It is Hard to Ignore the Imminent Damage of the Climate Crisis.

by Eanna O’ Loughlin

Sometimes the summer weather isn’t all that it’s made out to be. Ireland is notorious for its ‘four seasons in one day’, which most of us have grown used to. ‘Hey, it’s just a bit of rain, what can we complain about; the farmers will love it!’. However, in many parts of the world, one-off weather events and out-of-season storm patterns are becoming increasingly common, and their effects all the more extreme. If you find yourself feeling under the weather during the summer, take a look outside; call it pathetic fallacy, but it also has global-scale implications; climate change is here, and she’s going nowhere.

The hurricane season of 2021 began prematurely this year with Hurricane Ana in May, which developed as a subtropical hurricane in the central Atlantic Ocean. Here, she persisted for approximately 24 hours between the 22nd and 23rd of May, a full week before the official start of hurricane season on the 1st of June. Although hurricane Ana did not make landfall, it nonetheless set the tone for the rest of the hurricane season, which so far has already consisted of 20 hurricanes. Interestingly, the ‘average’ number of storms and hurricanes in a given hurricane season was increased this year from the average used between 2010 and 2020 to 14 storms, 7 hurricanes and 3 major hurricanes, an increase from 12, 6, and 3 respectively for the 1981-2010 average. This reflects the increasing presence of storms and hurricanes developing over the Atlantic Ocean. And it’s not just the number of hurricanes that is increasing, but the strength and thus the cost, both to economies and human life. This year, a prime example was Hurricane Ida in August, whose path stretched from Venezuela in the south to the US state of Connecticut in the north-east. Consecutive storms cause an increase in the damage experienced by those in the path of the storm, regardless of whether the strength of following storms are the same as the initial event. As seen in Louisiana, insurance payouts as a result of Hurricane Ida and subsequently tropical storm Nicholas in September are estimated to be $950 million. Hurricane Ida alone cost the US $95 billion. At the time of writing, there is still a month and a half left of the official storm season, and as such, time will tell whether there are further storms that will sweep across the east coast of North America and the Caribbean. 

Unfortunately, the problem does not end when the season is over. There is no rest for the wicked, and the weather notoriously does not take a day off. Even if there are no extreme storms at the scale of summer hurricanes again until next June, it goes without saying that the states affected in 2021 will still be recovering when the 2022 season rolls in. As seen with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, New Orleans still bears the scars caused by the damage. Therefore, the effect of storms lasts far longer than the time they spend in our presence. If the frequency and strength of storms continue to increase as outlined in the recently published IPCC AR6 report (a light summer read), the ability of cities to recover becomes increasingly difficult to conceive.

if there are no extreme storms at the scale of summer hurricanes again until next June, it goes without saying that the states affected in 2021 will still be recovering when the 2022 season rolls in

Closer to home, it is ironic that the rain received on the east-coast of the Americas this summer could have been put to good use in Howth, North County Dublin, where gorse fires raged in June and July. The first sparks were ignited on the 22nd of June. Despite the attempts of both the Irish Air Corps and Dublin Fire Brigade, the fire persisted throughout the summer, fuelled by the continued dry weather in July, which further dried out vegetation. This led to large plumes of smoke reaching communities in Clontarf, Baldoyle, and Malahide, posing a health risk to residents who were forced to breathe in smoke-laden air. By the end of July, the gorse fires were finally contained, but not before burning through an area of up to 65 acres. As summers continue to get hotter and heatwaves become increasingly common, gorse fires are likely to become a familiar feature on the landscape of Ireland.  In an attempt to combat the spread of future wildfires to such a large extent, Old Irish goats are being introduced to eat the gorse that resides on the hills at Howth, as it is the dry gorse that ignites easily, thus providing much of the fuel for summer wildfires.  The future looks bright not just for the conservation of plant species that live in the vicinity of fire-prone gorse but also for the goat species themselves. The Old Irish Goat species has in the past been driven close to extinction, and as such, their new role as stewards of the environment will also give them the opportunity to increase their own numbers. 

And it’s not just the number of hurricanes that is increasing, but the strength and thus the cost, both to economies and human life

Meanwhile, across the pond, the outlook isn’t looking too good. The annual wildfire season in North America, which affects northern California in particular, saw its second-largest wildfire in recorded history this year and a wildfire protection budget that has been stretched thin. The Dixie wildfire has spread over one million acres since it established itself in mid-July. So far, $620 million has been spent, making it the most expensive attempt in fire control in the history of the state of California. Of course, this only accounts for the money spent on the Dixie fire; in total, California has spent $1.1 billion on wildfires since July.

While countries like Ireland and the US are afforded the luxury of funding attempts to curb the effects of climate disasters -as has been seen in Haiti- countries that are prone to frequent hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes have suffered immensely when two or more of these climate-related events occur in quick succession. Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on the 14th of August, with a focus located just 6.2 miles below the Earth’s surface. The shallow depth of the earthquake meant that more damage was caused than would be expected for a deeper earthquake. Unlike the infamous 2010 earthquake, which struck Port-au-Prince, the 2021 earthquake primarily affected a rural area with a smaller population living in the vicinity of the epicentre. Unfortunately, this was not the last natural disaster to hit Haiti this year. Just days later, tropical storm Grace made landfall. Approximately 5 to 10 inches of rain fell, providing the impetus for hundreds of landslides triggered on water-saturated slopes that had already been structurally weakened by faulting in response to the earlier earthquake. The case of Haiti, where 96% of the population is at risk of natural disasters, provides a grim insight into life on a warming planet, where multiple natural disasters could strike a country at once. In addition to frequent earthquakes and hurricanes, Haiti continues to battle the COVID-19 health crisis amidst the backdrop of a crumbling political system compounded by food shortages and gang violence.

the effects of climate change are visible, and the alterations to climate systems will continue to create more extreme weather events

If there is one thing we have learned from this summer, it’s that the effects of climate change are visible, and the alterations to climate systems will continue to create more extreme weather events, not just during the summer but at all times of the year. While the story of a symbiotic relationship between Old Irish Goats and gorse bushes is heart-warming, global, positive change towards a carbon-neutral planet needs to be implemented now in order to restrict the magnitude of natural disasters such as those seen in Haiti. Warmer summers here in Ireland may see an increase in the number of ‘ice-cream weather’ days, but this comes at a price, a price that no amount of holiday tantrums or trips to the beach will be able to make up for.

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