I wrote an article over the weekend about the rich world facing extreme weather disasters intensified by climate change. Since then, the skies over New York City, where I live, turned an ominous shade of red because of smoke from wildfires on the other side of the continent. One fire, the Bootleg, was messing with the weather out West. British Columbia declared a state of emergency as wildfires prompted evacuation orders.
Britain’s weather service issued its first-ever extreme heat warning. And in a measure of shock at the level of devastation in one German village particularly hard-hit by last week’s flooding, Chancellor Angela Merkel, said, “the German language has no words, I think, for the devastation.”
More than words, many countries around the world don’t have what it takes to adapt to the extreme weather events battering us. That’s a fact even in countries that have the means, like those in Europe and North America, and that also happen to be the countries that, for the last century, have pumped most of the greenhouse gases already warming the atmosphere and messing with the weather.
More recent emitters have not been immune, either. On Sunday, torrential rains poured down on the Indian megacity of Mumbai, toppling homes, killing dozens of people and shutting down the city’s water filtration plant, according to Indian news reports. On Tuesday came the heaviest rainfall on record in central China, sweeping away cars, inundating the subway, and shutting down power in Zhengzhou, a city of five million. China is currently the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
As I wrote, the world is “neither prepared to slow down climate change, nor live with it.” You can have a look here.
A wildfire so overwhelming, it controls the weather
The past few months have been an astonishing time in the Western United States, and not in a good way. First there was severe drought. That was followed by searing heat waves, including one in the Pacific Northwest that was of a magnitude that stunned climate scientists.
The drought and heat waves are continuing. And now there are wildfires. Scores are burning across the West, but one in particular stands out. It’s the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon, and not only is it the largest fire so far this year (600 square miles and counting), it is behaving in extreme ways that have fire scientists intrigued and firefighters flummoxed.
It’s spawning huge clouds that reach high in the atmosphere and on at least one occasion produced lightning strikes. It’s so big, it’s forcing winds to split apart and go around it. It may have even generated a fire tornado, a horrifyingly large vortex of hot air, flame and smoke with winds strong enough to flatten trees.
What really makes the Bootleg Fire so unusual is not that these kinds of extreme behaviors are occurring. They’ve occurred in other fires before. But they usually last a day or two before things return to normal (or to about as normal as a wildfire can be). But with the Bootleg, the extreme events have been going on for close to two weeks. Firefighters have had to retreat from positions many times as the fire has roared over firebreaks. They’ve had enough already, and are hoping the fire settles down so they can finally bring it under control.
Quotable: “Normally the weather predicts what the fire will do,” said Marcus Kauffman, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry. “In this case, the fire is predicting what the weather will do.”
Related: Wildfires are intensifying. Here’s why, and what can be done to protect your home.
How smoke spread across a continent
More than 80 large fires are currently burning across 13 American states, with many more across Canada, and the effects are being felt thousands of miles from the flames. Air quality was in the unhealthy range across much of the East Coast on Wednesday morning, and the haze was pushing southward toward Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
We built an interactive map, based on modeling from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that shows how smoke from fires traveled across North America to reach the East Coast. You can see it here.
Fire, drought and heat scorch the land of reds and whites
Last month, I flew to Northern California for what I thought was going to be a straightforward assignment about wineries that can’t get insurance because of the risk they face from wildfires. It turned out, the story was about more than just wine.
What I found was a warning about how hard it will be for American agriculture to hold out against global warming.
In Napa Valley, climate change is already wiping out vintages from winemakers who produce some of the country’s finest cabernet sauvignons, zinfandels and other reds. Drought means less water to irrigate, even as hotter temperatures make irrigation more important.
Those grapes that survive can be ruined by smoke from wildfires, which destroyed much of last year’s crop. And making everything even harder, those same wildfires are now preventing wineries from getting insurance.
In response, as I wrote this week, the winemakers I spent time with are trying everything they can, from spraying a type of sunscreen on vines and grapes to filling empty reservoirs with recycled wastewater. But the valley, once a showcase for the best of American agriculture, increasingly demonstrates the limits of adapting to a warming world.
When it comes to climate change, we often focus on what we could lose down the road. But what about places and things that are disappearing right now?
In their new book released this week, “The Atlas of Disappearing Places,” Christina Conklin, an artist and writer, and Marina Psaros, a sustainability expert, combine science, maps and stories to illustrate how 20 coastal locations and experiences — like corals in Kenya and lobster fishing in Maine — are changing with the climate.
We talked with Ms. Psaros about the book. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Why create an atlas, rather than a more typical climate book?
I’ve worked in public engagement around climate change science and policy for a long time. And what I’ve seen is that people get really turned off if they’re frightened, or if they feel hopeless. So thinking about it from an atlas perspective, using art and storytelling to talk about the science and policy, was a way to hopefully make the issue more accessible to a broader range of people.
Q. Why did you focus on the coastal areas?
The health of our oceans is really going to determine the health of our planet. Marine organisms made our atmosphere the hospitable place it is through millions of years of photosynthesis, and those tiny life-forms continue to provide half of the oxygen that we land dwellers use. So, we are literally dependent on the ocean for the breath we take.
Q. Your book is both scary and hopeful. Why is it important to strike that balance when discussing climate change?
There is a lot that can be done, and there is a lot that can be saved. And so, helping people move through the sort of shock and awe back to the wonder and the opportunities that there are, I think it helps people grapple with what’s happening and stay engaged for the future.
Q. What do you hope readers will feel or do after finishing your book?
Maybe grieve, because that is something we’ll have to do. We are losing species and places and ecosystems and people. There is loss, and there will be trade-offs. But it is not about shutting down. It’s about doing that grieving, and then seeing what there is to save and how we save it.
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