As the world staggers through another summer of extreme weather, experts are noticing something different: This year’s onslaught is hitting harder and in places that have been spared global warming’s wrath in the past.
Wealthy countries, such as the US, Canada, Germany and Belgium, are joining poorer and more vulnerable nations on a growing list of extreme weather events that scientists say have some connection to human-caused climate change.
“It is not only a poor country problem; it’s now very obviously a rich county problem,” said Debby Guha-Sapir, founder of the international disaster database at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. “They [the rich] are getting whacked.”
Killer floods hit China, but hundreds of people also drowned in parts of Germany and Belgium not used to being inundated.
Canada and the US’ Pacific northwest had what climate scientist Zeke Hausfather called “scary” heat that soared well past triple digits in Fahrenheit and into high 40s in Celsius, shattering records and accompanied by unusual wildfires. Now southern Europe is seeing unprecedented heat and fire.
Moreover, the peak Atlantic hurricane and US wildfire seasons are only just starting.
When what would become Hurricane Elsa formed on July 1, it broke last year’s record for the earliest fifth named Atlantic storm. Colorado State University has already increased its forecast for the number of named Atlantic storms — and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was yesterday scheduled to update its season outlook.
For fire season, the US West is the driest it has been since 1580, based on soil moisture readings and tree ring records, setting the stage for worsening fires if something ignites them, University of California, Los Angeles climate and fire scientist Park Williams said.
What happens with US hurricane and fire seasons drives the end-of-year statistics for total damage costs of weather disasters, said Ernst Rauch, chief climate and geoscientist for insurance giant Munich Re.
So far this year, wealthier regions have seen the biggest economic losses, he said.
However, when poorer nations are hit, they are less prepared and people cannot use air-conditioning or leave so there is more harm, said Hausfather, climate director of the Breakthrough Institute.
While hundreds of people died in the Pacific northwest heat wave, the number would have been much higher in poor areas, he said.
Madagascar is in the middle of back-to-back droughts that the UN says are pushing 400,000 people toward starvation.
Although it is too early to say this summer would again break records for climate disasters, “we’re certainly starting to see climate change push extreme events into new territories where they haven’t been seen before,” Hausfather said.
The number of weather, water and climate disasters so far this year is only slightly higher than the average of recent years, Guha-Sapir said.
Her group’s database, which she said still is missing quite a few events, shows 208 such disasters worldwide through last month — about 11 percent more than the last decade’s average, but a bit less than last year.
Last year, the record-shattering heat that came out of nowhere was in Siberia, where few people live, but this year it struck Portland, Oregon, and British Columbia, which gets more Western media attention, Hausfather said.
What is happening is “partly an increase in the statistics of these extreme events, but also just that the steady drumbeat, the pile on year-on-year ... takes its cumulative toll on all of us who are reading these headlines,” Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb said.
“This pattern of recent Northern Hemisphere summers has been really quite stark,” University of Exeter climate scientist Peter Stott said.
While overall temperature rise is “playing out exactly as we said 20 years ago ... what we are seeing in terms of the heat waves and the floods is more extreme than we predicted back then,” Stott said.
Climate scientists say there is little doubt climate change from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas is driving extreme events.
Aside from dramatic floods and fires, heat waves are a major risk to prepare for in the future, Guha-Sapir said.
“It’s going to be a very big deal in the Western countries because the most susceptible to sudden peaks of heat are older people. And the demographic profile of the people in Europe is very old,” she said. “Heat waves are going to be a real issue in the next few years.”
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