Extreme Weather and Climate Updates
Aug. 4, 2021Updated Aug. 4, 2021, 12:57 p.m. ETAug. 4, 2021, 12:57 p.m. ET
We’re on top of the latest extreme weather in the U.S. and around the world. Follow here for news on heat waves, wildfires, floods and more.
Hawaii is fighting the Big Island’s largest-ever blaze. Here’s why wildfire is a growing threat to one of the wettest places on earth.Here is where wildfires are burning across the West.What role does climate change play in the West’s tinderbox conditions? Let us explain.A wildfire in Greece burned dozens of homes amid a searing heat wave.
A resident in Kings Bay, Ga., surveyed damage after Tropical Storm Elsa. Credit…Mass Communication 3Rd Class Aaron Xavier Saldana/U.S. Navy, via Associated Press
Conditions in and above the Atlantic Ocean continue to suggest that this year’s hurricane season will be an above average one, a government scientist said Wednesday.
Matthew Rosencrans, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that an updated forecast suggested that there would be 15 to 21 named storms, including 7 to 10 hurricanes, by the end of the season on Nov. 30. Three to five of the hurricanes could be major ones of Category 3 or higher, with sustained winds above 110 miles an hour.
The updated numbers are only slightly changed from NOAA’s preseason forecast in May.
“There’s now a 65 percent chance for an above-average season,” Mr. Rosencrans said. An average year has 14 named storms, seven of which are hurricanes, including three major ones.
Mr. Rosencrans said one reason for the slightly changed forecast, and for the continued prediction of above-average activity, is that NOAA forecasters now say the climate pattern called La Nina may develop later this year.
In a La Nina, sea surface temperatures drop in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, and that can affect weather elsewhere. In the Atlantic, that often means less wind shear, changes in wind speed and direction that can affect the structure of storms. Less wind shear means storms are more likely to form and be stronger.
Hurricane season begins on June 1, although every year since 2015, storms have developed before June. This year, Tropical Storm Ana formed in late May.
Ana was the first of five named storms so far. The fifth, and first hurricane, Elsa, formed on July 1, making 2021 the fastest to reach five storms, ahead of 2020.
As a Category 1 hurricane, with top wind speeds of about 85 miles an hour, Elsa caused flooding and other damage in parts of the Caribbean before briefly entering the Gulf of Mexico, crossing northern Florida and traveling up the East Coast. Downgraded to a tropical storm, Elsa contributed to flooding in and around New York City on July 8.
Since Elsa, the season has been quiet. But mid-August through October tends to be the most active period, in part because the ocean has warmed through the summer, providing more energy for the rise of large rotating, or cyclonic, storm systems. During those months wind shear also tends to be reduced, even without a La Nina.
The National Hurricane Center is currently tracking three areas of low-pressure air in the Atlantic Ocean, two off West Africa and one closer to the east coast of South America. These kinds of atmospheric disturbances in the tropical Atlantic can lead to tropical storms or hurricanes. But the hurricane center said the likelihood of these becoming storms was currently low.
Researchers have documented that global warming has affected cyclonic storms, although there is debate about some of the ways they may be linked.
Climate change is producing stronger storms, and they produce more rainfall, in part because there is more moisture in warmer air, and in part because they tend to slow down. Rising seas and slower-moving storms can make for more destructive storm surges.
A brush fire burned more than 40,000 acres on the Big Island of Hawaii prompting mandatory evacuations over the weekend. While many residents have now returned home, the fire is not yet under control and mandatory evacuations could be put in place in the coming days.CreditCredit…25th Infantry Division
A fast-moving brush fire that has burned more than 40,000 acres on Hawaii’s Big Island prompted mandatory evacuations over the weekend as it grew to be the largest brush fire on record there.
Hawaii may be graced with tropical forests, making parts of the islands some of the wettest places on the planet, but the state is also increasingly vulnerable to wildfires, as heavy rains encourage unfettered growth of invasive species, like guinea grass, and dry, hot summers make them highly flammable.
Similar to the American West, where fire seasons have grown worse over the years because of extreme weather patterns and climate change, about two-thirds of Hawaii faces unusually dry conditions this summer. Since 2018 through last year, at least 75,107 acres across the islands have been lost to wildfires, by far the most devastating stretch in a decade and a half.
While the fires showcase several challenges that Hawaii shares with states in the West, including the spread of highly flammable invasive grasses, the authorities in Hawaii also cite other factors that make Hawaii unique. Those include big shifts in rainfall patterns over the archipelago and tourism’s eclipse of large-scale farming in Hawaii’s economy, allowing nonnative plants to overtake idled sugar cane and pineapple plantations.
Firefighters also have to operate across exceptionally diverse climate zones, extinguishing blazes everywhere from thick tropical forests to semiarid scrublands to chilly elevations where frost can be seen on trees along the slopes of the Mauna Kea volcano.
More than 60 percent of land across Hawaii is currently considered “abnormally dry,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. Even so, greater rainfall during the state’s winter, or wet season, may be just as responsible for Hawaii’s growing wildfires.
A lot of rain helps grass species such as guinea and kikuyu thrive. Both were introduced to the state decades ago, as both forage for livestock and to curb erosion. Some grow up to six inches in a day and provide fuel for fires to quickly leap out of control. Before this year brought dry conditions across much of the state, last winter figured among the wettest in three decades.
“The biomass out there is off the charts,” said Clay Trauernicht, a tropical fire specialist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “When you have a huge wet winter, that will influence fire risk to a greater degree than actual drought conditions.”
Dozens of wildfires are actively burning across the Western United States, charring large swaths of land in recent days, according to a New York Times analysis of government and satellite data. Some are threatening thousands of people who live and work just a few miles away.
As the fire season gets underway, The Times built an interactive map to track the latest wildfires as they spread across Western states. Check back regularly for updates.
Firefighters have been working for weeks through heavy ash and dust to help contain the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon. Eliminating the fire has been difficult due to heat and wind.CreditCredit…Maranie Staab/Reuters
Most of the 50 small wildfires that were reportedly sparked by lightning in southern Oregon over the weekend have been extinguished, but fire officials did not have to look far to appreciate the precarious nature of every new blaze.
Nearly a month after it was ignited by lightning, nearly 1,900 firefighters are still battling the Bootleg Fire, which has obliterated homes in southern Oregon while burning more than 400,000 acres. Cloudy and rainy weather helped those firefighters make considerable progress in recent days — the nation’s largest wildfire was 84 percent contained on Tuesday morning — but the Bootleg Fire is not projected to be fully contained until October.
Fire officials are also wary of a forecast that could temper some of the recent gains. The Klamath Falls area, where Bootleg is burning, may see temperatures in the mid-90s on Tuesday and Wednesday, with wind gusts of up to 20 miles per hour on Wednesday.
“We are dependent on weather conditions to aid our success,” said Al Nash, a spokesman working with fire officials. He added, “There remains a vulnerability because we expect hot, dry and windy weather.”
The Oregon Department of Forestry said it received reports of about 50 fires sparked by lightning during thunderstorms on Sunday. Of the 35 fires that were confirmed as active, the agency said, 20 were promptly extinguished and the ones that remain do not threaten any homes.
On Tuesday morning, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Gov. Kate Brown are scheduled to visit a farm in Salem — in the northwestern part of Oregon — that has been affected by the region’s lengthy drought. That extended dry spell has also provided more fuel for wildfires sparked by lightning or human behavior.
— The New York Times
Remnants of the Bootleg Fire near Klamath Falls, Oregon, on Saturday.Credit…U.S. Forest Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
As large swaths of the West dry out and burn, scientists say climate change is playing an increasing role in the earlier fire seasons, the deadly heat waves and the lack of water.
The record-high temperatures that assaulted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July, for instance, would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers who studied the deadly heat wave.
Heat, drought and fire are connected, and because human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases have raised baseline temperatures nearly two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves, including those in the West, are becoming hotter and more frequent.
“The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”
Around the world
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ATHENS — Greek firefighters on Wednesday were working to put out a blaze that broke out on Tuesday on forestland north of Athens, burning dozens of homes and turning large swaths of land to ash, with similar efforts underway to douse wildfires in the southern Peloponnese peninsula and other parts of the country.
Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes on Tuesday after a large wildfire tore through the area north of Athens, spreading to several settlements. Many more people were rescued by firefighters after becoming trapped in their homes. Residents fled on cars, on motorcycles, even by foot, while dozens of horses were released from a riding club in the area and were seen wandering through local streets.
?he government said it would provide hotel accommodation for local residents unable to return to their homes for as long as necessary.
The fire was fueled by days of drought as temperatures reached 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) amid a searing heat wave that officials described as the worst since 1987, when more than 1,000 people died.
Televised footage of the affected areas north of Athens on Wednesday morning showed the charred hulks of homes and cars amid blackened trees as a heavy smog hung over the capital and flecks of ash fluttered through the air.
With the country in the midst of a record heat wave, the National Observatory of Athens on Wednesday appealed to people to remain in their homes with the windows closed if possible, warning that the fire had significantly worsened the capital’s atmospheric pollution.
The fire north of Athens was the worst of scores that broke out around the country on Tuesday.
Referring to an “extremely difficult night” of firefighting, Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said only one of that fire’s four fronts remained active on Wednesday morning. Speaking outside the fire service’s control center in Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the authorities would remain on alert to minimize damage over the coming days as sweltering temperatures continue, with winds forecast to pick up on Friday.
“Thank God we have had no loss of life until now,” Mr. Mitsotakis said.
?e added, however, “There are still difficulties ahead, we have days of heat wave and wind to come.”
Firefighters also battled blazes on the island of Evia, north of Athens, and in the Messinia area of the Peloponnese peninsula where dozens of homes were also burned. Mr. Hardalias said on Wednesday that a new fire had broken out close to the ancient archaelogical site of Olympia, in the southern Peloponnese peninsula.
Greece has asked for support from the European Union for its firefighting efforts. Cyprus has provided 40 firefighters and was to send two water-dropping aircraft on Wednesday, Mr. Hardalias said. Sweden is to send another two aircraft, he said.
— Niki Kitsantonis