Following ‘Snowmageddon’ & Record Summer Heat, New Report Says Global Warming to Bring More Extreme Weather

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Nathan Willcox

Environment America Research & Policy Center

Washington, DC — In a year where record summer heat followed the winter of ‘Snowmageddon,’ Environment America released a new report Wednesday documenting how global warming could lead to extreme weather events becoming even more  common in the future.  The report also highlights the damage caused by recent extreme weather events in the United States, including the snowstorms that paralyzed the Mid-Atlantic region in February, the floods that claimed 30 lives in Tennessee in May, and the 2008 California drought and subsequent wildfires that burned through 1.2 million acres of land.   

“This year alone has offered far too many examples of extreme weather causing extremely big problems,” said Nathan Willcox, Federal Global Warming Program Director for Environment America. “Given that unchecked global warming will likely fuel even more severe weather, we need to start cutting global warming pollution now.”

The new report, Global Warming and Extreme Weather: The Science, the Forecast, and the Impacts on America, details the latest science linking global warming to hurricanes, coastal storms, extreme precipitation, wildfires and heat waves.  The report also summarizes some of the most damaging recent weather events nationally, including 2010’s ‘Snowmageddon,’ 2008’s Hurricane Ike and 2008’s Midwest floods.

The report was released as Congress considers several bills to let polluters off the hook by blocking global warming pollution standards for some of the largest pollution sources. Environment America urged the U.S. Senate to hold polluters accountable, and to reject Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s Dirty Air Act (S. 3072) and any other effort to block the Clean Air Act’s ability to clean up global warming pollution from coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other stationary sources.  Coal-fired power plants are the largest single source of global warming pollution.  

“Letting polluters off the hook after the weather we’ve seen in 2010 would be like giving a thief the key to your house after he just stole your car,” said Willcox.  “The threat of increased extreme weather from global warming is just one of many reasons why we need to hold polluters accountable for their pollution, not let them off the hook.”

Environment America was joined by Maryland Senator Benjamin Cardin in releasing the report.

“Massive amounts of pollution in our air and water are altering weather patterns in ways that threaten our economy, our environment and our security,” said Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, commenting on the release of the report.  Senator Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, added, “We need to defend a strong Clean Air Act now to reduce the likelihood of extreme weather events in the future.”

Among other extreme weather events, the report highlighted the ‘Snowmageddon’ snowstorms that hit the Mid-Atlantic region in early February, 2010.  By the time those storms left Washington, DC, they had dumped 41 inches of snow at Washington-Dulles airport.  Paired with a storm that hit the nation’s capital in December 2009, the winter of 2009-2010 saw Washington, DC receive more than a foot of snow twice, whereas that much snow had previously fallen on the city only 12 times since 1870.

Willcox noted that while no single event can be entirely attributed to global warming, a warming climate is increasing the odds of more extreme weather.  Each weather event arises from a combination of short-term weather patterns and long-term climatic trends, and global warming “loads the dice” for severe weather.

“Today’s report shows how events like ‘Snowmageddon’ and the Tennessee floods were just a taste of what’s to come for the U.S. unless we tackle global warming,” said Willcox.

Key findings from the Environment America report include:

  • Scientists project that global warming may bring fewer—but more intense—hurricanes worldwide, and that the number of intense Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic may nearly double over the course of the next century.  Estimated damages from the seven most costly hurricanes to strike the U.S. since 2005 exceed $200 billion.
  • Sea level at many locations along the East Coast has been rising at a rate of nearly 1 foot per century due to the melting of glaciers and the expansion of sea water as it has warmed.  In the Mid-Atlantic region alone, at least 900,000 people live in areas that would be threatened by a 3.3 foot (1 meter) rise in sea level.
  • Global warming is projected to bring more frequent, heavier, downpours and snowfalls, since warmer air can hold more water vapor.  Already, the number of heavy precipitation events in the United States increased 24 percent between 1948 and 2006, helping to make flooding the most common weather-related disaster in the U.S.  Recent years have seen a string of incredibly destructive floods and snowstorms, including the 2008 Midwest flood which caused $8 to $10 billion in damage and 2010’s ‘Snowmaggedon,’ which cost the East Coast more than $2 billion.
  • Scientists predict that a warmer climate could lead to a 54 percent increase in the average area burned by wildfires in the western U.S. annually, with the greatest increases in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains.  In 2008, California spent $200 million in a single month fighting a series of wildfires in the northern part of the state. 
  • Heat waves are projected to be more frequent, more intense, and last longer due to global warming.  Heat waves are among the most lethal of extreme weather events, as illustrated by a 2006 heat wave that affected the entire contiguous United States and was blamed for at least 147 deaths in California and another 140 deaths in New York City.