A string of climate disasters strike before summer even starts

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In Montana and Wyoming, massive flooding has destroyed bridges, swept away homes, and forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 visitors from Yellowstone National Park. Half a million households in the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley lost power earlier this week after violent thunderstorms swept through. And a record-setting heat wave pushed temperatures into the triple digits from Nebraska to South Carolina, leaving more than 100 million Americans under heat warnings and killing at least 2,000 cattle in Kansas.

The official first day of summer has not even arrived and already the country is overheated, waterlogged and suffering. Extreme weather is here early, testing the nation’s readiness and proving, once again, that overlapping climate disasters are now becoming more frequent and upending Americans’ lives.

“Summer has become the danger season where you see these kinds of events happening earlier, more frequently, and co-occurring,” said Rachel Licker, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research and advocacy group. “It just shows you how vulnerable our infrastructure is and that this is just going to get increasingly problematic.”

The Midwest is at the center of this shift. Hit with an unseasonably early heat wave in May that smashed records, the region has since been buffeted by more heat as well as severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners lost power earlier this week as temperatures soared into the upper 90s.

Licker, who lives in Madison, Wis., sought refuge at the library. But some of her elderly neighbors had to be helped out of their sweltering homes, where they had been trapped after finding they could not open their garage doors without electricity.

The power came back the following day, but by Wednesday, Licker was battling severe weather once again, sheltering from tornadoes in her basement. That afternoon, the National Weather Service issued 10 different weather advisories and notices for the region, including an excessive heat warning.

“It’s been really wild,” she said.

This deluge had deadly consequences: A 10-year-old boy was swept away in a Milwaukee drainage ditch following severe thunderstorms there.

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Several experts say these types of simultaneously occurring disasters reveal the extent to which Americans remain unprepared for the escalating impacts of climate change. Downed power lines, homes swept away amid flooding and overwhelmed storm water systems highlight how little progress governments have made toward girding communities for extreme weather.

Yet, they caution, there are limits to how much the nation can adapt. The world has already warmed between 1.1 and 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the preindustrial average. If countries continue emitting carbon pollution at historically high rates, the future will be hotter — and harder to bear.

“We cannot take a punch from one these hazards alone, forget about three or four of them simultaneously,” said Camilo Mora, a climate scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who studies cascading disasters. “The idea that we can keep emitting greenhouse gases and buy our way out of it later with adaptation just doesn’t make any sense.”

Mora and other scientists’ research suggests that by 2100, unless humans act quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions, some parts of the world could experience as many as six climate-related disasters at the same time. Coastal areas are likely to be hit the hardest, since they are affected not only by extreme heat and intensifying wildfires, but also by rising sea levels and increasingly devastating hurricanes.

Across the United States, climate change is already worsening the damage from extreme weather. Between 2017 and 2021, more than 8 million acres, on average, burned each year — more than double the average between 1987 and 1991, the Congressional Budget Office found in a report released Thursday. While much of the West endures an unprecedented drought, a study published last year found that the Northeast has seen a 53 percent increase in extreme rainfall since 1996.

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President Biden on Thursday approved Montana’s request for a major disaster declaration, a move that provides federal aid to three counties devastated by this week’s flooding. At a briefing Wednesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration was also closely monitoring the record temperatures affecting much of the country.

A significant heat dome has been crowding weather maps over the Lower 48 states for the past week, bringing blistering temperatures that have toppled records. Highs have risen 10 to 20 degrees above average in some parts, and some places have seen their hottest and most humid weather ever observed during June.

Yellowstone National Park officials announced June 13 that all five entrances have been temporarily closed to visitors after record rainfall. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

In Montana and Wyoming, heavy weekend rains converged with rapid snowmelt, resulting in devastating flooding that destroyed miles of roads and bridges in Yellowstone National Park and damaged hundreds of homes in surrounding communities. No one was reported hurt or killed.

With the Yellowstone River running at historically high levels, Billings, Montana’s largest city, was unable to operate its water treatment plant, which pumps water from the river. The plant shut down late Tuesday but, by Thursday morning, was running again. Further west in Livingston, the city’s hospital was evacuated after its driveway flooded, leaving no safe way to enter or exit the facility.

Meteorologists said the deluge was months in the making. While most of the country saw warmer than normal weather over the last 60 days, cooler air hovered over the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies, delaying snowmelt in the high mountains. An unusual late-season storm in May dumped even more heavy snow on the region.

Then, late last week, a 3,000-mile long jet of moisture called an atmospheric river began soaking the Pacific Northwest, delivering record-setting rainfall. When it reached the Yellowstone River Basin, it released a burst of rain and a pulse of warm air, deluging the region and simultaneously melting the equivalent of an additional 2 to 5 inches of water from the snow, according to the National Weather Service.

On the 1-to-5 scale for such atmospheric river events that’s used by Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes, it was a 5.

Marty Ralph, who directs the center in San Diego, said it was “remarkably unusual” to see an atmospheric river so intense in June. Atmospheric rivers are most common in the West between late fall and early spring.

Business owners in Gardiner, a gateway community just north of Yellowstone National Park, are facing the possibility of a summer without tourists. Yellowstone remained closed Thursday. Though parts of the park may reopen next week, the northern portion of the park, which saw most of the damage, is not expected to reopen to visitors for months.

“The long-term health of Gardiner is going to depend on whether they get public access to the loop road in Yellowstone,” said Richard Park, owner of Parks’ Fly Shop. With large sections of road washed out between Gardiner and Mammoth just inside Yellowstone, businesses that cater to tourists will be strangled, he said.

Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Mont., experienced record rainfall and extensive flooding on June 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

For Alexis Bonogofsky — a sheep ranger and program manager for the World Wildlife Fund, an advocacy group — the flood represents only the latest in a series of disastrous events to strike her family farm just south of Billings.

Severe drought left her land parched last summer. Swarms of grasshoppers devoured what little grass grew and she had to sell some of her livestock because she didn’t have enough feed. Earlier this week, the Yellowstone River flooded 80 acres of Bonogofsky’s pastureland, damaging hundreds of feet of fence that kept her 30 ewes and 10 goats confined.

Bonogofsky said she fears residents are getting used to wave after wave of crises.

“Humans adapt quickly to these kinds of events and they’re becoming normal to us instead of seeing what’s going on,” she said. “We’re going to see these forms of natural disasters more frequently, and I hope that at some point people will realize what’s happening and start addressing the root cause.”

Phillips reported from Washington. Howard reported from Billings, Mont. Jason Samenow contributed to this report.

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