Yesterday, I was struck by the number of disasters we've seen this summer–it seems like every day, or more often than that, there's some new record-breaking flood or drought or rainfall total. So I thought, just as an experiment, we could do a quick tally of everything (well, not nearly everything) that's happened so far in 2022. Just to give us some scale.
-January in Buenos Aires, 700,000 people lost power while the heat peaked at 106°F.
-Onslow, Australia tied the highest recorded temperature for the Southern Hemisphere concurrent with the South American heatwave, at a jaw-dropping 123.3°F.
-In late March, India and Pakistan suffered one of the worst heatwaves recorded. The hot weather arrived far earlier than usual, and when paired with a drought resulted in heavy agricultural impacts, with losses ranging from 15-30% of some harvests.
-May and June saw historic heatwaves across much of the United States, with records posted and over a hundred million people placed under excessive heat warnings.
-The worst heatwave in Japanese history struck the country in June, with the highest temperatures at 104.4°F.
-The European heatwaves beginning in June killed over a thousand people, primarily in Portugal and Spain. Temperatures over 104°F were observed in the UK, and wildfires across the continent burned tens of thousands of acres. A glacier in Italy collapsed, killing eleven people.
-Finally, much of southern China is experiencing the worst heatwave in their recorded history–potentially in the history of the world. Over 500,000 square miles of the country have posted heat in excess of 104°F. The heatwave has been extraordinarily long and intense, and it is paired with a serious drought. The city of Chongqing, with over 9 million residents, recorded a low temperature overnight of 94.8°F, several degrees hotter than the average August high and drifting right alongside the heat tolerance of the human body. Overall, nearly 1 billion people have been affected. Electricity demands have been difficult to keep up with, and with the drought, supply from China's many hydroelectric plants is running low.
Hand in glove with heatwaves are droughts, which have struck much of...the planet. Droughts complicate our response to weather considerably, as often enough crucial infrastructure like hydropower plants are dependent upon water levels. Lake Mead, for example, in the US Southwest, has been dwindling for years, but rapidly in the last few–nearing the point at which water will be unable to flow downstream, hampering the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam provides power for 1.3 million people. Just for example. In Europe, nuclear plants were kept online despite the heat and low water levels. Many plants rely on a steady supply of river water to cool their reactors. That water, in times of excess heat, is generally regulated from re-entering the river as the input of even more heat is a threat to wildlife. In China, the dwindling of the Yangtze has threatened the supply of electricity to nearly 100 million people.
Though fairly Euro-centric, this look at several rivers around the world (mostly Western), is eye-opening, and provides some decent context as well. In Europe, the drought has been so acute that "hunger stones" have been revealed, marking low water levels in many major rivers at the site of historic periods of famine. Sunken Nazi warships have also been revealed–the European version, I guess, of dumped bodies being found in Lake Mead.
In the United States, drought conditions across much of the country have caused severe repercussions in the agricultural sector. A survey of western farmers showed that 37% of respondents reported that they had plowed under (destroyed) crops, and 74% reported a reduction in yield overall. In Texas, livestock herd size has diminished by 50%.
This summer–in less than a month's time–the United States alone saw five 1-in-1,000 year rainfall events. St. Louis, Eastern Kentucky, Southern Illinois, Death Valley, and most recently, Dallas-Fort Worth have seen staggering amounts of rainfall in very short periods. St. Louis saw thirty miles of I-70 closed and vehicles submerged. In Eastern Kentucky, flooding was disastrous, resulting in nearly 40 deaths, immense destruction of property, and the loss of irreplaceable records and artifacts from cultural centers like the town of Hindman. Thousands were left stranded in Death Valley, an area of the country that is, rather famously, a desert. Dallas saw half of its precipitation this year fall in the last 24 hours–over 15 inches in some places.
-In Rio de Janeiro, 231 were killed by flooding and mudslides.
-Flooding across South Africa killed over 400 people and resulted in $1.5 billion in damages.
-Bangladesh and Assam, India saw flooding that displaced millions.
-Rain in early June saw flooding in Yellowstone National Park, which isolated the area and stranded campers.
-In July, flash-flooding in Pakistan killed 550 people.
-Flooding in Seoul saw the city submerged in its worst rain event in 80 years.
Now, weather disasters have happened forever. There are certainly years with a greater numerical number of disasters in our history, and there are definitely worse ones than those described here (with the exception of the heatwave in China, which may very well be the world's greatest). We don't need to break records to have climate change–we're well beyond proof. And we don't need to break records for things to be bad, or to feel bad. Heat is heat, and drought is drought. These are the things that kill people–it is no comfort to the dead, injured, displaced, and hungry that there have been and will be worse disasters than these. What matters is that we understand things are getting worse, that the climate is changing, that weather patterns are changing. And that we try our best to prepare for these changes, not only to save ourselves but to help others.