and led Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to finally acknowledge the reality of global warming. In 2005 and 2010, the Amazon rainforest shriveled under a devastating drought that killed tens of millions of trees. Texas is currently moving into its second year of devastating drought after the driest single year in its history. And in 2003, Europe experienced its hottest summer in more than 500 years, and more than 40,000 people died from the sweltering heat.

The new paper by Hansen, Makiko Stato, and Reto Ruedy is a warning to humanity as our planet moves closer to climate meltdown. Extreme weather is on the rise: as greenhouse gases trap more and more energy in the Earth’s atmosphere, more power is available to drive weather patterns to breakneck speed. Another major factor in the rise in extreme weather is the increased evaporation caused by warming. Scientists say there is about 4% more water vapor in the atmosphere than there was before the industrial revolution, and that extra water means more floods, more storms, and ironically, contributes to more droughts and heat waves.

The southern United States provides the latest case in point. In late September 2010, a large storm moved out of the region and took the rain with it. It marked the beginning of a terrible drought, affecting Oklahoma, New Mexico, southern Kansas, western Louisiana, northern Mexico, and especially Texas, which experienced its driest year in at least the 117 years that records have been kept.

Rainfall in Texas in 2011 measured less than 40% of normal. Some areas received less than 10%. Rivers shrunk, crops shriveled as reservoirs dropped precipitously and irrigation systems failed, and water restrictions went into effect for millions of people across the region. June through August 2011 in Texas was the hottest 3-month period ever measured in a US state, and neighboring Oklahoma recorded the hottest month ever recorded in the United States – daily high temperatures averaged 103 degrees.

Low water is causing other problems in the region, as power plants using natural gas, coal, and nuclear fuels require large amounts of water for cooling – around 2 million gallons per day for the largest power plants in Texas. One plant had to shut down during the hottest days of summer 2011, as water supplies could not keep up with the demand.

Damage in the affected area has been widespread. Record wildfires in September 2011 alone killed more than 1.5 million trees and destroyed 1,300 homes. Between fires, crop losses, livestock declines, and other damages, this drought has tallied more than $10 billion in economic losses in the area. It has joined a series of other disasters, like the April tornado outbreak that killed more than 350 people and caused $11 billion in damage, to make 2011 the year with the highest number of natural disasters with $1 billion or more in damages in US history.

The region has had some reprieve this winter, as rains alleviated the worst of the drought. But the state climatologist John Nielson-Gammon says that much more rain would be needed to make up for what has been lost. Gammon says that he expects the drought to continue into 2012, and possibly last for many years into the future.

Heat waves and droughts are predicted to become increasingly common as global warming strengthens. Some regions, like the American southwest, the Mediterranean, and the Amazon basin, are particularly vulnerable to drying. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut drastically and ecosystems are restored to sequester the carbon in the atmosphere, these regions are on course to become ‘dust-bowls’ – permanently arid regions that can only sustain grasslands and deserts.

Already, Hansen and other scientists are warning that heat waves like these are more likely than ever before. Hansen invites us to imagine that weather is determined by rolling a six-sided die. Two of the sides result in an average year, two more in a cooler than average year, and the remaining two result in a warmer than average year. While this analogy was true for much of humankind’s existence on this planet, the situation has changed. The climate dice “have become progressively “loaded” in the past 30 years,” Hansen, Stato, and Ruedy write in their 2011 paper Perceptions of Climate Change: the New Climate Dice.

They note that now, with the effects of global warming, four sides of the “climate dice” will result in warmer than average years, and more of those warmer years will be significantly warmer. Only one side remains for an average year and one side for a cool year. Droughts and heat waves are the most obvious effects of this change, but other effects are harder to put a finger on: declining water supplies as glaciers and snowfields melt, increased range for diseases like malaria, rising sea levels and salt water intrusion into coastal wells, shifts in ecosystem composition, agricultural collapse, desertification… the list of negative effects goes on and on.

The results are the same around the world, and are already being measured – rising levels of species extinction (Hansen notes that up to 50% of species could face extinction if the world warms 3°C – we are on track for 6°C), and increasing numbers of environmental refugees - hundreds of millions, with current trends, along with economic hardship and rising food prices.

Hansen and other climate scientists have made it clear what it will take to avoid catastrophic, self-perpetuating global warming: large emissions cuts, an end to burning coal and tar sands, an end to deep-water drilling and all other unconventional energy sources, and a substantial cut to logging.

In other words, the only thing that can stop global warming is the complete halt of the level of industrial activity that the world has seen over the last 150 years, something that few environmental groups and even fewer politicians are even willing to discuss. The seriousness of this task and the dedication, sacrifice, and attention that it will require are not to be underestimated.

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