[SUSTAINABILITY & ETHICS] Extreme weather intensifies, bolstering the need for environmental policy


Over a dozen homes were lost, and officials closed the wilderness. The Greenwood Fires in the Boundary Waters was a constant item of stress through the summer for many. Houses and other buildings were lost, the environment suffered, and the air quality curtailed for hundreds of miles.

The summer of 2021 serves as an example of the long-term impacts climate change has on Americans’ day-to-day lives. One of every three Americans lived in a county hit by a weather disaster throughout June, July, and August. While not considered a disaster, heatwaves are the most dangerous example of extreme weather and affected 64% of all Americans. During those same three months, 388 people in the U.S. died because of hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, and wildfires, demonstrating the deadliness of climate change.
As more greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere, and the temperatures rise, more moisture evaporates from the ground, drying the soil. Snowpacks now melt approximately a month earlier than historically documented, so forests remain drier for longer. While campfires and discarding lit cigarettes are two of the most common igniters of wildfires, they are fueled by dry ground and plants. In the last few decades, trends have shown that the average wildfire season is about 3.5 months longer; there are three times as many large fires each year in the west, burning twice as many acres.
According to the US Forest Service, the Greenwood fire in Superior National Forest was started by lightning and burned over 25,000 acres. This wildfire was fueled by the summer-long drought the area experienced, another example of a continuing trend caused by climate change. Dry soil due to warming temperatures and decreased plant cover suppress rainfall, further provide the perfect scenario for wildfires.
The planet is trapping twice as much heat as 15 years ago and has warmed by approximately 1.1°C. As the average temperature of the earth warms, the water temperatures of oceans also warm. The ocean absorbs 90% of the planet’s excess heat trapped by greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. As the earth warms and ocean temperatures rise, storms get stronger. Hurricane Ida cut off power to over a million people and destroyed many homes, and was fueled by warmer-than-normal water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. A United Nations report found that Category 3-5 hurricanes have increased globally in the last 40 years. Every degree that the planet’s average temperature increases, extreme rain events intensify by 7%. Before landing, Hurricane Ida experienced rapid intensification and its sustained winds increased by 65 mph in 24 hours. Rapid intensification is historically a rare occurrence and is defined by the increase of 35 mph in 24 hours or less and can only happen if ocean water is warmer than usual deep below the surface. Hurricane Ida’s rapid intensification that well exceeds its definition demonstrates a trend of historically rare occurrences happening more frequently due to the rise in the planet’s temperature. Hurricane Ida also had a storm surge, which is flooding occurs because hurricane winds push ocean water over land and cause half the deaths from tropical storms. Hurricane Ida’s storm surge caused the Mississippi River near New Orleans to rise seven feet and change direction, another extremely rare event. Hurricane Ida serves as an example of the trend of extreme weather events happening more frequently, and more concerningly to scientists is the trend of the extreme weather events being stronger and more dangerous.
President Biden has pledged to put policies in place that fight against climate change, but Democrats’ plans are currently in danger. The $3.5 trillion budget plan that includes many policies that would decrease America’s greenhouse gas emissions was paused when Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., called on Congress to halt the initiative due to its amount. While it would be the largest package in U.S. history, the plan would grow Medicare, aid low-income families, and combat climate change.