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A Summer of Extremes: Why You Should Get Used to Our Wild Weather

This summer has seen record heat waves and wildfires, the worst flooding in Beijing’s modern history, and droughts that devastated the U.S. corn crop and led India to set up “refugee camps” for livestock. These were not freak occurrences -- this is how the earth works now.
 
 
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Photo Credit: vesilvio/ Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

Just as the baseball season now stretches nearly into November, and the National Football League keeps adding games, so the summer season is in danger of extending on both ends, a kind of megalomaniac power grab fueled by the carbon pouring into the atmosphere.

In fact, you could argue that the North American summer actually started two days before the official end of winter this year, when the town of Winner, South Dakota turned in a 94-degree temperature reading. It was part of that wild  July-in-March heat wave that stretched across two-thirds of the country, a stretch of weather so bizarre that historian Christopher Burt called it “probably the most extraordinary anomalous heat event” that the nation has ever seen. International Falls, “the icebox of the nation,” broke its heat records 10 straight days, and Chicago nine. In Traverse City, Michigan, on March 21, the record high was 87 degrees. But the low was 62 degrees, which was 4 degrees higher than the previous record high. The technical word for that is, insane.

And it wasn’t just the U.S. — new March records were set everywhere from Perth to Reykjavik, not to mention (this is the gun on the wall in Act One) Summit Station at the top of the Greenland Ice Cap.

Plants, responding in their plantlike ways, blossomed. And so, though April was warmer than normal, the expected frosts killed an awful lot of fruit before it could ever get started. Traverse City, for instance, sits at the heart of the U.S. cherry crop — but not this year. Still, April was a warmish pause, and May warm as well, with the heat gathering. And then right around the solstice in June, all hell broke loose — or at least something of a similar temperature.

While Tropical Storm Debby, the earliest fourth-named storm ever, was drenching Florida, fires were breaking out in New Mexico and Colorado that would become the largest and most expensive in those states’ histories. As the Front Range of the Rockies set all-time temperature records, horrible wild fires obliterated homes in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. (They also chased the world’s premier climate researchers from their offices in Boulder, though that didn’t stop them from explaining to reporters that global warming was “setting the table” for these blazes.)

And then the heat started moving east. They’ve been taking the temperature in Dodge City, Kansas since 1874 (one of the longest continuous readings in the country), and June 27  was the very first time it had reached 111 degrees. And it just kept getting hotter as the high pressure slid east — Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, the Carolinas, Virginia were all in the triple digits day after day after day. Some “relief” came in the form of a derecho (new occasions teach new words), a “straight line wind” that blew from Indiana to the Atlantic Ocean in a matter of hours, knocking out power for 5 million people, many of whom sweltered for days since the heat simply picked back up where it had left off. Things got so bad in Washington, D.C., where the longest heat wave ever recorded stretched into July, that one TV weatherman simply asked “Do you have a walk-in freezer you can move into for the weekend?”

And almost unnoticed, a young ice researcher named Jason Box published a paper predicting that sometime soon  the top of the entire Greenland ice sheet would get warm enough to melt. “We’re near a tipping point,” he said.

As Americans sweltered through the record temperatures, and as the wildfires sent plumes of smoke across the continent, and as utilities tried to patch up the storm-damaged grid, a new specter started stalking the nation. As usual, the money guys noticed first: the price of corn spiked 12 percent in two days right at the end of June, as fear began to build that the heat was damaging crops across the Midwest. And not just the heat — the same high pressure that was letting temperatures soar also blocked storms from watering the country’s midsection. (July, it would turn out, saw the lowest number of tornadoes in history, which was about the only good news.)

 
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