By Evan Girvetz and Frank Lowenstein
Whether you look globally or locally, the last several months featured heat, heat and more heat. And by looking at weather station records over the past 60 years, researchers led by renowned NASA scientist Jim Hansen show this is part of a new trend toward much warmer summers.
Extremely hot summers — warmer than virtually ever occurred during a base period of 1951–1980 — have occurred across more than 10% of the world’s lands during the past several years. This means that extremely hot temperatures are more than 10 times more likely to occur now than 50 years ago.
And we are simply not prepared for these temperatures!
You have likely felt the intense heat this year, which has broken tens of thousands of heat records across the U.S. Heat like this is deadly: the heat has killed dozens of people across the U.S., including more than 60 heat-related deaths over a two-week period earlier in the summer.
But do you also recall the heat wave in Texas and Oklahoma just last year that killed 100,000 cattle and 500 million trees? The Russian heat wave two years ago that killed 56,000 people? The European heat wave in 2003 that killed an estimated 70,000 people? Hansen’s paper indicates that these events may be climate-change related, and that people throughout the world are now at increased risk from heat-related disasters.
Other impacts of prolonged heat and drought are also a major societal concern. The hot period from March through July contributed to a failed cherry crop in Michigan, and the lowest corn yields in almost two decades, which are likely to cause higher prices and rippling problems for food and energy supplies.
What can we do to protect our health, food and water systems and our economy?
There are things that can be done to prepare, but it takes a combination of good information, local engagement and action, and supportive national policies to help implement innovative solutions that can reduce risks of global warming and climate change to people and communities.
First, local communities and businesses need good information about what types of impacts are likely to occur in specific places. The Nature Conservancy is working with the World Bank to translate future projections of temperature and precipitation into impacts on local extremes of heat, water availability, flood and drought stress, and agricultural productivity. This work will soon be made available via the World Bank’s Climate Knowledge Portal to help inform corporate and government plans for infrastructure, energy provision, disaster preparedness, and other needs. In the meantime, you can learn about general changes in temperature and rainfall in your home region — or anyplace on the globe — by visiting Climate Wizard.
Second, local communities need to be brought together to understand the risks they face and determine how they will prepare and respond to future conditions. The Nature Conservancy has been working with communities throughout the world to prepare for climate risks. We have joined with communities in the Southwest U.S. to understand their risk of wildfire and drought from hot temperatures, and the impacts both have on their water supply.
Third, we need innovative solutions to protect vulnerable communities from these impacts. Nature conservation can provide solutions that help protect people and places at risk and build resilience to rapidly warming temperatures. For example:
- In the Southwestern U.S., thinning of small crowded trees to create a more natural and healthy forest likely saved many homes and buildings from being burned down in Arizona’s largest fire on record in 2011.
- Trees are being planted in cities to help provide shade that cools homes and saves energy.
- And in Chiapas, Mexico, The Nature Conservancy works with local ranchers to plant trees that provide shade for cattle, as well as protect water supplies and the grass they need for forage, during hot and dry conditions.
There is no time to wait to prepare for extreme heat impacts. We are now seeing that 10% of the earth is experiencing extreme heat each year, and this is almost certainly going to increase in the future. It will take a concerted effort to support local communities in preparing and responding to our changing planet. The risks are real and the stakes are high — we can act, but we must do it soon.