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A strengthening El Niño is pushing temperatures in countries around the world to record highs this month, exacerbating unprecedented heat waves and triggering deadly storms in ways that scientists say wouldn’t be possible without the influence of climate change.
A second weekend of torrential rain in the Northeast triggered flash floods in eastern Pennsylvania that killed five people on Saturday, according to officials, including a mother whose two young children remain missing as of Tuesday morning. California’s Death Valley reached an alarming 128 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, just a couple degrees shy of some of the rarest temperatures ever recorded on Earth. And on Monday, a prolonged heat wave broke several records in Phoenix, including tying the city’s record for 18 consecutive days where temperatures reached 110 degrees or above.
The extreme weather and loss of life extended beyond the United States.
In South Korea, several days of heavy rainfall triggered landslides and flash floods that killed at least 40 people as of Monday, including a dozen people trapped in their vehicles when flood waters submerged an underpass. And a fierce and prolonged heat wave blanketing much of southern Europe prompted officials to issue severe heat advisories in 16 cities across Italy, where forecasters warned that temperatures could reach upwards of 120 degrees Fahrenheit this week—setting what would be an all-time record high for any European country.
Meanwhile, the heat continues to exacerbate raging wildfires in the U.S., Canada, Spain, Greece and Switzerland. In fact, preliminary data suggests that the first week of July could be the hottest in recorded history, the World Meteorological Organization reported, following the hottest June on record.
The unprecedented sea surface temperatures and record-low levels of Antarctic sea ice now being documented are even surprising some climate scientists who expected an especially hot summer because of the strong El Niño forecast, but didn’t anticipate the extreme weather to be quite this extreme. Just last week, some shallow waters along the beaches of the Florida Keys reached nearly 96 degrees.
“Even I am shocked at how off the charts the sea surface temperature is for the ocean, when you average it all up,” Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “You’re seeing temperatures that are not that far off from a hot tub.”
While it’s difficult to attribute the influence of climate change on a single storm or heat wave, scientists say that it’s clear that rising temperatures are generally making such events more severe and long-lived. Warmer air can hold more moisture, Ekwurzel said, and many of the deadly floods seen in recent weeks were likely as extreme as they were because the storm cells could absorb far more water from the ocean before dumping it over land.
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In many ways, Ekwurzel said, the spree of destructive and deadly extreme weather in recent weeks has showcased how the climate crisis is no longer some abstract idea only affecting polar bears but is now touching the lives of everyday people in all corners of the world.
The societal ramifications of climate change have become particularly clear in recent summers.
New home owners are struggling to find insurance in states like California, Louisiana and Florida, for example, after companies recently stopped offering new insurance policies in those states due to the rising costs of wildfire and hurricane damage. The dire wildfire situation in the West is also exacerbating a national firefighter shortage, with thousands of federal wildland firefighters threatening to quit if Congress doesn’t increase their pay. And hundreds of thousands of unionized delivery drivers for UPS, as well as dozens more with Amazon, are threatening to strike if the companies don’t do more to protect their employees from dangerous heat.
While some of the outcomes in recent weeks have been surprising, climate scientists aren’t surprised by why they’re happening. Many researchers and environmental activists have urged their governments for years to more rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy, only to see fossil fuel use soar to record levels year after year.
On Sunday, as the U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry arrived in China hoping to revive cooperation between the two countries on addressing climate change, a remote township in China’s western Xinjiang region set a new national record by reaching 126 degrees Fahrenheit. China and the U.S.—the two nations with the highest carbon footprint by far—have only expanded their fossil fuel production in recent years despite pledging under the Paris Agreement to drastically reduce their emissions by the end of the decade.
To Ekwurzel, the moment seemed only fitting to take place during a historic heat wave. “This is a wake-up call,” she said. “Adapting to this massive problem is the cost of that inaction. The receipts for that are coming in now.”