Extreme weather, drought, and our uncertain future

Climate change’s uncertain future for our planet and the tragic consequences being felt across the world are not news to me. But this year — and particularly this holiday season, when I ventured back to visit the town where I grew up on the Lost Coast of Northern California — it truly hit home.

My awareness of the drought’s severity spiked when I got in the car with my dad. We were about to leave Berkeley, headed towards the Redwood Highway that leads home. My dad eyed the laundry bag I’d brought along and said, “You might want to wait on that until you get back here. Our water is lower right now than I’ve ever seen it during this time of year.”

California just experienced its driest year on record, and the city of San Francisco is seeing its driest year since records began during the Gold Rush year of 1849. Over the next week, I realized how badly this drought has been felt at home. The spring where our water comes from was frighteningly low. My family was taking measures to cope that I only remembered having to take in the extremely dry summers.

So I was shocked to learn that we’d be peeing outside to avoid flushing the toilet, taking much fewer and shorter showers, and rinsing dishes in a basin of days-old dirty water — in the winter when, for as long as I can remember, rain would normally pour down so abundantly that our dirt road would flood over, and we’d have to go out in the rain to re-dig the ditches to minimize damage.

Although these measures are not very drastic and haven’t caused us great inconvenience, it’s still shocking and scary to see how much our local climate is changing already. It makes us wonder — is this the new normal? If this is happening now, how bad will the future be?

Since he moved up there 46 years ago, the only other winter that my dad has seen come even close to this dry was in 1976 — the winter when my parents’ house burned down.

There’s also been a recent surge in fires in the area which, as my dad put it, is “completely bizarre this time of year.” He talked about how scary it was seeing fire trucks zoom down the highway last week. It reminded him of how devastated he and my mom were when the house burned down. And earlier on this summer and fall, the desperation of the drought drove people to steal water from the community and schools’ storage tanks.

And there’s a lot more crazy, extreme weather going on around the world. Now I know one instance of extreme weather can’t stand as proof of our changing climate, but overall, the trends show extremes that are unprecedented. Lately, the news has brought us stories of droughts, floods, super storms, and everything in between. It’s been cold when it ought to be warm, and it’s been warm when it ought to be cold. People all over are beginning to feel the tremors of real change.

Cities along the East Coast experienced a record-breaking December heat wave which shattered previous high temperatures for this time of year, including by as much as 10 degrees in Central Park. Seventy degrees Fahrenheit in New York – in December? That’s pretty much unheard of.

And just a few months ago, our planet experienced its warmest November in recorded history.

Last week, much of the U.S. was in the midst of an extreme cold snap, bringing the coldest temperatures seen since January 1994 to many locations. (Scientists think this is also indirectly connected to climate change. The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the globe, which may be disrupting the path of the jet stream, causing it to form large waves that allow cold arctic air to periodically move south and cover the continental U.S.)

People are taking notice. What was described as “weird” has started to turn into “spooky.” Jeff Masters, the most widely read meteorologist on the web, describes the weather over recent years as “pretty much unprecedented.” Weather historian Christopher Burts has called it “almost like science fiction.”

My family is fortunate enough to have water stored, so the situation for us is not entirely dire yet. But we want to avoid using that water unless absolutely necessary to gear up for the unexpected — we don’t know what the coming months will bring. This past weekend, we felt the tease of a light drizzle, but that’s not enough to sustain the plants and people that depend on water in California. I pray that we’ll get some rain soon, or who knows what kind of drought and fire danger we’ll face this summer.

JFK once said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Climate change is the most profound danger humanity has ever faced, but it’s also an opportunity to marshal our best efforts to confront the causes and change things for the better. We’ve just got to act now more than ever, before our climate goes completely berserk.

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