A Summer of Extremes: Why You Should Get Used to Our Wild Weather
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Soon the story was relentless drought. Farmers reported that corn plants were going into “defensive mode,” rolling their leaves to prevent water loss. Experts on the evening news were explaining corn sex — how it could simply get too hot and dry for the plants to fertilize. (As one agronomist put it, “we’re in uncharted water, except there is no water.”) Shots of cracked earth and stunted ears of corn were the new commonplace, as the size of the drought matched the worst of the 1980s, and then the 1950s, and then had the meteorologists pulling out their charts to see what the Dust Bowl had looked like. (A lot like this, as it turned out.) July turned out to be the warmest month ever recorded in the United States, any month, any year.
State fairs reported small pigs (“they don’t have their virility in this heat”), and ranchers reported that bulls were, well, uninterested once the heat topped 105. Agribusiness had federal crop insurance to turn to — the big losers were, as usual, people in poor countries around the world. Because it wasn’t just the U.S. grain harvest that was failing — drought across Russia was tempting the Kremlin to shut down grain exports for the second time in three years, and the Indian monsoon was fitful at best, with large parts of the subcontinent’s grain belt in official drought. Corn and soybeans were fetching 30 percent and then 40 percent more then they had just weeks before. Where it wasn’t drought, it was deluge — the U.K. was enduring the wettest weather in its history, and Beijing the worst flooding in its modern history.
And Greenland? In Greenland in July they set a new all-time temperature record on the top of the glacier. Which is pretty much exactly where you’d least want to set a new record, considering that’s there’s 20 feet of sea level in that block of ice. Just as researcher Jason Box had predicted six weeks before, satellites showed a day when the top of the entire ice sheet turned to liquid.
Meanwhile, the surrounding Arctic Ocean spent all summer melting ahead even of 2007’s record pace — at first it was out front just by a nose, but then as August came on, the melt accelerated, until an area the size of South Carolina was vanishing daily. On August 26, with almost a month left in the melt season, the old record low for summer sea ice extent disappeared beneath the waves.
I could go on and on with accounts of this wildest of summers: “refugee camps” for livestock in arid India; the warmest rainstorm ever recorded in Mecca in early summer (109 degrees), a mark that lasted about six weeks until it was broken in the California desert in August (115 degrees); traffic on the Mississippi grinding to a halt as the water level fell and fell and fell; a record area of the continental U.S. burned by wildfires before the summer was even over. Ad infinitum.
But best to end with the words of our leading climatologist, James Hansen, who in August published a peer-reviewed paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As he had at every stage of the global warming saga, Hansen laid out what was happening with devastating clarity. There’s always been extreme heat, he showed — but the one-degree increase in global temperature we’ve seen so far has been enough to shift the bell curve sharply to the left. In the old summer, the one most of us grew up in, 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the surface area of the planet was dealing with “extreme heat anomalies” at any given moment. Now it was approaching 10 percent. The math, he said, was clear: It “allows us to infer that the area covered by extreme hot anomalies will continue to increase in coming decades and that even more extreme outliers will occur.”