Extreme Weather and Climate UpdatesJuly 23, 2021Updated
July 23, 2021, 2:45 p.m. ETJuly 23, 2021, 2:45 p.m. ET
This summer has already produced record-high temperatures across the United States that have caused hundreds of heat-related deaths, and the forecast for next week suggests there will be few places to find relief.
The hot weather recently blanketing the Montana area — Billings has already had 12 days above 95 degrees this month — will head east throughout the Northern and Central Plains over the next few days, the National Weather Service said.
And by next week the Great Plains and Midwest — along with parts of the East — will have highs that are 10 to 15 degrees above average, according to Weather Service projections. That heat, combined with high humidity, could make it feel like temperatures have reached the 100s in some areas.
That extreme heat will be the result of a “heat dome” like the one that oppressed the Pacific Northwest earlier this summer. As the ground warms, it loses moisture, which makes it easier to heat even more. As that trapped heat continues to warm, the system acts like a lid on a pot of boiling water.
In the drought-ridden West, there was plenty of heat for the high-pressure system to trap, leading to triple-digit temperatures in late June and early July that killed hundreds of people in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
The deadly weather event would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers. Last year was the warmest on record, and the last seven years have been the warmest in recorded history, making extreme summer heat more frequent.
In addition to the heat this summer, more than 80 large wildfires are burning across 13 states, most of them in the West, and parts of Canada. The smoke from the blazes covered skies in a thick haze this week and set off air quality alerts from Toronto to Philadelphia.
BLY, Ore. — A lightning strike on a brittle-dry Oregon mountain slope set off a blaze that has grown larger than the city of Los Angeles, revealing the challenges of curbing small blazes that can explode into colossal wildfires.
The Bootleg Fire, named for a nearby creek, has raged in a way distinguishing it from dozens of other wildfires in a devastating summer: For the better part of two weeks it burned in erratic and extreme ways that in most fires last only a day or two. Flames tore on and on through whole stands of trees. High winds sent embers long distances, sparking new fires. The Bootleg Fire grew to more than 600 square miles and sent smoke and haze across the country.
For more than 2,300 firefighters from at least 30 states, the blaze has been a vexing challenge. Winds gusting through a vast tinderbox of undergrowth made the fire balloon in size and merge with a smaller blaze.
“It’s hard and dirty work,” said John Carlson, a firefighter sent to battle the blaze by the Tulalip Bay Fire Department in Washington State. “Especially in heavy timber mixed with the dry swirling winds.”
The fire has destroyed at least 67 homes and 117 smaller structures like sheds and garages. Two firefighters have been injured. No civilian injuries or deaths have been reported, but the fire threatens thousands of residences.
Experts said several factors were contributing to the fire’s extreme behavior and its immensity. Global warming has caused soils and vegetation to dry more, making wildfires spread more easily. A harsh heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, coupled with a monthslong severe drought, made the Ponderosa pines and other vegetation even more ready to burn.
Beyond the heat and dryness, experts say decades of forest-management policies are partly to blame for the Bootleg Fire and many other large blazes. Under aggressive fire-suppression policies, every fire, no matter how small, is extinguished. But fire ecologists say it is better to allow some smaller fires to simply burn, or to conduct controlled burns, to consume the underbrush that ends up feeding much larger blazes.
“All of this has created a recipe for catastrophic fire,” said James Johnston, a researcher with Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. “We’ve been baking this cake for some time.”
Dozens of wildfires are actively burning across the Western United States, charring large swaths of land in recent days, according to a New York Times analysis of government and satellite data. Some are threatening thousands of people who live and work just a few miles away.
As the fire season gets underway, The Times built an interactive map to track the latest wildfires as they spread across Western states. Check back regularly for updates.
Monsoon season in the Southwestern United States is providing relief to parts of the region that are desperate for any kind of precipitation, but life-threatening flash floods and lightning are also part of the deal.
On Thursday night, a downpour in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz., brought heavy rain, lightning and National Weather Service cellphone alerts of “a dangerous and life-threatening situation.” Cameras for the state’s Department of Transportation showed cars being washed off Interstate 17.
Like much of the West, Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas are battling a yearlong drought. Monsoon season generally starts in those places in June and runs through September.
Last year, though, the monsoon didn’t bring much rain. But this year has already seen a dramatic difference — a 200 percent increase in precipitation over the last two months in parts of the Southwest.
“Too much of anything is always a bad thing,” said Dave Lawrence, a National Weather Service meteorologist who covers the Western United States.
With heavy thunderstorms in the forecast through the weekend, flash flood watches were issued Thursday, lasting through Saturday, for central and eastern Arizona, as well as western New Mexico and southwest Colorado — where last week a torrent of water surged through parts of the Grand Canyon, leaving one camper dead.
“We’re most concerned about areas that have been burned by wildfires this year,” said Mark O’ Malley, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s branch in Phoenix. “Those areas will be particularly susceptible to flash flooding from the heavy rainfall.”
But despite the risks, meteorologists said the Southwest’s wet season still presents a welcome return to normalcy, particularly as the West battles a punishingly dry summer.
“The monsoon season looks more normal,” Mr. Lawrence said. “If there is such a thing as normal for weather — which there isn’t.”
Thunderstorms that the National Weather Service deems “destructive” will trigger an emergency alert on smartphones as part of the agency’s efforts to get people to protect themselves during severe weather, the agency said on Thursday.
The Weather Service sends mobile alerts about hurricanes, tornadoes and other conditions, and, starting next month, it plans to add destructive thunderstorms to that list.
A “destructive” severe thunderstorm, according to the agency, is one that has baseball-size hail or winds of at least 80 miles per hour. These storms can rip shingles off a roof or send branches crashing onto homes, said Greg Schoor, a severe weather program manager at the National Weather Service in Oklahoma.
The agency’s local offices can triangulate all the cellphones in an area and send an alert when forecasters see that a dangerous storm is on the way. The alerts often come without much lead time.
Mr. Schoor said the agency chose to tag these storms as “destructive” because the word is frequently used in storm reports. The agency already has different tags to classify tornadoes and flash floods.
The agency hopes the “destructive” tag will make people realize that they should take measures to protect themselves. The mobile alerts will include Spanish translations and will advise people to take shelter or avoid certain areas.
Severe thunderstorms can result in a range of hazards, including tornadoes, floods and derechoes, which are lines of severe thunderstorms that can move rapidly across the landscape.
A powerful derecho ripped through the Midwest in August, bringing with it 100-m.p.h. winds and widespread power outages.
Thirteen of the 22 costliest weather disasters last year were severe storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The other disasters include last year’s wildfires in the West and the heat wave that swept the western half of the country.
Extreme weather across Europe, North America and Asia is highlighting a harsh reality of science and history: The world as a whole is neither prepared to slow down climate change nor live with it.
European officials are trying to change that. The European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, recently introduced ambitious legislation aimed at sharply cutting emissions to slow down climate change within the next decade, specifically by weaning one of the world’s biggest and most polluting economies off fossil fuels. But can it generate the political will to see it through?
On today’s episode of “The Daily” podcast, Somini Sengupta, a New York Times climate reporter, discusses the prospects for Europe’s plan.
Washington State health officials have urged consumers not to eat locally harvested raw oysters and other shellfish after an outbreak of intestinal disease caused by bacteria that multiplied rapidly after a recent “heat dome” baked the Pacific Northwest.
State health officials said that recent high temperatures and low tides were most likely to blame for the outbreak of the disease, vibriosis, which has sickened at least 52 people this month, the most ever recorded in July.
The disease — which usually lasts between four hours and four days and causes diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills — is associated with eating raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters that are contaminated with vibrio, a bacteria that is found naturally in coastal waters.
In low numbers, the bacteria do not pose any threat to people who eat shellfish. But the bacteria multiply quickly in warm conditions, so oysters are more likely to be contaminated in hot summer months when many like to savor the briny delicacy with a chilled glass of wine.
Late last month, a “heat dome” enveloped the Pacific Northwest, shattering records across the region. Seattle broke a record on June 28 for the highest temperature ever recorded by the National Weather Service there: 108 degrees. The previous high of 105 degrees had been set in July 2009.
An unusually wet spring and early summer across much of the Southeastern United States has soaked the ground and swollen rivers, leading to an increase in flash floods from heavy rains and thunderstorms.
Cities across the Southeast, including Atlanta, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., and Biloxi, Miss., have recorded more than 150 percent of their normal rainfall for this time in the summer, according to the private forecasting service AccuWeather.
Storms are expected to bring more rain to parts of Georgia and the Carolinas over the weekend and early next week. Chrissy Anderson, a National Weather Service meteorologist who covers the Southern region, said a low-pressure system over southern Georgia is expected to make its way to the Atlantic Ocean on Friday, where there is a 30 percent chance it could become a tropical storm over the next few days.
“If anything develops, it will be very weak and disorganized,” Ms. Anderson said.
The Atlantic hurricane season has seen a lull since Tropical Storm Elsa cut across Cuba and moved up the Gulf Coast of Florida and into the Northeastern United States two weeks ago, flooding roads and subway stations in the New York region and beyond.
But forecasts do not expect that lull to continue. Hurricane season typically sees an uptick in late summer and early fall, when ocean temperatures are at their warmest. Last year saw a record 30 named storms in the Atlantic, including 14 hurricanes and seven major hurricanes. This year’s official outlook calls for an above-normal season, in the range of 13 to 20 named storms and six to 10 hurricanes.
Although the impact of climate change on any individual storm is difficult to determine, the United States and other parts of the world have seen an increase in heavy rain and flooding as temperatures rise. One basic reason is that warmer air holds more moisture. And the frequency of extreme downpours is likely to increase as global warming continues.
Terrified passengers trapped in flooded subway cars in Zhengzhou, China. Water cascading down stairways into the London Underground. A woman wading through murky, waist-deep water to reach a New York City subway platform.
Subway systems around the world are struggling to adapt to an era of extreme weather brought on by climate change. Their designs, many based on the expectations of another era, are being overwhelmed, and investment in upgrades could be squeezed by a drop in ridership brought on by the pandemic.
“It’s scary,” said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. “The challenge is, how can we get ready for the next storm, which was supposed to be 100 years away,” she said, “but could happen tomorrow?”
Public transportation plays a critical role in reducing travel by car in big cities, thus reining in the emissions from automobiles that contribute to global warming. If commuters become spooked by images of inundated stations and start shunning subways for private cars, transportation experts say it could have major implications for urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
Some networks, such as London’s or New York’s, were designed and built starting more than a century ago. While a few, like Tokyo’s, have managed to shore up their flooding defenses, the crisis in China this week shows that even some of the world’s newest systems (Zhengzhou’s system isn’t even a decade old) can also be overwhelmed.
Retrofitting subways against flooding is “an enormous undertaking,” said Robert Puentes, chief executive of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank with a focus on improving transportation policy. “But when you compare it to the cost of doing nothing, it starts to make much more sense,” he said. “The cost of doing nothing is much more expensive.”
Dr. Maria Raven, chief of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, offers some tips for staying safe if you are going to go outside in the heat.
Give yourself time to acclimate: Dr. Raven said it takes a week or two to get used to extreme heat. Increase the amount of time you spend outdoors each day gradually, if you can, by about 20 percent.
Go outside in the morning or evening: Even a five- or 10-degree temperature drop can make a big difference.
Know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke: If you’ve got heat exhaustion, you’ll be sweating profusely, and you may feel a little nauseated. Your skin may be red and hot to the touch, as if you have a fever. If your body approaches heat stroke, which is severe enough to require medical attention, you will stop sweating, and your core temperature will elevate quickly.
Know what to do if you’re suffering from heat-related illness: The top priority, Dr. Raven said, is to hydrate. Drink water. You can also use ice packs (in the groin or armpits) and sit near a fan if possible.
Don’t push yourself, or anyone else, past comfort: “It can be a badge of honor to go and work out when it’s really hot, but it’s not worth it,” Dr. Raven said. That includes student athletes and employers. It’s crucial to give everyone who is outside in the heat time to rest and drink water.