In the United States, disaster tends to strike in the late summer and fall, when hurricanes come ashore, wildfires rage across the West, and droughts reach their maxima. Beyond our borders, these months are the time of Amazon wildfires, of sweltering heat waves, of great urban floods. For some years now, I’ve covered climate change, which means covering the day-to-day convulsions of the Earth system, and quickly it became clear to me that August, September, and October make up the season of disaster. How long, I have started to wonder, until our collective sense of time begins to match that reality? How long until the fall isn’t when “life starts all over again,” but when life starts to fall apart?
Then came this week. Overnight, Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a powerful Category 4 storm, the strongest hurricane ever to strike the state. While the cyclone’s storm surge does not, at writing, seem as bad as feared, the storm was a monster, subjecting cities to unrelenting tornado-force winds and prompting the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. Laura did not arrive alone. Since mid-August, wildfires have blazed through California and the Mountain West, choking the air with toxic smoke and forcing people from San Francisco to Denver to check the air quality before they leave the house. In the Golden State, those fires were caused by the twin misfortunes of an intense heat wave that desiccated forests and a subsequent “lightning siege” that ignited them. The heat wave would have been threatening by itself: Eleven days ago, it prompted a mid-day reading of 130 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. For comparison: At 122 degrees Fahrenheit, flesh starts to cook.