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Thursday, July 18, 2024

A Week of Extreme Weather, Explained

Sci & spaceA Week of Extreme Weather, Explained

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On Friday, a wildfire broke out in Southern California. As of early Monday, the blaze had ravaged over 20,000 acres. Another fire last week in the northern part of the state prompted about 29,000 people to evacuate. Both incidents underscore how wildfires are becoming larger and more severe.

Over the weekend, much of the Western United States was gripped by record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures. (Things won’t be cooling down any time soon, according to forecasters.)

And early Monday morning, Hurricane Beryl, which last week made history as the earliest Category 5 hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, made landfall in East Texas as a Category 1 storm. Its pounding rain and strong winds will move across the eastern half of the United States this week.

Judson Jones, a meteorologist and reporter on The New York Times’s Weather Data team, has been covering these extreme weather events, turning to prediction models and talking to experts for clarity. Although the events reflect an overall shift in the world’s climate, Mr. Jones tries to analyze them as separate phenomena.

In an interview, which has been edited and condensed, he explained why these weather events were happening — and forecast more billion-dollar disasters.

Record-breaking heat waves, the earliest Category 5 hurricane in the Atlantic — it seems like an intense moment in weather. How are you thinking about these events?

I try to separate them out. Still, the atmosphere is interconnected, and you often can find a connection between ongoing weather events.

What we’re seeing right now with this hurricane is it’s actually being steered partially by the high-pressure systems responsible for the heat waves that are happening in the United States.

Are the ocean temperatures warmer, allowing the hurricane to pick up speed quickly?

What we’re seeing in the Atlantic is the exact same temperatures we would typically see in this region in September. That’s the peak of hurricane season, so it wasn’t surprising to me to have one develop and rapidly intensify.

There is probably going to be a lull. The dry, dusty air blowing off the west coast of Africa can suppress hurricane formation, limiting the moisture in the air and, thus, the growth of tropical systems.

What we know is that the Atlantic Ocean’s temperature is still going to be warm, and the closer we get to the peak of hurricane season, the conditions that limit formation begin to ease, allowing these storms to actually fire up in late August and early September.

I expect to see a map that will have multiple named storms all across the Atlantic at the same time, very similar to what we saw last year.

The temperatures can tell you what to expect, but are you still surprised by the speed, frequency or the timing of a storm?

Unlike Hurricane Otis last year, which caught meteorologists off guard, the forecast models that we use really predicted rapid intensification with this storm. For a meteorologist, it wasn’t that surprising to see that rapid intensification of this storm. But what continues to be mind-boggling, even as I talk to my sources who are experts in this field, and have been studying these things forever, is just how similar it is to the two busiest hurricane seasons that we’ve ever seen: 2005 and 1933. It’s a scenario where we say, “Buckle up, here we go.”

It seems as though many people feel that these events are setting the stage for what we can expect. Can we predict that?

There are a lot of experts in the arena of climate change who have started studying what hurricanes may look like in the future. And a lot of what they’ve seen is that we’re likely going to see more of these warmer ocean temperatures.

Even if you look at past data, the ocean temperatures right now, where Beryl formed, are incredibly warmer than it ever was in 1933. We’re seeing this trend that the ocean temperatures are progressively warmer because the ocean is trying to harness and take in that heat from the air. The warmer the globe gets, the warmer ocean temperatures are going to get. What that means is that we could see more rapid intensification of storms. It’s a pretty realistic expectation that more storms will get to those higher categories.

You wrote that seven recent extreme heat events had already cost California over $7 billion. Is that what we can expect — economically, speaking — going forward?

Adapting our infrastructure is how we survive extremes. We can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, just let it come.” There are really smart people that are coming up with solutions.

As far as billion-dollar disasters go, we know they are on the rise. We’re not just talking about heat waves. We’re talking about cold outbreaks. We’re talking about hurricanes. We’re talking about hail and tornadoes. It just takes one thunderstorm with big hail over a major city, and you have a billion-dollar disaster — the insurance companies are going to have to take care of every roof, every car.

Last year I asked you about atmospheric rivers, El Niño and La Niña. You said that you didn’t want to “overhype” anything — a year later, do you still feel that way?

My answer is pretty much the same: These weather patterns impact people differently. If you’re in California, there’s more weather whiplash than in any other state. People there go from extreme drought to extreme floods, in what can seem like overnight.

The best thing for you to do is know what to do if a storm comes your way.

What’s important moving forward is not throwing our hands up in the air, but to be looking out for one another. The National Weather Service and the C.D.C. partnered to create a heat risk forecast for the entire continental United States. They are trying to inform people about the dangers of the deadliest weather disasters in the United States.

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