by Randolph T. Holhut
August 20, 2010
IS RUSSIA'S HEAT WAVE WARNING OF A HOTTER EARTH?
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's hard to imagine a 100 degree day in Moscow.
It's even harder to imagine a series of 100 degree days and summer weather more appropriate for Atlanta or Houston than for Russia.
But that's what the past month has been like in Moscow, with more than 30 straight days of temperatures above 86 degrees and several days at 100 degrees or above - both all-time records for Russia.
By comparison, the normal August temperature in Moscow is 70 degrees.
The heat has also led to wildfires that haveblanketed the country with smoke.
Alexander Frolov, the head of Russia's weather service, said last week, "Our ancestors haven't observed or registered a heat like [this] within 1,000 years. This phenomenon is absolutely unique."
Russians simply aren't equipped to handle heat like this. The reported death toll in western Russia from this stretch of abnormally warm weather is more than 15,000 and it rises by the week. The only comparable heat wave in European history occurred in 2003 and killed an estimated 40,000-50,000 people, mostly in France and Italy.
Western Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine provide 25 percent of the world's wheat exports, and the heat wave has destroyed wheat and other grain crops. Soil moisture levels reportedly have fallen to levels not seen in 500 years. Yields are predicted to be reduced by 40 percent or more, which will likely lead to higher food prices and shortages.
Jeff Masters - co-founder and director of meteorology at Weather Underground, the Internet weather data service - wrote last week that "Earth has now seen four consecutive months with its warmest temperature on record, and the first half of 2010 was the warmest such six-month period in the planet's history. It is not a surprise that many all-time extreme heat records are being shattered when the planet as a whole is so warm. Global warming 'loads the dice' to favor extreme heat events unprecedented in recorded history."
Besides Russia, eight other nations have so far set their all-time temperature records in 2010, including Niger (118 degrees), Sudan (121 degrees), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (both at 126 degrees), and Pakistan (130 degrees).
And there are other weather extremes besides heat. There have been torrential rains that have caused massive flooding and landslides in Pakistan that have claimed the lives of more than 1,600 people and left 20 million homeless. China has seen similar weather, with similarly deadly results. And a chunk of Greenland's ice shelf that's estimated to be four times the size of Manhattan has tumbled into the ocean.
The incidences of extreme weather keep piling up in the United States also. In the Northeast U.S., June and July of this year were among the hottest on record. For example, Washington, D.C., normally has 18 days between June 1 and July 31 with temperatures above 90 degrees. This year, it had 39. Philadelphia had 25 days above 90 degrees through the same period.
The National Wildlife Federation just released a report that warns this summer's hot weather may become the norm by the middle of this century if greenhouse gas emissions linked to global warming are not brought under control. For example, Washington could see as many as 100 days above 90 degrees by 2050, and Philadelphia could have 60 such days if emissions are not controlled.
By the end of this century, it could be even worse. Days above 90 degrees could double between now and 2099, which would leave the Southern U.S. virtually uninhabitable due to extreme heat for three to four months a year.
Conservatives still try to wish away the mounting evidence that the Earth's climate is changing. The leaders of the industrialized world continue to balk at pursuing aggressive, strict and legally binding limits of greenhouse gases. And the international community tasked with providing aid to victims of extreme weather is stretched to the limit.
If we choose to do nothing, and the incidents of extreme weather we've seen in recent years keep growing in number and intensity, our planet is in big trouble. Are we ready for a world with a drastically different climate than we know now, a world teeming with refugees and failed states and wars over food and water?
That could be our future unless we get our acts together now.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.