The U.S.’s 2020 Weather Disasters by Sara Harley

A view of Hurricana Laura near Texas and Louisiana (Courtesy of NASA’s Johnson Space Center).

The United States has experienced its fair share of extreme weather this year, including Hurricane Laura, West Coast wildfires, the Pennsylvania-New Jersey derecho, and finally, the return of La Niña. Largely attributed to climate change, the recent extreme weather conditions are becoming more exceptional and frequent. 

Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 storm, made landfall on the southern coast of the United States in late August, recorded as one of the more powerful storms in national history. Affected regions included Central and Southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Tennessee, among others. Other sectors experienced widespread power outages, heavy rain, and additional hazardous complications. As the storm reached land, the hurricane fortunately shrank to a tropical storm, with lower winds, thus causing less destruction, but destruction nonetheless.  Subsequently, in late September, Hurricane Sally, a category 2, affected Alabama, Mississippi, and states further inland.

Over the past six weeks, wildfires in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have caused wide damage. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL Fire), over 3.9 million acres burned, as of October 2. The sprawl of this destruction has included agricultural fields, homes, forests, and more. Smoke from the fires produced exceedingly poor air quality, and remnants of this smoke reached the East Coast and some European countries. 

Fueled by wind patterns, warmer temperatures, and climate change, the fires are anticipated to rage well into mid-October, according to CAL Fire, as only about 50% of some major wildfires have been contained. Climate scientists think that the rising atmospheric temperatures and lack of rainfall have contributed to climate change over the last four decades and have created conditions conducive to fires. Yale Climate Connections theorizes that high atmospheric pressures contributed to these high temperatures in addition to the dry lightning storms that ignited many fires. Some scientists believe climate change has continuously demonstrated what can become the new normal if climate action is not implemented soon, arguing environmental, socio-economic, and intergenerational effects of the climate crisis at large may become irreversible and irreparable. 

In June, 2020, the New Jersey-Pennsylvania derecho led to varying levels of destruction. Derechos are exceedingly abnormal. According to NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, “a derecho is a widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.” In some areas, a derecho wind can occur once or twice each year. The New Jersey-Pennsylvania derecho led to four fatalities and left around 575,000 citizens without power. With peak wind gusts comparable to a Category 1 hurricane and destruction patterns more widespread than many tornadoes, the storm left residents with fallen trees, collapsed power lines, and flood damages. East Coast residents continue to recover from the harmful effects of the derecho but are expected to be fully recovered by next month.

Shifts between El Niño and La Niña are scientific, oceanic phenomena that have been predicted by scientists since the 1980s, and currently, the U.S. is experiencing La Niña conditions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Ocean Service, “El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of what is known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle,” including “fluctuations in temperature between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific.” La Niña is cited as the “cold phase” and El Niño as the “warm phase.” The complex weather pattern of La Niña influences ocean temperatures over a significant area in addition to shaping hurricane patterns and air temperatures. The current La Niña conditions are expected to last until February, 2021.

Climate change is an umbrella term for the global warming and weather shifts attributed to man-created greenhouse gas emissions. Global warming can and will affect the world’s current climate in a variety of manners. More specifically, climate change can take the form of prolonged-heat waves, increased wind speeds, and important shifts in rain storm patterns and intensities. These factors can steadily lead to more extreme weather such as the aforementioned events. Countries around the globe have begun to take action in order to mitigate the consequences of these changes. While many believe that the U.S. government has failed to implement effective climate policy, most people are nevertheless beginning to take action in their own communities. Citizens around the world, regardless of their country’s stance on climate change, have chosen to create shifts in their own lives to reduce their carbon emissions. Small changes encompass but are not limited to advocating for the implementation of climate regulations, supporting clean energies, conserving water, and recycling.

Around the nation, communities have worked together to celebrate what makes their cities, towns, states, and country unique, strengthening bonds of solidarity.  As the weather in the United States continues to reflect the effects of global warming, many argue that it is more important than ever to take action to save the planet from further damage.

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