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Extreme weather disasters are on the rise – and it’s no coincidence

Hurricane Ian originated from a tropical wave that moved off the coast of western Africa and across the central tropical Atlantic towards the Windward Islands. The wave moved into the Caribbean Sea on September 21 bringing heavy rain and gusty winds to Trinidad and Tobago, the ABC islands, and the northern coast of South America. It became a tropical depression on the morning of September 23 and strengthened into Tropical Storm Ian early the next day while it was southeast of Jamaica. Rapidly intensifying into a high-end Category 3 hurricane within 24 hours Ian made landfall in western Cuba.

In Focus Image

Gabrielle CanonIn Focus Image

In a historic and deadly storm surge, the system known as Hurricane Ian wreaked havoc in Cuba and along the south-east coast of the United States last September, as strong winds and rising waters turned communities into piles of debris.

Across the US, large bathtub rings encircling major reservoirs still tell the story of the American west’s catastrophic drought, believed by scientists to be the worst in more than 1,000 years. Elsewhere, across millions of acres, spiny skeleton trees pierce ashen air over once-lush mountainsides, the aftermath of ferocious wildfires that left little in their wake.

Disasters are on the rise – and it’s no coincidence. They are connected, oftentimes caused by two sides of the same hydrological coin. Compounding extreme events are testing humanity’s resilience and capacity to respond and adapt, layering both chaos and catastrophe. Climate scientists have cautioned that this is just a taste of what’s to come as the world warms.

My name is Gabrielle Canon and I am the Guardian’s new extreme weather correspondent. Based in California, I focus on the American west, telling stories that highlight the human and environmental toll of the climate crisis that is already unfolding. Extreme weather events here are nothing new, but they are growing more intense, more frequent, and more disastrous, fuelled by the rising global temperature.

An escalation in events like forest fires, drought, and last week‘s storm are “all extremely consistent with our baseline well-understood expectations of climate change”, Dr Karen McKinnon, a climate scientist and professor at University of California, Los Angeles tells me. As the atmosphere warms, she explains, it holds on to more moisture. It sucks the moisture out of dry landscapes and sets the stage for stronger storms. The drought spurs more disastrous wildfires and, when and where the coin flips, the floods begin.

The most basic influence of us putting more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is temperatures warming,” McKinnon says. “We can pretty confidently say going forward that these types of events are just going to be more likely because temperatures keep going up and up.”

Steve Ostoja, director of the USDA California Climate Hub, puts it more starkly: “It’s just kind of like the analogy of the frog in the slow-to-boil pot of water.”

Scientists are also learning about how the events can influence one another, escalating the intensity. Even if we put our thirsty atmosphere aside, heat bakes more moisture out of environments just as people, animals and ecosystems require more to adjust to the conditions. But drought, too, increases heat: water cools, and with less of it, landscapes cook. Parched plants are then primed to burn – and when these conditions align, ignitions are more likely to turn into infernos.

Compounding catastrophes, or the layering of disasters like drought, floods and fires that overlap, are already testing the capacity of the United States’s resilience and straining resources. As they become more likely, agencies are struggling to keep pace.

The field of emergency management is at a pivotal moment in its history,” Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) administrator Deanne Criswell said during a hearing of the House of Representatives’s homeland security subcommittee on emergency preparedness, response and recovery. The agency is managing more than triple the amount of disasters this year as it did a decade ago.

Last year, the US spent an alarming $145bn on natural disasters – the third highest amount on record – and grappled with 20 extreme events that cost more than $1bn each, close to triple the average since 1980. Fema is already bracing for an escalation in need this year and for the ones that follow, requesting $19.7bn for its 2023 disaster relief fund.

Yet, still, the weather whiplash that causes extreme events is only going to increase as the world warms.

“It is going to continue to get hotter,” said Andrew Hoell, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s physical sciences laboratory, noting that rising temperatures are unequivocally linked to human activities. “That is going to be a gamechanger in terms of how we live.”

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