The 12-month period from August 2011 to July 2012 was the hottest ever recorded for the U.S. So far this year, more than 27,000 high temperature records have been broken or tied — beating cold temperature records by 10 to 1. All the while, the U.S. has faced a barrage of record-breaking wildfires, powerful storms, and an historic drought that covers the majority of the country.
“You look out the window and you see climate change in action,” said Kevin Trenberth, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in an interview this summer. Below are some ways that these extremes have manifested themselves around the country.
MARION, Ohio — Driving down the long, flat road in rural Ohio, I can see a grey mist rising above the soybean fields from three miles away.
But I know it’s not mist, it’s smoke.
I pull up to the field and get out of the car, sucking in the acrid smoke rising from the ground. It smells like burning plastic. Most of the vegetation has burned away and the ground is sinking in on itself. Black, cratered, and smoldering, the field looks like someone had just peppered it with heavy artillery.
A fire truck pulls up behind my vehicle and three men get out.
“What do you think about all of this?” asks Clint Canterbury, chief of the First Consolidated Fire District.
“What do you think about all of this?” I respond.
“I know it’s causing us a lot of headaches,” says Canterbury.
We are standing on the edge of a 15-acre underground fire that Canterbury’s team of firefighters hasn’t been able to extinguish. The field, which borders a 200-acre soybean farm, sits on top of a deep deposit of spongy peat, also known as “muskego muck.”
In late May, as temperatures rose into the 90’s – nearing record highs for the region at that time of year – Canterbury’s department got a call about a field fire. But after trying to put it out, they soon realized the fire was spreading underground, “burning layers off, sinking down, burning more layers, and causing new spots to pop up,” says Canterbury.
The lack of snow over the winter combined with the spring and summer heat waves dried out the muck, making it susceptible to burning. And when the local fire department found no evidence of a man-made fire, they concluded that it was spontaneous combustion.
“I’ve talked to a lot of old farmers and they say ‘we’ve never seen anything like this before,’” says Canterbury.
As summer unfolded, temperatures continued to rise, and little rain came, the problem just got worse. The fire is now burning five feet below ground at temperatures of up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, feeding the dried sediment and sending a constant stream of acrid smoke into the air, day and night.
According to Canterbury, a boy across the street with asthma has had breathing problems because of the smoke.
“The smoke just lingers here. You can see it for miles and miles. We believe this could go on well into the winter — and if we don’t get much snow like last year, this could likely burn for years,” he says.
OTTUMWA, Iowa — Mark Flammang, a fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, sits on the banks of the Des Moines River, surveying the water.
To his left, the low water levels have exposed large patches of sand. To his right, a hydropower facility sits idle, allowing only the minimum flow to pass through the dam. The temperatures are in the mid-90′s, a welcome change to the long period of 100-plus days in July that caused the river to overheat.
At one point in July — even with water levels four times higher than current levels — the temperature of the Des Moines River climbed to 97 degrees. And that created conditions for one of the biggest and longest fish kills in Iowa’s history.
“It was literally tens of thousands of fish. The kill started and it went on and on and on,” says Flammang. “We were following dead fish for well over a week.”
When it was over, approximately 37,000 shovelnose sturgeon and 12,000 channel catfish turned up dead, resulting in estimated economic losses of $10 million.