A wave of deadly heat is rolling across the U.S. The ongoing drought in the West is stretching water supplies thinner than ever while supercharged rainstorms have unleashed devastating flooding in Yellowstone National Park. Wildfire season is off to a roaring start.
Get used to it.
For years, scientists have warned about the risks of compounding climate change-related disasters, how as the climate warms one calamity can piggyback on another and trigger a cascade of struggle and misery. The warnings are coming true, particularly in the western half of the country.
“What we see in the last few years is [a] kind of increase in these compound extremes, particularly droughts, heat waves and wildfire, because the three are just so tightly connected,” said Benjamin Cook, a research scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies who focuses on drought and related issues. “The real concern around these kind of compound extremes is … a lot of our management and infrastructure are just not prepared for so many things to stress things out all at the same time.”
The potential for the disasters to compound in new and terrifying ways is also coming into focus. For example, a study published in April of this year demonstrated that in a high-warming scenario, most large wildfires in the western U.S. will likely be followed within a year by an extreme rainfall event, a combination that drastically increases the risk of dangerous mudslides and flash floods. By 2100, this one-two punch will increase in likelihood by 100 percent in California; in the Pacific Northwest, the increase will reach 700 percent.
“The odds are leaning toward more extreme weather,” said Simon Wang, a professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University. “Whether we like it or not.”
This catastrophic summer is unfolding in a depressingly dire context. Countries the world over continue to come up short on their Paris agreement climate commitments. Energy shocks driven in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are leading to increases in oil and gas production and even coal use. And in the U.S., climate legislation remains stalled while the country awaits a Supreme Court decision likely to end the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases. And it’s only getting hotter.
Hot, dry and burning
On Tuesday, the first day of summer, around 35 million Americans were under heat advisories. The heat wave that had already baked parts of the West and Midwest, driving temperatures in many spots into the triple digits, began to shift toward the eastern part of the country. Heat advisories stretched from Texas through Georgia, as well as up in Ohio, West Virginia and even western New York.
“Any given summer from this point onward will have a higher chance of getting exceptional heat waves,” said Wang. “This year is no exception.”
As the heat waves come and go with increasing frequency, the American West remains mired in a decadeslong and worsening drought.
“We’re on the 22nd year of a major drought event in the western U.S., which is very likely the worst 20-year drought period in the last 1,200 years,” Cook said.
As a result, some of the region’s most important water resources are nearing their breaking point. Lake Mead, which provides water for 25 million people in the Southwest, has fallen to its lowest level in nearly 100 years — at almost 30 feet below its level this time last year and 45 feet below 2020′s level. Lake Powell, another critical reservoir along the Colorado River, has improved somewhat in recent weeks but is still more than 20 feet below the 2021 level and 70 feet below that of two years ago.
In mid-June, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about one-quarter of the entire country — concentrated in the Southwest — was in either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.
And with heat, and drought, comes fire.
Rebecca Miller, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California’s West on Fire Project, said that a growing body of research projects some unsettling trends: “that the wildfire seasons are going to be growing longer, that droughts are going to be more severe, that fuel moisture is going to be lower, that precipitation is going to be lower,” she said. “These severe seasons are going to become worse than they are now.”
Though the U.S. is only now heading into summer, more than 3 million acres of land have already burned so far this year. Enormous fires in New Mexico started in April and remain only partially contained more than two months later. Blazes in Arizona have ravaged areas rich with Indigenous sites and artifacts, and burned down buildings at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, a center of astronomical research. At times, the smoke plumes from these fires have affected air quality as far away as Kentucky and Georgia.
A National Interagency Fire Center update issued on June 1 noted that the number of acres that have burned so far this year was 112 percent above the 10-year average. Several parts of the country have “above normal significant fire potential” for the rest of the summer months. In California, which saw more than 2.5 million acres burn in 2021, vegetation is 40 percent drier at this time of year than the previous record in 2016.
Even as much of the country bakes and burns, some areas have gotten reminders of the other tricks climate change has in store. As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, allowing for heavier, more devastating rainstorms. On June 13, officials cited “unprecedented” rainfall as they closed Yellowstone National Park and ordered 10,000 people to leave; the floodwaters washed out roads and caused landslides. Ten days later, the park is only starting to reopen.
And we’ve barely even got a glimpse of hurricane season yet: Though it officially started on June 1, the Atlantic season really gets going in August and September. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, adding insult to climate-induced injury, has predicted an “above-normal” 2022 hurricane season.
The coldest summer of the rest of your life
If the compounding disasters of this early part of summer feel like climate change finally slapping us all in the face, the slap might feel more like a punch in the years to come.
“We’ve experienced the worst wildfire seasons in California — so far,” Miller said. “As drought continues, as temperatures rise, as fire season is extended — those fire seasons that we’ve seen, that are catastrophic, that are record-breaking, [they] may very well become standard.”
The Biden administration, though stymied on its grander ambitions around climate change, does seem to notice the trend. The Department of the Interior recently announced $26 million in grants for water efficiency projects, aimed at mitigating the growing drought and water crisis in the West. And the administration followed through on a 2021 promise, laying out a plan to increase pay and other support for wildland firefighters, through the infrastructure bill passed last year. But as warming worsens, it is obvious that more needs to be done.
“That, to me, is the big challenge of climate change,” Cook said. “We need to start to plan not for the way things have been, but we need to start planning for the way things are going to be.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.