United States: Climate Crises Converge as Wildfire Burns West and Hurricane Pummels South
By Sharon Zhang
August 30, 2021
Hurricane Ida made landfall in Southern Louisiana on Sunday as one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. It has knocked out power to the hundreds of thousands of residents of New Orleans and over 1 million in Louisiana and has caused at least one death so far.
Scientists say that the climate crisis has, without a doubt, made Ida more intense as higher water temperatures offshore act as fuel to a hurricane’s fire. Greenhouse gases resulting from human activity have contributed to a rise in average water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico by 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 20th century. The category 4 storm has so far blown entire roofs off buildings, devastated the Louisiana town of Jean Lafitte, and overwhelmed hospitals already filled with COVID patients.
Ida’s storm surge was so strong as it made landfall that the hurricane actually reversed the flow of the Mississippi River, something that experts say is extremely rare. With the threat of levee failure hanging over Louisiana, the hurricane, since downgraded to a tropical storm, is headed into Mississippi.
Though many residents evacuated the region before the storm, many others, unable to evacuate, have been left behind. Some people simply cannot afford the costs associated with seeking shelter out of the storm or may not have reliable access to transportation out of the area, such as a car. Other populations, such as incarcerated people, have no choice either way.
As Ida blasted through Louisiana, the climate crisis intensified blazes across the country. Wildfire Caldor has engulfed hundreds of homes in its wake as it has moved across eastern California in the past two weeks. It now threatens Lake Tahoe, where residents on the California side have been ordered to evacuate.
The Caldor fire has been particularly hard to contain. Firefighters have pushed back their estimated date for containment of the fire to September 8. As the Caldor fire blazes on, the Dixie Fire, just 65 miles to the North, is well into its second month of burning. At nearly 50 percent containment and with over 770,000 acres burned so far, the Dixie Fire is the second-largest fire in California history, beaten only by the August Complex fire from last year.
California’s weather has become drier for longer periods over the past decades as global warming and climate disruption have lengthened the wildfire season and pushed winter rains further and further back in the year. It has wreaked havoc on the state, where six of the seven largest fires in the state, including the Dixie Fire, have occurred over the past year or so.
It’s unclear if all of these disasters were caused directly by the climate crisis, but they were surely fueled by it. As climate scientists warn of dire consequences if the world continues on its current path, the western part of the U.S. has experienced record heat waves, making July 2021 the hottest month in recorded history on Earth.
The converging climate disasters come as officials struggle to contain the pandemic scouring the country and contend with massive unrest in Afghanistan: Two crises that may seem unrelated but have actually been exacerbated by the climate crisis. Climate change helps spread infectious diseases, scientists have warned for years. There’s evidence that air pollution, including that of burning fossil fuels, has worsened COVID outcomes for frontline communities living in areas that bear the brunt of increased air pollution. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Taliban has exploited the economic devastation and serious resource shortages brought on by the twin effects of drought and flooding caused by climate change to successfully overthrow the government that was propped up by the U.S.
Climate unrest has been on full display through this year and the last. But nearly all of these problems exacerbate each other, solidifying the so-called threat multiplier effect of the climate crisis.
California, for instance, cruelly forces incarcerated people to be on the frontline of firefighting when the wildfire season rolls around, paying them such absurdly low rates that it has been likened to slavery. But, with so many prisons ravaged by the pandemic, the state has had fewer incarcerated bodies to help fight the fires, making it harder to contain the blazes as they rage on.