HOUSTON, United States
This year has seen wave after wave of extreme weather batter the US – from mass flooding in drought-stricken California to record-shattering heatwaves in the Southwest, and wildfires in Hawaii that have produced death tolls not seen in over a century.
The climate change-induced disasters are only slated to accelerate, Zong-Liang Yang, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's Jackson School of Geosciences told Anadolu.
"We are entering a stage from global warming to global boiling," Yang said, echoing a warning from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. "The long-term trend of higher global temperatures over the next 10 years will be warmer than the temperatures of the current 10 years, which were higher than the temperatures of the previous 10 years."
Yang said it does not come as a surprise to the scientific community that global warming and the effects of climate change have spawned more natural disasters. He explained that scientists over the past two decades had predicted greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2) which accounts for nearly 80% of greenhouse gases according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would continue to increase and further exacerbate natural disasters.
"With carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases continuing to increase, the global temperatures will continue to increase," said Yang. "Therefore, there will be more heat waves, more wildfires, more hurricanes, and more intense storms."
"Now, it's not just a hypothesis. We are actually witnessing this year after year."
Climate change factors
According to the EPA, 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere every year due to the burning of fossil fuels. Methane and nitrous oxide are the other two gases that contribute to the degradation of the environment caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
The US is the second worst carbon emitter worldwide, behind only China.
Power plants, especially coal plants, are the main source of CO2 emissions throughout the world. However, other industries contribute to the greenhouse gas effect, including agriculture due to methane emissions from livestock and rice production, as well as nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizing crops. Carbon emissions from cars, airplanes, and ships are also contributing factors, as are emissions from landfills, offshore drilling, fracking, and other forms of mining.
"The natural disasters we have seen are all part of an intertwined and interconnected system," Yang explained. "The oceans, the atmosphere, the ecosystem – they're all connected. It's a dynamic global system and we are making this system more violent because we keep emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere which adds more warming year after year. It's a buildup."
"That's what it means when people talk about climate change," he continued. "The climate is literally changing because of what humans are doing to the environment."
Wildfires and climate
Yang referred to the Canadian wildfires to demonstrate how the different atmospheric and environmental factors are connected. He said global warming has contributed to hotter temperatures and drier lands with those conditions making the weather and climate conducive for fire. But when the blazes spread across Canada, the effects were felt worldwide.
"The Canadian wildfires were not limited to just Canada," said Yang. "The smoke and toxins in the atmosphere affected the US states of New York, Ohio, and Indiana. In fact, the smoke and pollutants spread around the world to Europe reaching Norway, Spain, and Portugal because they traveled in wind patterns and circulated in the atmosphere. What happened in Canada had a connection to other events going on elsewhere in different parts of the world."
"It's a totality of humanity not just limited to one single place and the conditions keep getting worse."
Yang added that the heat waves in the US and around the world are not just limited to land. They are affecting the oceans too.
"We are seeing marine heat waves warming the equatorial Pacific Ocean," said Yang. "And this year is especially anomalous because the global oceans have reached their highest temperatures and the overall global temperatures have also reached their highest numbers with this being the hottest June, July, and likely the hottest August as well."
Yang emphasized that the changing atmospheric and environmental conditions will lead to a more volatile system.
"When we talk storms – tropical cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons – these are the big storms that develop in the tropics," said Yang. "Overall, global warming and changing climate will create bigger, stronger, and more intense storms with higher frequency."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released its latest hurricane season prediction last week, increasing the likelihood of an "above normal" Atlantic hurricane season to 60%, doubling its May prediction of 30%.
NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, a division of the National Weather Service, said the chance of greater storm activity is due to the "current ocean and atmospheric conditions, such as record-warm Atlantic sea surface temperatures."
The updated 2023 NOAA storm outlook now calls for 14 to 21 named storms of which 6 to 11 could turn into hurricanes, and of those, 2 to 5 could become major Category 3 to Category 5 hurricanes with wind speeds of 111 miles per hour (178 kilometers per hour) or greater.
Yang said not only are more storms being predicted annually, but they are becoming more powerful, more destructive, and more expensive.
"Back in the 1980s, forecasters said the so-called billion-dollar disasters would happen every 75 days and that number eventually went down to every 18 days or so that you'd have billion-dollar disasters," said Yang. "But just last year alone we had three separate billion-dollar storms in the US with Hurricanes Fiona, Ian, and Nicole."
Earlier this year, NOAA released its billion-dollar climate disasters in the US for 2022 and there were a combined 18 different disasters totaling at least one billion dollars each. They included the three hurricanes Yang mentioned, in addition to two tornadoes, a flooding event, a heat wave, a wildfire, a winter storm, and nine other weather events.
"So, as you can see, the intervals between the largest disasters are far more frequent," said Yang. "And these billion-dollar events are not just in the US. They are happening globally in Asia, South America, and parts of Europe."
This year, the US has surpassed the record for the number of natural disasters totaling $1 billion or more during the first seven months of the year, totaling 15 separate weather and natural disasters that crossed the threshold with just under half the year outstanding. That is just three short of the entire sum recorded in 2022.
‘Prioritize the environment’
Yang believes the only way to reverse this destructive trend is for the world's largest industrial countries, including China and the US, to work on policies to reduce the burning of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases and convert to renewable energy resources such as wind turbines and solar panels.
He admitted that is a tall order, considering the US and China have an adversarial relationship with each other, but said in theory, if China and the US take a leading role in reducing carbon emissions, then countries like India, Pakistan, and Brazil might follow suit. However, Yang said the world's climate outlook will continue to be in peril if the status quo continues.
"The future scenario is that we are going to continue to see greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere aggressively," said Yang. "If we do nothing, the future climate projections are only going to continue to get worse and the world will be very, very miserable."
"We will see more heat waves, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires and they will be much more severe than what we're experiencing now," he continued. "Extreme heat and higher temperatures will become more common, more intense, and will last a lot longer. Overall, these natural disasters will only keep getting more expensive."
While the current global climate is in dire shape and may seem to be spiraling out of control, Yang said it does not necessarily mean conditions will always be hotter or that there will be more storms on an annual basis.
"For instance, in Texas, there might not be a heat wave or a natural disaster like a hurricane every year, but it's an upward trend that is taking effect globally," said Yang.
"The bottom line is we must fight climate change and we must prioritize the environment. Otherwise, the natural disasters triggered by these ongoing problems will continue to plague the world and cause more destruction."