Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The Deadly Connection Between Climate Change, COVID-19, Wildfires, Hurricanes and Tornadoes

Once again we are witnessing the bi-coastal carnage of hurricanes in the east and wildfires out west. However, this year these record breaking disasters are being compounded by a global pandemic. Extreme weather is one of the most pervasive and persuasive manifestations of climate change. We have seen decades of data that conclusively demonstrate the world is warming.


A warming world threatens to unleash a host of diseases and other threats to human health. Carbon Brief explored how climate change and biodiversity disturbance, including habitat loss and human-animal conflict, could influence the risk of diseases being transmitted from animals to humans. An August article published in PHYS.ORG suggests climate change could unleash new epidemics.

The federal government's mismanagement of the pandemic in the U.S. has contributed to the deaths of more than 190,000 people. In the absence of a coordinated federal response forecasts suggest that we will see 410,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. by the end of the year. COVID-19 is undeniably deadly, but it pales in comparison to the host of impacts associated with climate change. Bill Gates has said that climate change is far worse the the coronavirus and a report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, warns that climate change will kill far more people than all infectious diseases combined. Lise Kingo, the executive director of the UN Global Compact describes COVID-19 as a fire drill for climate change.

Climate change kills forests, animals and the full spectrum of biodiversity including humans. We have known that climate change is deadly for many years. A 2014 report from the World Meteorological Organisation explored the mortality risks associated with climate change and concluded that climate change is indeed deadly. Other reports including one by Medact and another by Lancet clearly outlined the health risks associated with climate change. We have also seen scientific papers that show that there is a deadly connection between water scarcity and climate changeAttribution science has also reaffirmed that climate change is lethal.


Wildfires adversely impact air quality and this exacerbates climate change and a range of respiratory disorders including COVID-19. There may be no better illustration of the worsening climate crisis than the rise of wildfires. There was an epidemic of wildfires in 2019 and in the U.S. the average wildfire season has expanded (it is now 105 days longer than it was in 1970).

According to FEMA, fires killed 3,655 people in the U.S. in 2018 including 85 people who died in the Camp Fire. This year the fires in California are known to have killed 20 people so far and with many missing more deaths are expected.  This year, just like the year before and the year before that heat and drought are driving wildfires in the southwest. While Colorado and Oregon have been hit hard no state has been hit harder than California.

In 2019 almost 260,000 acres of California burned leaving thousands homeless and millions of people without power. But that was nothing compared to 2018 when wildfires in August through November scorched 1.8 million acres. In 2017 more than 1.2 million acres burned.  This year is the worst on record.  Even though we are only halfway through the fire season, 2020 has already set a record for the biggest one year burn in the state's recorded history. As of September 7, a total of 2,283,169 acres have burned in the Golden State. There are currently 30 big blazes (6 of which are the largest in the state's history) and dozens of smaller fires burning. Stanford University climate scientist Michael Goss offered little comfort when he said it will "continue or get worse".


Warmer seas fuel stronger storms and this may explain the increase in Atlantic hurricanes in recent years.  It may also explain why 2020 is already the worst hurricane season on record. This year has set records for being the first Atlantic hurricane season in which 9 tropical storms formed before August. It is also the first year that 13 storms formed before September. We are only halfway into the season (the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30) and we have already seen 22 tropical storms. As of September 8, 2020, there have been 17 named storms and five (Hanna, Isaias, Laura, Marcos and Nana) became hurricanes. Other records that were broken in 2020 include the 6th straight season with two pre-season storms. (Arthur and Bertha) and the record for the earliest formation date for several named storms. There were a record-tying 2 named storms in May and 5 named storms in July as well as 6 record-breaking tropical depressions in July.

Early this year scientists at NOAA predicted "above-average" storm activity but they were quickly forced to upgrade their forecasts to "extremely active" and shortly thereafter,  "one of the most active seasons on record." Their most recent updates indicate that we may see as many as 25 named storms and six major hurricanes (category 3 or higher). At least 30 people have died in the U.S. this year as a result of hurricanes

Climate change is thought to have played a role in major hurricanes like Dorian, Harvey, Irma and Maria. However, finding evidence for a causal relationship is no easy feat in science and this is particularly true of meteorology.  Advances in attribution science have made it possible to directly link climate change to both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence.

Deadly tornadoes are a common corollary of hurricanes and 2020 has been one of the most deadly years for tornadoes on record.  So far in 2020 a total of 78 people have been killed by tornadoes including one of the deadliest tornadoes on record (Tennessee, March 3). According to data from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center, there were 1,520 preliminary tornado reports in 2019. This was well above the 1991-2010 U.S. annual average of 1,251 tornadoes. The number of tornadoes so far this year is not anomalous, but the increase in the number of strong tornadoes in the US over the past few decades suggests a discernible trend. Although the evidence linking tornadoes to climate change is far from definitive, it nonetheless supports earlier research.

The other cataclysmic impacts of climate change include, coastal flooding, drought, mass migration, famine, riots, conflict, violence, war, anoxia, and species extinction.  The deadly confluence of COVID-19, extreme weather, and wildfires offers a small foretaste of what life will be like as we suffer through the multiple impacts of climate change.

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