Some areas experienced historic floods, others saw historic droughts. Is climate change to blame?
Natural Resources Defense Council
A once-in-five-hundred-year flood inundated the Mississippi River valley. A once-in-a-century drought in Texas shriveled the summer's crops and sparked sweeping forest fires. The deadliest tornado season on record tore communities to splinters. 2011 was clearly a year of extreme weather.
Perhaps it is a sign of the pending 2012 apocalypse, but more likely, it is the result of a changing climate that is amplifying extremes. The chart above marks more than 2,900 separate weather records broken this year, and these records were costly. In all, Mother Nature inflicted $52 billion dollars in damage on the United States.
However, 2011 is not the most expensive natural disaster year on record. That distinction belongs to 2005, the year Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused more than $150 billion in destruction along the Gulf Coast. The difference is that 2005 had only five disasters that reached the billion dollar mark; 2011 had 12, and according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that sets a new record.
Two of the most consequential weather stories of the year were the drought in Texas and the tornado season in the Midwest. For most of the spring, summer, and fall, the Lone Star state was plagued by exceptional drought -- the highest level recorded by the U.S. drought monitor. The situation has eased somewhat in recent weeks, but climatologists say that because of the persistent pattern of La Niña (cooling off the coast of South America influencing the jet stream over North America), the drought is likely to linger into the new year.
The impacts of the record-breaking summer were enormous. Texas reservoirs sank to their lowest levels in years, even revealing long-forgotten underwater ghost towns. Authorities began predicting long-term water shortages in the state. Crops withered. Cattle herds died in the sun, causing the price of beef and other staples to increase across the country. Nearly half a billion trees perished for lack of rain. On this map comparing average temperature and average rainfall for Texas summers, it is not difficult to find the outlier.
And of course, some of the most powerful images of nature's destruction this year came from Joplin, Missouri, where an EF-5 tornado killed 159 people and destroyed 700 homes. But this was only one of several deadly tornado outbreaks in 2011. In total, 552 Americans died in twisters this year, 12 times the number of tornado deaths of last year and the most since the 1950s.
While it is hard to blame all of this meteorological activity on global warming, 2011 provides evidence of a planet with a wilder climate.
"This year we had three weather events that matched or exceeded three U.S. weather extremes," Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and founder of The Weather Underground blog, says. The Mississippi flood was higher than any other, the Texas drought was drier than any other, and the tornado season was deadlier than any other. "It boggles my mind."
Additionally, Masters finds the records broken this year to be indicative of a more extreme planet. "Fifty-six percent of the U.S. had a top 10 percent wettest or driest year. That's a record." That divergent pattern is to be expected with climate change -- the wet areas will grow wetter, the dry areas drier.
These billion dollar disasters are only likely to increase in the coming years, Masters says, and population growth and increasing wealth factor in as well. If there are more structures to destroy, one storm will cause increasing amounts of damage.
"The climate has changed," Kevin Trenberth, Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, tells me via email. He says since the 1970s, the water vapor over the oceans has increased by 4 percent. That water vapor acts as fuel to weather systems, contributing to the severity of the Mississippi flood, and to the thunderstorms which produced the spring's tornadoes.
"Hurricane Irene flooding had a component (5 to
10 percent) from human-induced global warming," he says. "It may not sound like much but it is often the straw that breaks the camel's back."
Here's a recap of the some of the top weather disasters in 2011. (This list is limited to the U.S. The rest of the world had its own share of nature-inflicted tragedy this year, including the 9.0 Japanese earthquake that killed 10,000 people and cost $309 billion.)
Despite warnings, Trump gazed directly at the eclipse.
During the solar eclipse today, President Donald Trump stepped onto the White House balcony with his wife and his son Barron, and he looked up at the sun.
According to White House reporters, an aide shouted a warning that he should not look at the sun. Nevertheless, he persisted.
There were parts of the United States, along path of totality, that allowed people to look directly at the eclipse. But Washington, D.C., was not among them.
How much damage can a person do by staring at the sun for a few seconds?
As many children are warned, there is indeed no “safe” amount of time to stare directly at the sun. Note that no ophthalmologists recommend any amount of glancing or squinting at the eclipse. Against the energy of the sun, human eyelids are like a dam built of tissue paper.
The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.
Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
On Monday night, Trump offered a new plan for Afghanistan, combing a military strategy with one that puts Pakistan on notice for supporting militants, and saying while the U.S. wanted the Afghan government to succeed, U.S. support was not a “blank check.” Trump also moved decisively away from the Bush-era policy of the U.S. as a force to spread democracy overseas.
“Medicare for all” is a popular idea, but for Americans, transitioning to such a system would be difficult, to say the least.
French women supposedly don’t get fat, and in the minds of many Americans, they also don’t get stuck with très gros medical bills. There’s long been a dream among some American progressives to truly live as the “Europeans1” do and have single-payer health care.
Republicans’ failure—so far—to repeal and replace Obamacare has breathed new life into the single-payer dream. In June, the majority of Americans told Pew that the government has the responsibility to ensure health coverage for everyone, and 33 percent say this should take the form of a single government program. The majority of Democrats, in that poll, supported single payer. A June poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation even found that a slim majority of all Americans favor single payer.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”