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Visualizing a Year of Extreme Weather

The United States has seen thousands of weather records broken this year

A map of extreme weather events in the United States, January to October 2011 (credit: NRDC)

The United States may not have seen anything like Hurricane Katrina this year, but it’s been a bad year for extreme weather events nonetheless. High heat, drought and wildfires in Texas. Flooding in the Midwest and Northeast. Deadly tornadoes. The Natural Resources Defense Council found nearly 3,000 broken weather records throughout the United States, and that count went only through the end of October. A map compiling the locations of these events is above; an interactive version that lets you visualize the events through time can be found on the NRDC website.

Scientists are reluctant to say any specific weather event is the result of climate change (weather and climate are, after all, not interchangeable). But they do largely agree that extreme weather events, such as the ones we’ve seen this year, will become more and more common because of climate change.

And those events come with a price. NRDC provided an estimate of $53 billion associated with the events in the group’s tally–if climate change contributed even a fraction to these events, we’re looking at potentially billions of dollars lost. And a country climbing out of a recession could surely use that money elsewhere.

What will humankind do about this? Well, 15,000 delegates are currently meeting in Durban, South Africa, to discuss just that, but little is expected to come out of the meeting. Christie Aschwanden at The Last Word on Nothing thinks part of the reason for current inaction is how we look at the whole situation:

The problem can seem insurmountable, and it’s possible that it is—not because there is no solution, but because we are incapable of choosing it. There’s a one-word solution to the climate (and energy) problem staring us in the face—restraint. Simply consuming less. It’s too late to talk about carbon emissions. With a population catapulting toward nine billion or more, it’s time to focus on carbon omissions.

Restraint is not the easy, no-need-to-change-a-thing solution that people keep pretending we will find. But it’s a reality-based solution that will happen whether we want it to or not. We can plan for it and make the hard choices ourselves, or we can wait for them to be forced upon us. Using less doesn’t necessarily mean lowering our quality of life, it means redefining how we measure our wellbeing.

I’m not sure “restraint” will be any easier of a message to sell to a global population, and particularly a U.S. population, than “reducing carbon emissions,” but it’s an interesting way to look at the problem. If the old ideas aren’t working, we need new ones.

So here’s the challenge: How should we go about addressing climate change? Are global agreements worth the time, energy and carbon emissions it takes to make them? Do small changes made in your own home make any difference? If you were in charge, what would you do? I’m really hoping that one of you has a good answer (tell us in the comments below), because these extreme weather events are taking a toll and humans need to do something to prevent the worst from happening.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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