Tip of the iceberg

Around Vermont this summer, folks have been remarking about what a warm summer it has been. “It’s like the summers I remember growing up,” someone remarked recently.

Except, that might only be true if you were born (and had some keen awareness) over the last 15 years.

We will find that July was one of the warmest on the globe. But for all intents and purposes, at least in the Northeast, it has been a “normal” summer, if not too dry, weather watchers say. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the average temperature in August 2021 for the contiguous U.S. was 74 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2.6 degrees warmer than the long-term average. The heat record capped off a season full of extremes, with parts of the country experiencing persistent drought, wildfires, record-breaking heat waves, hurricanes and other extreme weather exacerbated by climate change.

Last summer beat the previous record set in 1936 by a hair, coming in at less than 0.01 degrees warmer than during the Dust Bowl year, when huge portions of the West and Great Plains were parched by severe drought.

That is not to say, however, that we have not been seeing the implications of climate change in summer 2022 in equally pronounced ways: river beds drying up; crops are dying from lack of irrigation; wildfires, and the like.

If you’ll excuse the pun, this may be the “tip of the iceberg.”

A new study says the dangerous heat we have been experiencing globally may become the new normal.

In much of Earth’s wealthy mid-latitudes, spiking temperatures and humidity that feel like 103 degrees or higher — now an occasional summer shock — statistically should happen 20 to 50 times a year by mid-century, said a study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

By 2100, that brutal heat index may linger for most of the summer for places like the U.S. Southeast, the study’s author said.

“So that’s kind of the scary thing about this,” said study author Lucas Zeppetello, a Harvard climate scientist, speaking with the Associated Press. “That’s something where potentially billions of people are going to be exposed to extremely dangerous levels of heat very regularly. So something that’s gone from virtually never happening before will go to something that is happening every year.”

The study is based on mathematical probabilities instead of other climate research that looks at what happens at various carbon pollution levels. Zeppetello and colleagues used more than 1,000 computer simulations to look at the probabilities of two different levels of high heat — heat indexes of 103 degrees and above 124 degrees, which are dangerous and extremely dangerous thresholds according to the U.S. National Weather Service. They calculated for the years 2050 and 2100 and compared that to how often that heat happened each year across the world from 1979 to 1998, according to an article by the AP.

The study found a three- to ten-fold increase in 103-degree heat in the mid-latitudes even in the unlikely best-case scenario of global warming limited to only 3.6 degrees since pre-industrial times — the less stringent of two international goals, the article states. Heat waves are one of the new four horsemen of apocalyptic climate change, along with sea level rise, water scarcity and changes in the overall ecosystem, Zeppetello told the AP.

Climate scientist Jennifer Francis of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told the AP that the past two summers have provided a window into our steamy future, with lethal heat waves in Europe, China, northwestern North America, India, the south-central U.S., the U.K., central Siberia, and even New England.

“Already hot places will become uninhabitable as heat indices exceed dangerous thresholds, affecting humans and ecosystems alike. Areas where extreme heat is now rare will also suffer increasingly, as infrastructure and living things are ill-adapted to the crushing heat,” she told the AP. The study focuses on the heat index and that’s smart because it’s not just heat but the combination with humidity that hurts health.

No matter how you look at it, economically, the demands that heat puts on us are going to be costly. We will use more electricity; we will want fresh water; we will need to protect ourselves from extreme weather; and be prepared for 100-year storms, like Tropical Storm Irene which ravaged the state 11 years ago this week.

Hopefully, the tip of that iceberg is the final warning, and what sits beneath the surface is actually a solution against our selfishness and arrogance.

— Rutland (Connecticut) Herald


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