Have you ever seen San Andreas, the Day After Tomorrow, or 2012? Well if you haven’t, they all have one thing in common - they’re disaster films. Usually, when we watch movies like these, we scoff in disbelief as the tiny fear that maybe, just maybe, these disasters could happen. But of course, after the credits roll, crumpled popcorn bags are thrown away, and we all leave the movie theater, the thoughts exit our minds as quickly as they came. Well, what if these disaster-movie-scenarios are more probable than we think?
This small fear may be more fact than fiction, as the National Climate Assessment (NCA) has noted that extreme weather events have increased infrequency across the globe due to climate change. The proof is right here in South Florida: in the past years there have been multiple billion-dollar damage hurricanes, such as hurricanes Charley and Frances in 2004, and Wilma and Katrina in 2005. The most destructive of the list in the 2000s, hurricane Katrina, initially reached Miami as a category 1. After some time, it strengthened to a category 3 and reached landfall in New Orleans, infamously wrecking the levee system meant to prevent flooding to the area and destroying millions of dollars of infrastructure. Compare this to now, where four category 5 hurricanes have collectively hit the Bahamas, Caribbean, Virgin Islands, Cuba, and Florida all in the past three years. The list includes hurricanes Irma, Maria, Michael, and Dorian. With this data, it is clear to see the dangerous influx of these destructive storms, not including other natural disasters, such as wildfires, droughts, and cyclones that rage across the globe.
So, you might ask, what is the science behind all this, and what about climate change causes natural disasters to get worse?
Droughts, Heat Waves, and Wildfires
Picture it’s a hot summer day. Sweat drips off your brow as you puncture open a bag of Capri Sun. In a flash, the bag is empty, and you’re suddenly left Capri Sun-less And sad. This is a small-scale explanation of what a drought can feel like. Synonymous to regions in the Southwest, a drought is an event where there is a long period of shortage of water supply. These can especially impact crop viability and soil quality. What’s the science behind it? Well, climate change leads to a rise in global temperatures (and yes this is an established fact), which means that more water will evaporate into the atmosphere and less precipitation will occur. To put it simply for the climate deniers out there: heat very hot. Water very hot. Water evaporates. No water. The most obvious impact of droughts is obviously crop and soil degradation, which can be detrimental to the production-heavy southwest region of the US. Ever learned about the dust bowl in U.S History? Well if you haven’t, 1) your history teacher has failed you and 2) it was a period in the 1930s where a long period of droughts contributed to dust storms that raged across the SouthWest. And these weren’t the average dust storms, these were huge monsters that wiped out multiple acre long farms at once. Ranchers and farmers felt the brunt of the impact, as they had to deal with their livelihood being threatened and destroyed. While a drought as severe as the dust bowl hasn’t been seen since, droughts do occur, and are progressively getting worse for farmers today. Other than economic impacts, loss of wildlife habitats and wetlands, migration of wildlife, and water reservoirs can all be at risk. These impacts also span globally; for example, especially dry regions in the Middle East like Egypt have been hit especially hard, threatening at-risk populations.
The next disaster is (which I’m sure my fellow Florida friends can relate with this one): Heat waves. They can be the cause of some droughts, but that’s not to say that they don't pose issues of their own. A large part of the southern United States frequently experiences days over 80 or even 90 degrees. While a hot day may not seem like a threat, The Billion Dollar Weather Disasters database cites that of the top 10 worst disasters in the United States from 1980 until now are heat waves. On top of damaging agriculture and animal habitats, heatwaves have the potential to heat buildings and city infrastructure 50-90 degrees higher. That definitely has cook-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk potential. Additionally, heat stress, dehydration, and hot days in general can be harmful to those with pre existing conditions such as respiratory diseases.
Finally the last, and one of the most prominent of these heat-related disasters are wildfires. At some point, everyone has turned on the TV or checked the news to see wildfire news concerning places like California and Australia. Wildfires are sparked (literally) by a dry or flammable forest climate, as well as other miscellaneous fuel. The frequency of these fires has been increasing over the years, as the amount of fires has doubled in the years between 1984 and 2015. Impacts can include those similar to drought and heat waves: agricultural destruction, habitat loss, and degradation of human infrastructure. The California wildfires are a perfect example of this: just three weeks ago 90,000 people were told to evacuate as a result of the Southern fires.
Rain and Hurricanes
Mentioned earlier, Hurricanes have been on a clear exponential rise in the past decade. Scientists at NOAA identify multiple causes. First, as the Earth warms, so does the sea temperature. Once again for the climate deniers: heat gets hot = hot water = water evaporates. This leads to stronger storm winds because the hot water (which is now hotter) contains more heat energy (that is hot). If you can't tell already, Heat has been causing a lot of issues here. Additionally, the hotter the Earth, the more water that evaporates, leading to more moisture in the air and easier formation of clouds. The second cause is sea level rise. While this is not a direct factor, it causes hurricanes to be more destructive and reach more land. As hurricanes get closer, this is more existing water to fuel it, as well as be blown further inland, which can damage infrastructure and cause flash floods.
While not as recognized, extreme precipitation can also be disastrous and has been on the rise. Since 1958, there has been an increase in precipitation in many regions in the US: 33% Bahamas and Cuba, 27% in the South, 71% in the Northeast, and a little less than16% in most of the West. While you are thinking to yourself that a little rain never hurt anyone, too much rain leads to impacts such as flash floods. Extreme precipitation can also lead to a higher chance of flash floods during hurricanes, and bolster the negative effects during a natural disaster. If water overstuatrates the ground, landslides are more likely to happen. Additionally, more precipitation leads to more storm water. Stormwater runoff often contains harmful chemicals such as nitrogen and various other pesticides. As this storm water proliferates the area, it can harm water quality and destroy ecosystems.
What can you do?
After reading all that, you may be having an existential crisis but don't worry, the disasters in fictional movies are just that, fictional. And yes, while we are on the track to getting to Twister-like climate events, there’s still time! So you might be asking yourself, “what can I do about it?” Educating others about the impacts of climate Change is always a good start. Along with that, make sure to lobby your local and state policy makers! And finally, as young students, there’s many great nonprofit organizations dedicated to fighting back climate change, like the Last Generation. Start your own Last Generation chapter and raise awareness at your school! Getting involved in these initiatives is not only a start, but it may be the end as well. So what are you waiting for? We only have 9 years left.
Mary Abi-Karam is a high school sophomore at American Heritage School in Plantation, FL.