Welcome to the Climate Relief Fund’s inaugural blog post! We’re excited to get underway and begin helping those in need of support following climate disasters. The past few years have seen a wave of drought, wildfires, typhoons, flooding, and other climate-fueled extreme weather events. It’s also been a time of growing recognition about how climate change “loads the dice,” making these events bigger and more common. Here’s a rundown of some of the disasters with a climate signature from the past few months.
Oso Mudslide (Washington State)
On March 22nd, the Oso Mudslide in Washington state proved to be by far the deadliest mudslide in US history (excluding those caused by volcanic eruptions and or earthquakes). The torrents of mud and rock wound up killing 42, and one person, at this late date, is still unaccounted for. The day before the mudslide occurred, the area around the mudslide had received 261 percent of normal rainfall for the season. Experts believe that the excess accumulation of rain and snowfall throughout the winter oversaturated the rock and soil in the mountain, leading to the catastrophic mudslide.
Scientists have long predicted that global climate change will mean more extreme precipitation events, such as the rain that lead to this mudslide. Our friends at the Union of Concerned Scientists explain:
"As average global temperatures rise, the warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, about 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit temperature increase. Thus, when storms occur there is more water vapor available in the atmosphere to fall as rain, snow or hail...It only takes a small change in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere to have a major effect. That’s because storms can draw upon water vapor from regions 10 to 25 times larger than the specific area where the rain or snow actually falls."
Flooding in the Balkans
Floods in the Balkans have been absolutely devastating to some of the poorest countries in the European Union, which are least equipped to deal with the massive humanitarian and economic challenges. Torrential rain across Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina,Croatia Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Macedonia caused devastating floods, particularly affecting Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which received the most rain that has fallen in 120 years. This influx of water, just as in Washington, loosened soil and rock causing an estimated 2,100 landslides. All in all, this disaster has claimed at least 86 lives and has displaced around a half a million people. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research explained the climate connection to these severe floods. “Climate change,” he says “just makes all of the weather events a little more extreme than they otherwise would be.”
Mississippi River Valley Flooding
Back in the United States, excess rain hasn’t only affected the Pacific Northwest. Floods on the Mississippi river have been besieging towns across the Midwest and South. Some of the worst flooding came in Minnesota, which received the equivalent of two months normal rainfall in one week. The Twin Cities have experienced the wettest year since 1871, with the flooding leading the governor to declare a state of emergency in dozens of counties. Among the many impacts are damage to important soybean crops.
Down south, Clarkesville, Mississippi flooded for the fifth time in nine years, and this year the city government was unable to afford sandbags to protect its citizens and infrastructure. “Much as I hate to say it,” concluded the emergency management director for Pike County, which includes Clarkesville, “it’s almost a normal thing.”
The feeling that these floods are becoming more than a rare occurrence is justified. According to Mary Skopec, a research geologist at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, “rainfall data from Iowa show increased annual precipitation over the last century. They also show an increasing intensity of rainfall events.”
Flooding in Sri Lanka
Massive floods have also devastated Sri Lanka, where 26 people have died, and an estimated 27,243 have been displaced after a particularly intense opening to the monsoon season after a prolonged drought that left the ground hard and compacted and bereft of vegetation to reduce surface runoff. According to Risk Management Solutions, an international catastrophe modelling firm, the risks associated with climate variability are expected to intensify in Sriki Lanka as rainfall is projected to increase in the monsoon season and decrease at other times. Climate change affects the severity of both wet and dry periods, and as we see in Sri Lanka, the confluence of both of those factors can dramatically increase the severity of these disasters.
Super Typhoon Neoguri (Japan)
Increasing moisture in the atmosphere is also increasing the ferocity of hurricanes, as is on full display in the case of tropical storm Neoguri, which is presently tearing across Japan. Categorized as a “super-typhoon” for its extreme wind speeds, Neoguri has been downgraded to a tropical storm as it sweeps across Japan. Once again, the climatic conditions have caused mudslides, including one on Wednesday which killed a 12-year-old boy, accounting for one of three reported deaths so far, alongside at least 50 injuries. Although Japan is accustomed to yearly typhoons, Reuters notes that “a storm of this strength is unusual in July.”
The drought in California, which stretches back to 2012, has caused an unprecedented wildfire season in 2014, which began in January, and peaked in May, when dozens of wildfires were ravaging the state, including 9 major fires in San Diego county, which at one point burned 9,000 acres in a single day. California Governor Jerry Brown has been direct about the threat of climate change for the increasingly intense fire seasons California has been experiencing, declaring “as we [release] billions and billions of tons of heat trapping gasses, we get heat and we get fires and we get what we’re seeing.” California firefighters have concurred. Noting that CalFire had responded to 100% more wildfires than the seasonal average, spokesman Daniel Berlant said “it starts with the drought. The grass, the brush and the trees-- not only in San Diego County, really across California--are really dry.” Firefighter Kirk Kushen, noting the influence of climate change on this fire season revealed that while "normally, [he] don't even put wildfire gear in [his] vehicle until the end of April. This year [he] never took it out."
Extreme weather events like the ones described above affect thousands of people. They are also opportunities to remind the world that climate change is here and now, not far away or in the future. Now that we’re up and running, the Climate Relief Fund will begin coordinating with partners to raise money for impacted communities in response to specific events. You can check back here for more updates on our work. Or if you want, you can donate now in advance of our first fundraising effort.