Climate Corner: Human stories amid our changing climate
Sep 9, 2023
This column often focuses on facts and figures, and those are important, but today I want to share stories from the front lines of climate change. We in the Mid-Ohio Valley are–for the moment–in one of the areas spared the worst of climate change effects, but some of the places and people we care about are increasingly in harm’s way.
Part of my childhood was spent on Fort Myers Beach, a barrier island off the coast of southwest Florida. My sister and I spent a lot of time at the public beach, watching the sunset from the pier and occasionally visiting the tiny restaurants and snack bars that dotted the small commercial district. My mother and her sister at one time worked at an old-fashioned drug store in that same commercial hub, my father in the produce section of a nearby grocery. When Hurricane Ian made landfall a year ago, that area was leveled–not a single building left standing and most of the pier washed away. While I had not missed the island enough to visit in the last forty years, knowing that every structure from that area where we spent so much time was destroyed — in a single storm — was a shock.
2023 has been the year of wildfires. The smoke from Canada that blanketed the eastern U.S. for several days was followed by the devastating fires on Maui, which killed 115 people, with more than 300 others still unaccounted for. And the fires keep coming.
WVUP journalism graduate Matthew Stephens edits the Cheney Free Press in Spokane County, Wash., where wildfires last month burned more than 20,000 acres and left two people dead. His reporting and photographs brought home the reality of the fires’ devastation. Stunned evacuees reported having to change course while seeking shelter because the fire spread so fast as to close off their initial escape route, burning some 10,000 acres in a matter of minutes. Traffic on one of the roads that remained open backed up nearly 20 miles at one point.
Animals that escaped or were in some cases turned loose when their owners fled have been held at a local fairgrounds, where veterinarians are treating them and volunteers are attempting to reunite them with their owners. When Matt was photographing the aftermath, he met a woman walking around with a bag of chicken feed, hoping that some of her chickens had escaped the flames. Miraculously, some had. The full coverage can be seen at https://www.cheneyfreepress.com/.
Most of us probably think hurricanes are Louisiana’s most common natural disaster, but right now, the state is on fire, a third of its parishes having declared wildfire emergencies. One of the driest summers on record has led to an average of 21 wildfires per day in the state, with more than 60,000 acres burned as of Aug. 30. Another WVUP graduate, now living near Fort Johnson, had to evacuate when the Vernon Parish fire reached to within a football-field length of her home.
On Aug. 30, Hurricane Idalia made landfall on Florida’s central Gulf coast, with 125-mile-an-hour winds and storm surges of up to ten feet. Bridges closed, stranding residents who did not evacuate in time. Much of Tampa, where I lived for eight years, was under water. Tropical Storm Lee, now forming in the Atlantic, is forecast to become a Category 4 hurricane over the next few days, with winds of 145 miles an hour.
What do these disasters have to do with climate change? Droughts, fires, and hurricanes are nothing new in our planet’s history; however, they are becoming more common as increased levels of atmospheric CO2 lead to warmer air and ocean temperatures. Warmer oceans, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cause hurricanes to strengthen and become more deadly. NASA has documented the effects of warmer air temperatures on rain patterns, with increased drought conditions in many areas and more intense rain events in others. The Mid-Ohio Valley has thus far not experienced the worst of our current climate extremes, but we cannot be sure that our good luck will continue.
Rebecca Phillips is a WVU Parkersburg retiree and a member of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action and the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta.