Flagstaff — After a year that saw many parts of the country hit by scorching heat, devastating wildfires, severe storms and record flooding, a new Environment Arizona report documents how global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future. The report found that, already, one-third of Arizonans live in counties affected by federally declared weather-related disasters since 2006.
“Over two million Arizonans have lived through extreme weather causing big problems for Arizona’s economy and our public safety,” said Bret Fanshaw, Advocate for Environment Arizona. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.”
The new report, entitled In the Path of the Storm: Global Warming, Extreme Weather, and the Impacts of Weather-Related Disasters in the United States, examined county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2006 through 2011 to determine how many Arizonans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available here on Environment Arizona’s website. The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms. Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming such as sea level rise.
Key findings from the Environment Arizona report include:
- Since 2006, federally declared weather-related disasters affected 11 counties in Arizona housing over two million people – or nearly one-third of all Arizonans. Since 2006, the Coconino County has experienced two federally declared weather-related disasters, including the devastating Schultz Flood in late July 2010. Following the Schultz Fire on the San Francisco Peaks, conditions became right for heavy rains to cause flash floods northeast of Flagstaff. As noted by Coconino County officials, flooding caused washouts on Highway 89 and other public roads, interior flooding of 85 homes, damage to Flagstaff’s municipal water line and contributed to the death of a 12 year old girl.
- Nationally, federally declared weather-related disasters have affected counties housing 242 million people since 2006—or nearly four out of five Americans.
- Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend towards extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods and for certain parts of the country.
- Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world.
- Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease.
Environment Arizona was joined by Roger Clark, Air & Energy Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust in releasing the new report.
"Profound changes in weather now threaten our region’s entire economic and ecological well-being: severe drought and localized flooding, dying forests, devastating wildfires, declining snow packs, evaporating lakes, deadly dust storms, and disappearing springs,” said Clark.
Fanshaw noted that global warming is expected to have varying impacts on different types of extreme weather events. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot days will become hotter and “likely” that extreme precipitation events will continue to increase worldwide, there is little scientific consensus about the impact of global warming on events such as tornadoes. In addition, every weather event is now a product of a climate system where global warming “loads the dice” for extreme weather, though in different ways for different types of extreme weather.
“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” said Fanshaw. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.”
The report was released as the Obama administration is finalizing historic new carbon pollution and fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and as the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to develop carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants—the largest single source of the carbon pollution that is fueling global warming. At the same time, some polluting industries and their allies in Congress are working to block these and other clean air standards.
“We applaud the Obama administration for the clean car standards they are finalizing, and urge EPA to move ahead with strong carbon pollution standards for coal-fired power plants,” said Fanshaw. “The extreme weather we suffered through in 2011 is a frightening reminder of why we must do everything we can to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that is fueling global warming, and lessen the threat of even worse extreme weather in the future.”