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Analysis | The great drought and the great deluge, all at the same time

Analysis | The great drought and the great deluge, all at the same time


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In the age of climate change, our past intrudes upon the present. Last week, receding water levels in a Serbian stretch of the Danube, Europe’s second-largest river, surfaced a flotilla of Nazi-era German warships that were still packed with ammunition and unexploded ordnance. They were exposed at a time when Europe is experiencing what appears to be the worst dry spell in half a millennium, with two-thirds of the continent under some form of drought warning.

Other ruins and wrecks are popping up as waterways shrink. A submerged 1st century A.D. Roman bridge possibly constructed under the orders of Emperor Nero emerged from the Tiber River last month; further to the north, out of the depths of Italy’s tourist-clogged Lake Como, emerged a 100,000-year-old skull of a deer and the ancient remains of lions, hyenas and rhinos.

Scorching high temperatures left the Iberian Peninsula drier than any time in the last 1,200 years. In Spain, parched riverbeds and shrinking reservoirs have exposed a Neolithic monument known as the Spanish Stonehenge, a Roman fortress, a medieval church, and a number of more recent “ghost towns” that had been abandoned and flooded following 20th century dam projects.

In France, which is experiencing its worst drought on record, wine makers are harvesting their grapes earlier than ever. At a time where anxiety is already mounting over energy costs, surging temperatures and sparse rainfall have hit hydropower capacity in parts of Europe. They have also wreaked havoc on the continent’s agricultural output.

On this front, too, Europe’s rivers are turning up bleak omens — the receding waters in parts of central Europe have revealed old “hunger stones,” markers placed along riverbeds that locals centuries prior left as guides to earlier droughts. One stone that emerged out of the Elbe read: “When this goes under, life will become more colorful again.”

How ‘heat officers’ plan to help cities survive ever-hotter summers

These maps show how excessively hot it is in Europe and the U.S.

Yet what’s being experienced now in Europe — and all over the world — isn’t simply a rerun of the past. The northern hemispheric summer has been defined by a relentless series of unwelcome climate-related superlatives. Heat waves set record temperatures across cities in the Middle East and Europe. China is in the grips of its worst drought on record, which has dried up parts of the Yangtze River and impacted swaths of the country’s industrial sector. Meanwhile, in the space of only five weeks, U.S. cities experienced five instances of 1,000-year rain events — that is, episodes of severe flooding that have just 0.1 percent probability of happening in any given year.

The scale and ferocity of what’s taking place is supercharged by climate change. “Studies have found that heat waves are increasing in intensity and duration in China, as well as delivering warmer temperatures at night, because of human-induced climate change,” my colleagues reported. “The increase has been observed in urban and rural locations. Heat waves are also starting earlier and ending later.”

In China, the droughts in some parts of the countries have been met by a deluge in others. The western province of Qinghai experienced such heavy rains that some rivers changed course; landslides and floods killed more than a dozen people earlier this month.

In some cases, there is a direct link between drought and floods — soil actually absorbs water better when damp, while heavy rains slosh off parched landscapes into waterways. That explains why researchers in Central Texas are fearful of what may happen after a drought exposed 113-million-year-old dinosaur tracks in a dried-up riverbed.

“Given the wild fluctuations in weather and precipitation, we can have these long dry periods exposing things and then catastrophic flooding,” Vincent Santucci, senior paleontologist at the National Park Service, told my colleagues. “The high-energy nature of those floods can completely destroy a fossil site.”

Five 1,000-year rain events have struck the U.S. in five weeks. Why?

In South Asia, searing heat earlier in the summer gave way to an erratic and intense monsoon season. That, in turn, has stoked major flooding and landslides across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Pakistan has been ravaged in recent weeks, with heavy rains and rising rivers leading to the deaths of more than 1,000 people and the displacement of over 10 million. Pakistan declared a state of emergency over the weekend and requested international aid, with officials describing the devastation wrought by a summer of extreme weather as the worst in over a decade.

Pakistan is experiencing a “climate catastrophe,” the nation’s climate change minister told NPR this weekend.

“Extreme climate events have become a regular phenomenon in South Asia,” wrote Hamid Mir for The Washington Post’s opinion pages last month. “We are facing weather-related problems in almost all parts of Pakistan. Flooding has become almost routine in some areas; others are plagued by drought. Glaciers are melting fast, resulting in reduced water flow in rivers. Farming is suffering as a result, and the decline in agricultural productivity is creating food insecurity. All this is accelerating migration from rural areas to cities.”

South Asia is at the sharp end of a planetary crisis. “Unrelenting heat waves have led scientists to wonder whether areas in the region may soon become uninhabitable or too dangerous for human life. “Across India and around the world, summer has become a season of peril, when society’s poorest and most vulnerable members must live and work in conditions that push the limits of human endurance,” my colleagues detailed in a grim but important piece that charted life for Indian day laborers with no choice but to work outside.

No part of the world is shielded from the reality of climate change. “The signature of a warming world is now perceptible every day in the conditions we regularly face,” wrote my colleague Matthew Cappucci, when exploring the scientific causes of increased rainfall in the United States.

“For many people, the concept of a changing climate might seem distant and removed — a two-millimeter rise in sea levels a year or a subtle uptick in global temperatures may appear inconsequential,” he added. “But human influence is affecting the dynamics of weather systems, the periodicity of the jet stream and the moisture-holding capacity of the atmosphere.”

The experience of these weather extremes is not forcing major climate policy reforms. The global panic over energy has led to the short-term pursuit of more fossil-fuel extraction. China had to scramble for more coal after the summer heat and drought delivered a blow to its hydropower capacity.

“After this crisis, the coal lobby will be saying, ‘This is why you need to have more coal mines and more coal-fired power plants,’” Philip Andrews-Speed, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Energy Studies Institute, told my colleagues. “As in Europe, the key is keeping the lights on and keeping the heating and the air conditioning going. That is the short-term priority.”