Storms, fires, heat waves: Year's disasters linked to climate change

By Brooks Hays
Residential portions of Paradise, Calif., lie in ruins on November 15 after a raging wildfire. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/6e949bc765c83ded7c4abcddfdab9403/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Residential portions of Paradise, Calif., lie in ruins on November 15 after a raging wildfire. File Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Many climate scientists have been reluctant to directly attribute natural disasters and extreme weather events to global warming. But 2018 forced their hand.

Increasingly, climate scientists are making the connection between climate change and record-setting weather events -- storms, droughts, floods, fires, heat waves, cold spells and more.


New statistical analysis methods and increasingly accurate climate models have allowed climate scientists to more confidently quantify the culpability of rising CO2 levels each time disaster strikes. In 2018, disaster struck often.


The hurricane season produced several larger storms and a few odd ones. Hurricane Florence defied trajectory predictions, steering farther north than any previous storm on its route to the East Coast. Its slow collision with the Carolinas caused record flooding.

Hurricane Michael became the strongest hurricane in recorded history to make landfall on the Florida Panhandle. Its tremendous winds caused significant damage and triggered record storm surges.


Subtropical and tropical storms, as well as hurricanes, were born, moved and ended up in strange places throughout the season. The first storm, Subtropical Storm Alberto, which formed before hurricane season began, ended up in Michigan before finally petering out.

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Storm Leslie maintained hurricane strength while 195 miles off Lisbon, Portugal, another place no hurricane has ever been.

While the year's hurricane season was strange and destructive, the two most powerful storms of 2018 were born in the Pacific. Super Typhoon Yutu, a Category 5 storm, lashed the Northern Mariana Islands with 180-mph winds. Not to be outdone, Super Typhoon Mangkhut produced winds topping out at 200 mph. Mangkhut's path never crossed land.


The water-filled city of Florence, Italy, experienced its worst flooding in decades after heavy winds, rains and waves raised water levels five feet.

In Kerala, India, thousands were left homeless and hundreds died after the largest monsoon in a century caused record flooding, leaving the west coast of southern India devastated.

France's Aude River experienced its worst flash floods in a century. Twelve people were killed.

In the United States, historic rainfall events in Wisconsin and Michigan -- six inches in nine hours in one instance -- caused damaging floods in August. Another 1-in-1,000-year rainfall event hit the Colorado Rockies over the summer, causing flash floods and mudslides.


In Ellicott City, Md., a May storm dropped six inches in three hours, causing a historic flash flood only two years after the town was ravaged by similarly dramatic torrential rains.


Though wildfires blazed throughout the American West, most of the attention was focused on California's deadly wildfire season. California's Camp Fire became the deadliest wildfire in state history after it killed at least 85 people in November. July's Ranch and River fires burned 500,000 acres, making the so-called Mendocino Complex blaze the largest fire in California's history.

Several thousand more acres and hundreds of buildings were damaged by Los Angeles' Woolsey Fire and Ventura County's Hill Fire.


Heat records were broken all over the world in 2018. Los Angeles experienced a new record high in July when thermometers registered 111 degrees Fahrenheit. California's Death Valley registered highs of 127 degrees for three days.

In Northern Europe, several locations within the Arctic Circle experienced record highs, including an 89.2-degree day in Sodankyla, Finland. On the far northern tip of Norway, temperatures crested at 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

The month of May was the hottest on record across both the United States and Europe.

In Quriyat, Oman, temperatures remained above 108 degrees for an entire day, and in Algeria, thermometers registered 124.3 degrees Fahrenheit.


Even normally cool places like Quebec, Canada, and Japan experienced heat waves with temperatures in the upper 90s.

Planet Earth experienced rising temperatures as a global average -- not as a single heat wave -- with the year's average surface temperature making 2018 the fourth-hottest in recorded history.

Role of climate change

No single weather event can be entirely blamed on climate change. Natural climate variability is always a factor. But the scientific evidence for the role of climate change in encouraging more extreme weather more often is now overwhelming.

Rising CO2 levels and increasing air, surface and ocean temperatures can influence the planet's weather patterns in a variety of ways. Because hot air can hold more moisture, it's likely storms born under warmer conditions will grow larger and drop more rain.

Several studies have suggested the diminishing temperature difference between the tropics and the Arctic is to blame for slower moving weather patterns. When storms move more slowly, they can drop more rain in one location, causing record floods.

Stalling weather patterns can contribute to all kinds of extreme weather. When heat and drought lasts for longer periods of time, for example, the odds of damaging wildfires increase. California's record wildfires followed a period of extreme heat and little rain, with high winds helping to spread the flames.


Earlier this year, scientists published research showing a slowdown in planetary waves in the upper atmosphere were to blame for sluggish summertime weather patterns. Researchers linked the slowdown in atmospheric waves in the upper troposphere with Arctic warming.

News Photos of the Year

News Photos of the Year
A mother and child sit in front of Benito Juarez shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, on November 27. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers congregated south of the U.S. border. Some were tear gassed attempting to approach the international line and many had been in the camps for weeks. Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI | License Photo

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