Temperatures of 112 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland? Is this a joke? No, it isn’t. The recent wild temperatures and crazy weather in the U.S. have made many of us ponder whether this is the future we can expect with global warming. The short answer is … yes. But this is only the beginning.
I study the Earth’s climate. Over the past decade or so, I have had the fortune of working with the world’s top scientists as they make measurements across the globe, trying to understand how fast the Earth’s climate is changing. Our research, and the research of many other scientists, paint a clear picture of a climate in crisis, a warming planet and more extreme weather. We can actually observe that extreme weather in our forecasts – the climate is literally changing in front of our eyes.
This summer has shown us what the future will look like. Of course, in Minnesota, we have experienced a hot early summer with more heat on its way in the coming weeks. But the impacts are even more severe elsewhere in the U.S., particularly on the West Coast. There, temperatures have skyrocketed to as high as 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. These are stunning numbers. We have had heat waves before, but what we are seeing now is unprecedented – this is not normal.
Why do we care? First of all, extreme heat dramatically raises the risk of heat stress to humans and animals as I discussed in The Guardian a few years ago. But the issue is much deeper than that. As the Earth warms, the rate of evaporation increases; in extremely hot weather, soils dry very quickly and droughts become more prevalent.
The current situation in the U.S. is shown here, by an image from the U.S. Drought Monitor project. As you can see, the western third of the nation is suffering through a terrible drought and there are consequences to agriculture, wildlife and society. Droughts like this are also the perfect breeding ground for wildfires.
But the problems go beyond mere droughts. It turns out that as the atmosphere warms, it is able to hold more water vapor. We know this from personal experience; the air in Minnesota is more humid in July than in January. Since humidity is what causes rainfall, global “warming” can change our rainfall patterns. Consequently, while some parts of the planet become drier, others become wetter, as I wrote in this article. As a general rule of thumb, areas that are currently dry are becoming more dry, while areas that are wet are becoming more wet. But regardless of where you live, you can expect rains to come in heavier downbursts.
The eastern third of the U.S. is becoming more wet with the most extreme rainstorms increasing. In the western U.S., the states are typically becoming more dry, while in the Midwest, our average annual rain is remaining constant but the rains are heavier and less frequent. All of this means that we are experiencing more rapid swings from hot and dry drought to flooding conditions. And, of course, we have seen just that in Minnesota with a significant rise in 1,000-year flooding events interspersed by droughts.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Sure, the climate is changing and certainly humans are the cause. But this means that humans can also be the solution. With the cost of clean energy like wind and solar falling rapidly, they are now as inexpensive as coal. People are buying electric cars, plugging them into solar panels, and driving with zero emissions (and lower costs). Wind turbines stretch as far as the eye can see in parts of Minnesota – leading to an economic boom in rural Minnesota. I am happy to buy my electricity from a farmer in southern Minnesota. Transitioning to a clean energy economy just makes sense. We can improve the environment and strengthen our economy at the same time.
John Abraham, PhD, is a professor in the School of Engineering.