‘Potentially the worst drought in 1,200 years’: scientists on the scorching US heatwave
The heatwave gripping the US west is simultaneously breaking hundreds of temperature records, exacerbating a historic drought and priming the landscape for a summer and fall of extreme wildfire.
Salt Lake City hit a record-breaking 107F (42C), while in Texas and California, power grid operators are asking residents to conserve energy to avoid rolling blackouts and outages. And all this before we’ve even reached the hottest part of the summer.
Among the 40 million Americans enduring the triple-digit temperatures are scientists who study droughts and the climate. They’d long forewarned of this crisis, and now they’re living through it. The Guardian spoke with researchers across the west about how they’re coping.
The paleoclimatologist: ‘Potentially the worst drought in 1,200 years’
Kathleen Johnson, California
Associate professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine
I feel a little bit lucky because I’m in Orange county, relatively close to the coast – so the temperatures are not as severe here as they are in other parts of California and the west. I’m worried about this summer – this doesn’t bode well, in terms of what we can expect with wildfire and the worsening drought. This current drought is potentially on track to become the worst that we’ve seen in at least 1,200 years. And the reason is linked directly to human caused climate change.
As a paleoclimatologist my main point, always, is that we are able to look into the past. By looking at tree rings and other paleoclimate records, we’re able to gain really important perspectives about how climate has varied and changed in the past. And having done that, it’s clear that what we’re experiencing now is not natural. This is undoubtedly being caused by human activities, by greenhouse gas emissions.
The more we see these extreme events, piled on top of each other, and not just in the western US but globally, the more I think the reality of climate change becomes inescapable. And it feels absolutely overwhelming and sad. We are going to have less water, increased wildfires and more extreme heatwaves. But it’s also motivating. We need to continue to push for urgent action on climate change
The climate scientist: ‘The most distressing part? This was predictable’
Daniel Swain, Colorado
Climate scientist, Institute of the Environment and Sustainability,University of California, Los Angeles
This is really, really bad. Here on the eastern side of the Rockies, here in Boulder, we’re seeing record high temperatures. That’s the case in other parts of the state and in other states. And we’re seeing smoke plumes – not from local fires but from fires in Arizona and Utah. I think for a lot of people, it’s traumatic. The fires we saw in the last couple of years were really awful, and this year it seems like we’re on that same trajectory. It kind of feels like deja vu.
It does get rough sometime – talking about these things year after year. I live in the west, and all my family, pretty much, lives in the west. Most of my friends live in the west. It’s where I grew up, and seeing the landscape-scale transformations that are happening here, and seeing how it’s affecting people is overwhelming sometimes. But actually to me, the most distressing part is that this is very much in line with predictions. Climate scientists have been repeating essentially the same messages and warnings since before I was born.
Climate change is a major contributor to, if not the dominant factor, in a lot of the changes that we’re seeing out west and elsewhere. And it just is going to keep getting worse unless we do something about it. And so far, you know, we have yet to do the kinds of things, on a large enough scale, that are actually going to make a meaningful difference.
The atmospheric scientist: ‘It’s surreal to see your models become real life’
Katharine Hayhoe, Texas
Climate scientist and chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy
The extreme heat and the wildfires aren’t surprising. But it is just surreal to see what you only ever saw before in your research studies and models, actually happening in real life. And you’re almost dumbfounded by the speed at which your projections have become reality.
Climate change is loading the weather dice against us. We always have a chance of rolling a double six naturally, and getting an intense record breaking summer heatwave. But decade by decade as the world warms, it’s as if climate change is sneaking in and taking one of those numbers on the dice and turning it into another six, and then another six. And maybe even a seven. So we are seeing that heatwaves are coming earlier in the year, they are longer, they are stronger.
Still, public opinion data shows that there’s a disconnect, where even though about 72% of people in the US say global warming is happening, only 40% say that they think that it will affect them directly. But we actually did a recent study, looking at climate and weather extremes – and we found that really hot, dry conditions are the only thing that most people in the US directly connect to climate change. So right now is a really important time for scientists to communicate with the public that climate change is here, and climate action matters.
The meteorologist: ‘The ground is burning like a hotplate’
Simon Wang, Utah
Professor of climate dynamics at Utah State University
Yesterday, when Salt Lake City hit record temperatures, we went to one of our grad students’ back yards to barbecue some burgers and do some work. But it was so hot – oh my gosh, 107F (42C). So hot that, actually three out of five students’ computers overheated and broke. I was the first to throw in the white flag and ask to go home – I really hurting.
As a meteorologist, of course this isn’t a surprise. The warming climate is making these dry, hot periods even drier and hotter. Since we’re in a drought, we don’t really have much moisture in the soil. And without that moisture, the sun really heats up the ground and the air much faster. So, really what we’re seeing in the south-west is, the ground is burning like a hotplate. And we’re standing on it.
But you know, I actually feel kind of optimistic. In the restaurants and beer houses right now, everybody is talking about the weather, and how hot it is. And a few of them will even comment, “This is the new normal.” And I mean – we’re in Utah! Whatever people believe in, they know it’s really hot, and the climate is changing – and they don’t like that. These compounding extreme weather events are really bad – but they’re going to keep happening, no matter what. Maybe if there’s some good to come out of it, it’s that people are becoming more aware. And the sooner the general public starts to become aware of this issue, the sooner, hopefully, they’ll push for changes to address the crisis. So actually, if you saw me walking around outside this week, I probably had a smile on my face as I listened to some of these conversations.