Fire Tornadoes and Inland Hurricanes: Extreme Weather Linked to Pollution Is on the Rise

California Wildfires

In this Aug. 13, 2020, file photo, a burned vehicle is seen in the Lake Hughes Fire in Angeles National Forest on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, north of Santa Clarita, Calif. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, File)

By Keya Vakil

August 18, 2020

The number of extreme weather incidents and weather-driven natural disasters is increasing; meanwhile, the Trump administration continues rolling back environmental protections. 

The arctic is burning, much of Iowa was wiped out by powerful wind storms, and California witnessed wildfires, fire tornadoes, and record-setting heat over the weekend. Over the span of mere days, Americans were reminded of the urgent and uncomfortable truth that climate change isn’t coming, it’s already here, and so are the devastating consequences.

In Iowa, it’s been one week since the state was hit by a powerful derecho, a series of fast-moving windstorms that swept hurricane-level winds across much of the state, killing at least three people, destroying entire communities, and leaving hundreds of thousands of Iowans without power, or worse, without homes. 

The images, videos, and stories coming out of the state have been devastating, yet it took until Sunday for the state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, to officially request a federal disaster declaration. Although President Donald Trump approved the request on Monday, freeing up federal funds for recovery efforts, nearly 50,000 Iowans remain without power a week after the inland hurricane hit. 

While scientists have yet to conclusively prove that derechos specifically are linked to climate change—or the warming of the earth’s planet due to greenhouse gas pollution—they have found connections between extreme weather incidents and climate change.

This warming, which has resulted in a drier, hotter world, has increased the risk of wildfires. In California, much of the state is experiencing a heatwave and wildfires are spreading across the state, in one case causing a series of fire tornadoes that look as alarming as you would imagine. 

These recent cases of extreme weather-driven environmental disasters are nothing new. Research has shown that the number of weather-related disasters is increasing, especially in the United States. From 2016 to 2018, there were an average of 15 billion-dollar disaster events such as wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes in the U.S., while the average from 1980-2018 cumulatively was only 6.2 events per year. 

This increase is at least in part due to climate change, according to Adam B. Smith, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Climate change is also paying a role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters—most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western states, and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall becoming more common in the eastern states,” he wrote in a 2019 report. “Each of these changes in extremes are becoming more visible in relation to the influence of climate change.”

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California is no stranger to these events and neither is Iowa. When it was hit by the derecho, the state was still recovering from the devastation it suffered as a result of massive floods in 2019.

Much of the U.S. has experienced natural disasters in recent years. Hurricane Michael hammered Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas in 2018, causing 59 deaths and more than $25 billion in damage. Hurricane Harvey caused a similar level of damage in Texas and Louisiana in 2017, while Puerto Rico is still recovering from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria, which killed more than 3,000 people that same fall. 

Extreme weather doesn’t have to cause a natural disaster to pose a threat to humans, either. While wildfires tore through parts of California, temperatures reached a hard-to-believe 130 degrees in Death Valley on Sunday, which could be the hottest temperature ever recorded anywhere across the planet, once officially verified. 

Arizona has also experienced deadly heat waves this summer, with Phoenix recording its hottest-ever month in July, when the average daily high reached nearly 110 degrees. 

The consequences of such extreme heat have been severe. At least 25 people have died due to the heat in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, and another 222 death cases are under investigation as possible heat-related deaths.

Fire Tornadoes and Inland Hurricanes: Extreme Weather Linked to Pollution Is on the Rise
Sgt. Chris Peterson of Dyersville, Iowa, with the Alpha Co., 224th Brigade Engineer Battalion of the Iowa National Guard uses a chainsaw to cut limbs off a downed tree from a derecho last week, as cleanup continues along 30th St. SE in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP)

These brutal records aren’t an anomaly. In 2019 alone, extreme weather incidents, including record temperatures, rain, and snowfall, set more than 122,000 daily records across the U.S. according to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information. Among the events included in the list were a heat wave that raised temperatures in Alaska to 90 degrees Fahrenheit and a winter storm that brought snow to Hawaii.

Scientists have linked this increase in extreme weather incidents to the deteriorating atmosphere and have warned that the world must drastically reduce its reliance on oil and natural gas—which produce greenhouse gases when they’re burned—in order to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. 

Last month, a team of 25 researchers released a study finding that the current rate of human-driven carbon pollution—due in part to the burning of oil and gas—is increasingly likely to cause irreversible damage to the planet. The study found at least a 95% chance that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would double in the next 50 years, resulting in disruptive sea level rise, intolerable heat waves, more extreme weather, and irreversible damage to the environment. To avoid such a scenario, the world must make huge cuts to the harmful gases we release into the air, the researchers said. 

RELATED: Climate Change Will Make Pandemics More Likely. Here Are 8 Times Trump Denied It Exists.

The Trump administration has repeatedly shrugged off these concerns, with the president denying the reality of climate change, even going so far as to (falsely) call it a “hoax.” Rather than address the growing scourge of climate change, Trump famously withdrew from the Paris Climate agreement—an international effort to reduce human-caused gas pollution—and has instead rolled back one environmental and climate regulation after another

Just last week, the Trump administration announced it would roll back rules limiting the release of methane gases, a major contributor to climate change and overall air quality. Under the change, oil and gas companies will no longer be required to identify and repair methane leaks, saving the industry hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of the planet.

While Trump has rebuffed any efforts to address climate change, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, has released a $2 trillion proposal to aggressively fight climate change and create millions of new jobs by dramatically increasing the use of clean energy in the transportation, electricity, housing, and building sectors, while also ensuring environmental justice.

That proposal has won praise from climate-focused advocacy organizations like the Sunrise Movement and the League of Conservation Voters and comes at a time when more voters than ever (60%) say climate change is a threat to the well-being of the United States, according to a Pew Research Center survey. 

Climate change, Biden said last month, “is the existential threat to humanity, and it is real. It is real. And it is urgent, and the public is becoming aware of it. And it may be the very answer to get us out of this economic situation we’re in.”

Trump, however, remains unbowed. On Monday, the administration continued its anti-environment effort, finalizing plans to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling, an effort that will auction off oil and gas rights, potentially causing more extreme weather-related natural disasters. The plan will allow leasing on the 1.6 million-acre coastal plain located at the center of a largely untouched wilderness home to more than 270 different species. 

On Tuesday, just 24 hours after his administration announced its Alaska drilling efforts, Trump will visit Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to tour the destruction left by last week’s derecho.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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