Louisiana Floods, California Fires Are Latest Climate Catastrophes

Aug 20, 2016
Originally published on August 22, 2016 1:17 pm

The storms that inundated Louisiana this week did not have names, and they were not hurricanes. Nonetheless, officials are calling the Louisiana rain and floods the biggest U.S. natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy.

In California, wildfires have charred more than 350 square miles so far this year, and fire season hasn’t yet hit its peak.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young checks in with meteorologist and writer Eric Holthaus. He says this year’s devastating weather is a harbinger of things to come as climate change continues to throw our atmosphere off balance.

Interview Highlights: Eric Holthaus

On atmospheric conditions prior to the Baton Rouge flooding

“At this moment — I think it was Thursday morning or Friday morning last week — the atmosphere above Southern Louisiana was among the wettest it has ever been measured there. As the planet gets warmer because of greenhouse gases, warmer air can hold more water vapor, this is a basic tenant of atmospheric physics. And you can kind of test this on a warm day when you’re in air conditioning you see condensation on the windows if you’re inside and it’s really humid outside. So that’s water vapor that’s being squeezed out of the atmosphere, and that’s exactly what happened in Louisiana, is that the Gulf of Mexico is right now record warm. We have 90-degree water temperatures down there. This storm system sort of acted like the funnel for that warm, wet air to be pushed and concentrated right over Southern Louisiana for days.”


On predictions climate change would lead to extreme weather

“We’ve been predicting this for decades. When I say we, I mean the entire scientific community. It’s not a controversial result, really, that as the planet warms, that we’ll start to see more extremes in precipitation on both ends. Evaporation also increases with temperature, the rate of evaporation. So we’re getting drier dries and wetter wets. And we’re seeing that at the same time, on the other side of the country, we’re seeing this sort of really rapidly advancing forest fires in California.”

On news that July was the hottest month on record

“At some point it gets a little bit monotonous when July was the 15th consecutive record-setting month on a global basis. Part of this is a result of the El Niño that’s just passed. We still don’t totally understand how this happens but it seems that El Niño can sort of motivate warm water that’s being stored in the surface layer of the ocean. That just sort of pours out into the atmosphere in El Niño years…. That’s a natural occurrence, but it’s also an active area of research of how this El Niño process might change with increasing global temperatures.

But the bottom line is that we have a different atmosphere now. I think that’s the best way to think about it. We have a different base conditions, we have a different playing field for weather events to happen in. It’s not so much that ‘Oh, is this flood or is this fire linked to climate change or is this caused by climate change.’ I think that’s the wrong question at this point. I think we have a different fundamental expectation for what we can expect.”

On climate change skeptics

“There’s a mismatch between our human experience and what science can tell us about the future. So — in thinking about what it might mean for a wholesale collapse of ecosystems or agricultural systems or the loss of all coastal cities on Earth — these are things that could potentially happen in our lifetimes and these are things that are, in some cases, being locked in right now. It’s really hard to convey as a fact things that feel like science fiction. I struggle with that every day, to not sound like a crazy person talking about this stuff because it doesn’t sound like it’s real, or could be real. But it is.”


Eric Holthaus, meteorologist for Slate and co-host of the climate change podcast Warm Regards. He tweets at @EricHolthaus.

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