Extreme weather can't be ignored

A 72-year-old Carter County woman died last week when a creek she had lived beside her whole life swept away her trailer home and carried it, spinning and crashing, into the Little Sandy River.

The week before, in Pike County, up to seven inches of rain in nine hours produced flash floods that killed two people.

Twice now in 15 months floods have turned mountainous Pike County into a federal disaster area. Heavy rains last weekend closed the Milwaukee airport and collapsed a dam in Iowa.

It's impossible to pin these events or any single weather occurrence on larger climate trends.

But the torrential downpours that have inflicted so much suffering and destruction will become more common unless we change our ways. Extreme weather events have already increased.

A report issued Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirms that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer for the last 50 years.

"Extreme weather events are unavoidable. But a warmer climate means that many of these events will be more frequent and more severe," says the 2009 State of the Climate Report.

The study (www.ncdc.noaa.gov/bams-state-of-the-climate) draws on data collected from satellites, weather balloons and stations, ships and buoys, analyzed by more than 300 scientists and 160 research groups in 48 countries.

"The temperature increase of one degree Fahrenheit over the past 50 years may seem small, but it has already altered our planet," said Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch.

"Glaciers and sea ice are melting, heavy rainfall is intensifying and heat waves are more common. And, as the new report tells us, there is now evidence that over 90 percent of warming over the past 50 years has gone into our ocean."

While it's impossible to predict all the effects of a hotter ocean, one is well known. As water becomes warmer it expands, raising sea levels. Higher seas will affect and even displace coastal populations, especially in lower-lying areas.

The effects on agriculture of more severe droughts and storms are painful to imagine. The conflicts that could ensue from food shortages and human migrations are also unpleasant to contemplate.

You don't need to imagine the effects of extreme weather events in Kentucky. The American Red Cross has identified 153 homes destroyed and 139 with major damage in Pike, Carter, Lewis and Rowan counties from July floods.

The Appalachian-News Express in Pikeville reported that "as the waters receded and the sun came up (the morning after the most recent Pike flooding), the full effects of the devastation became clearer, leaving some to wonder how the county or its people will ever recover."

"Human society has developed for thousands of years under one climatic state," the NOAA report stresses, "and now a new set of climatic conditions are taking shape."

Scientists attribute the rapid warming to a build-up in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels for energy.

A long-awaited bill that would cap and begin reducing carbon emissions appears dead in the U.S. Senate, killed by those who are happy to bail out coal, oil and other business interests at a high cost to humanity's future.