Climate Extremes, Here and Down Under

Posted on January 12, 2013

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Tammy-Holmes-and-her-grandchildren

Death or Taxes

Are they really different stories?  It actually seems like just the same story, continuing.

Look at what is happening in Oz.  On Monday, January 7th, they set a country-wide heat record of 104.5oF.  That’s 40.3oC, and was the average high temperature continent-wide.  Australia experienced 7 days in a row (Monday was one of them) where the average high temperature across the country exceeded 39oC.  The longest previous such stretch, which only happened once, was four days.

Eight out the 20 hottest days in Australia’s record have occurred so far this year.  And it’s not very far into the year, you might have noticed.

The already-iconic photograph of Tammy Holmes and her grandchildren sheltering in the ocean under a wooden pier, a haze of wildfire smoke in the background, shows what record temperatures and accompanying conditions can sometimes mean to the lives of everyday Australians.

10,000 sheep have died in bushfires in New South Wales.  100 homes were destroyed by wildfires in one town in Tasmania.

mississippi-river-droughtNow look at simultaneous images on another continent, the Mississippi River going so dry because of drought that the Army Corps of Engineers is seriously dredging it to keep barge traffic running.

With those pictures projected on the blue screen behind you, read the latest report on 2012, weather and climate disaster in the USA.

To give the story of 2012 more clarity, some context for us all.

The previous most extreme year for high temperatures in the USA was 1998.  That year was a full 4.2oF warmer than the most extreme year for cold temperatures, 1917.  There’s your temperature spread until last year.  Until 2012, 4.2oF represented the entire difference in temperature between the coldest year in the USA and the warmest.

But 2012 was again a full 1.0oF warmer than 1998 in the USA.  That’s an unprecedented expansion of the temperature range, amounting to almost 24% in a single year, a jaw-dropping change for a territory as large as the continental US.

That’s like a high jumper coming along and beating the previous world record by 23 inches.  Oops.  Check that fellow’s sneakers for flubber and his x-ray for robotic limbs.

It’s just not natural, Sam.

And 2012 trailed only 1998 for natural disasters in the USA, at least 11 of them costing more than a billion dollars each, notably Superstorm Sandy, a drought encompassing 65.5% of the nation, corn and soy crop failures, wildfires scorching 9.2 million acres of land, 350 homes destroyed by the Waldo Canyon wildfire alone, etc.

Yup, really scary stuff, but…

sandy roller coasterNOW THE REALLY BAD NEWS.

We might need to pay a carbon tax to prevent it from getting disastrously worse.  We might need to start investing in solar and wind power, expanding and slashing the price of mass transit.  We might need to stop pulling hydrocarbons out of the ground to balance our national budgets.  We might need to do something serious about climate change that inconveniences us collectively almost as much as 10 or 15 minutes of Superstorm Sandy.

Oh dear, oh gosh, my-my.

Now we’re sweating.