Extreme weather conditions wreak havoc around the world as climate change hits

Torrents of brown, murky water gushed out in front of the train window, flowing quickly into the subway tunnel. Inside, passengers stood above the seats, holding their phones above their heads as the muddy tide rose above their chests. Some are breathless. Others have sent desperate final messages to family members, telling them their bank card code and saying goodbye.

“The water outside has already reached this level,” said a frightened woman, reaching out for the door of the subway car in a video that quickly spread online. “My phone is almost dead. I don’t know if this is my last WeChat message.

The woman, one of some 500 people trapped in a subway during catastrophic flooding Tuesday night in Zhengzhou, China’s Henan Province, is believed to have survived. A dozen people did not.

Scenes of desperation and devastation in Zhengzhou added to a portfolio of disasters this year that raised the specter of irreversible climate change like never before and offered a glimpse of what it means to live on a warming planet where the human survival becomes more difficult.

This summer’s extreme weather conditions flattened picturesque rural communities in Germany with floodwaters, triggered deadly mudslides in India and sparked heat waves and fires visible from space in the western United States. United and Canada. The floods also caused damage in parts of New Zealand, Nigeria and Iran.

Scientists have been warning for years that rising temperatures will make dry conditions for forest fires more common in some parts of the world and, in other places, trap more moisture in the atmosphere, leading to more rainfall. during storms.

This could lead to more volatile events like the downpour over London on July 12, when around a month of rain fell over parts of the British capital, causing flash floods that crippled some streets and forced its partial closure. underground rail system.

It could also inflict more unprecedented heat waves like those experienced this month in the Pacific Northwest, where hundreds of people are believed to have died from extreme temperatures, and in Russian Siberia, where nearly 200 fires in Distinct forests have suffocated the region in smoke that has since drifted into Alaska.

“This was all predicted by climate science decades ago,” said John P. Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “We just had to wait for the real emergence in the last 15 to 20 years. Everything we worried about is happening, and everything is happening at the high end of the projections, even faster than previous more pessimistic estimates. “

Scientists and environmental activists are in a race to persuade the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Failure to do so could lead to massive disruption such as famine and widespread coastal flooding. Time is running out: Global temperatures have already risen by an average of 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1880.

Last week, the European Union proposed sweeping legislation to cut emissions to more than half of 1990 levels by 2030 through phasing out gasoline and diesel cars and imposing duties customs duties on imports from polluting countries. The plan poses formidable challenges for the bloc of 27 countries, including trade tensions and a political backlash from climate change deniers.

Scientists say global warming has almost certainly exacerbated the conditions of the floods that ravaged Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands last week, killing at least 180 people. Parts of Western Europe have been battered by two months of rainfall in two days, bringing overflowing rivers and torrents of flood waters that toppled centuries-old buildings and saturated farmland that collapsed into giant sinkholes. of clay.

“The German language barely has words to describe the devastation that has been caused,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a press conference after surveying the region on Sunday.

Rains also flooded Luxembourg, France, Switzerland and Austria, where parts of the historic city of Salzburg were submerged.

Further north, Finland is recovering from its hottest June on record – reflecting unusually warm conditions in North America that paved the way for the destruction of entire communities by fire, like Lytton in B.C., in Canada, where temperatures have exceeded 120 degrees.

Scientists at the United Nations World Meteorological Organization have said it is virtually impossible for heat waves in the United States and Canada to have occurred without the influence of man-made climate change. They calculated that the rise in temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions made the heat wave at least 150 times more likely to occur.

California is already on track for a record wildfire year, and Oregon has been besieged by heat, drought and the nation’s largest fire, the 360,000-acre Bootleg Fire, which creates huge clouds of smoke and ash that can be seen from space and brought haze to the east coast sky.

The impact is felt most acutely by people who have lived off the land for generations.

Don Gentry, president of the Klamath tribe in southern Oregon, said the pine stands he relied on for firewood are dead or dying and the swamps are drying up. This changes the tribe’s relationship with the land over which they have treaty rights to hunt, fish, trap, camp, and conduct spiritual activities. This is where Gentry grew up hunting deer and elk with his father, and later with his son.

“The availability of water is essential for the forests here,” said Gentry. “We are seeing it: the loss of forest health and the risk of extreme fire. This year, it’s just unprecedented dry conditions, and that’s why you have a fire of almost 400,000 acres.

About half of the tribe’s 5,600 members live among the towering pines of Klamath County. Many feel a sense of loss, said Gentry.

“It doesn’t even look like [how] it was. We lost the old ponderosa pine, ”he said. “We are so tied to the land that it is going to be devastating for our people. “

As Gentry longs for rain, Zhengzhou’s more than 5 million residents desperately want the clouds to go away.

At least 25 people have died in flooding caused by record rains that shocked the country. Local news and social media users in Henan Province posted dozens of images and videos online of cars floating in flood waters like apples, painful rescues in fast torrents, and pale victims and drenched floods collapsed on the floors of metro stations.

More than 20 inches of rain hit Zhengzhou in an hour on Tuesday afternoon, according to the Henan Weather Agency, and more than 23 inches of rain from July 17 to 20. That amounted to a year of rain hitting Zhengzhou in just three days, according to a video posted on the agency’s Weibo page. It was a “thousand year storm,” said the host of the video.

Chinese authorities did not mention climate change as a factor in the flood. They also did not establish a link between last year’s flooding in southern China and climate change. But an increase in episodes of extreme heat and precipitation has alarmed scientists.

Last week, Greenpeace East Asia released a report analyze the climate risks associated with extreme heat and precipitation in urban areas around Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. He revealed that dense city centers were most at risk. Extreme heat and extreme rains have increased in all of these urban areas over the past 60 years, according to the report, although the overall picture of rainfall has fluctuated between periods of heavy rains and drought.

Beijing is warming the fastest, according to the report, with an increase of 0.32 degrees Celsius every 10 years. Shanghai is experiencing the fastest rise in heat waves. According to Greenpeace, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have experienced 98 heat waves since 1961, 73 of them in the past 23 years.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced from the low areas of Zhengzhou. Many flood victims were still stranded and posting requests for help or wanted notices for missing family members on Wednesday due to power outages and poor phone connection.

One of China’s main initiatives to tackle extreme rains and flooding in recent years has been the “sponge city”Strategy – reduce the amount of concrete in cities and restore natural banks and green spaces that can better absorb sudden precipitation. Zhengzhou is a pilot “sponge city”.

In 2018, the city government pledged to spend $ 8.2 billion by 2020 on “sponge” construction. In June, state media reported that Zhengzhou had eliminated more than 75% of the city’s flood spots. But experts said this week’s rainfall was so intense that the city’s sponge capacity was overwhelmed.

“It’s like a small sponge: if you pour a bowl of water, it can be absorbed. But if you pour a whole bucket, it can’t, ”Zuo Qiting, a professor at the School of Water Science and Engineering at Zhengzhou University, told China Science News. “A [rainfall] level of once every few years can be treated. But not anything beyond this level.

Pierson reported from Singapore, Su from Beijing and Hennessy-Fiske from Bly, Oregon. Laura King contributed from Washington.

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