In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal. Newsweek's Sharon Begley on why we're unprepared for the harrowing future, and how adapting to the inevitable might be our only option.
Joplin, Missouri, was prepared. The tornado warning system gave residents 24 minutes' notice that a twister was bearing down on them. Doctors and nurses at St. John's Regional Medical Center, who had practiced tornado drills for years, moved fast, getting patients away from windows, closing blinds, and activating emergency generators. And yet more than 130 people died in Joplin, including four people at St. John's, where the tornado sucked up the roof and left the building in ruins, like much of the shattered city.
Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather's extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.
One lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven't seen anything yet. And we are not prepared.
Picture California a few decades from now, a place so hot and arid the state's trademark orange and lemon trees have been replaced with olive trees that can handle the new climate. Alternating floods and droughts have made it impossible for the reservoirs to capture enough drinking water. The picturesque Highway 1, sections of which are already periodically being washed out by storm surges and mudslides, will have to be rerouted inland, possibly through a mountain. These aren't scenes from another deadly weather thriller like The Day After Tomorrow. They're all changes that California officials believe they need to brace for within the next decade or two. And they aren't alone. Across the U.S., it's just beginning to dawn on civic leaders that they'll need to help their communities brave coming dangers brought by climate change, from disappearing islands in Chesapeake Bay to dust bowls in the Plains and horrific hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet only 14 states are even planning, let alone implementing, climate-change adaptation plans, says Terri Cruce, a climate consultant in California. The other 36 apparently are hoping for a miracle.