Prevailing Winds

Photograph by Jeff Wilson

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

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“The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”
—Joan Didion

 

 

The wind is known as the great equalizer of the atmosphere. Caused by a combination of uneven heating and atmospheric pressure that result in the redistribution of air, it is capable of carrying information, heat, moisture, dust particles, and pollutants across vast distances. It connects ecosystems, alters landscapes. It is the unseen hand that shapes and reshapes our world.

 

On Thursday, hurricane Laura ravaged Louisiana, leaving a trail of destruction that included six lives lost, demolished buildings and neighborhoods, and close to a million homes without power. A category four storm with a top wind speed of 150 mph, it was one of the strongest to ever strike the United States—and the second tropical storm to hit the Gulf Coast in just two days.

 

The storms, coupled with the crippling wildfires in California, made for an eerily fitting backdrop for this week’s Republican National Convention. Thoughts and prayers were offered for those in the path of destruction, and yet the only mention of the climate crisis came in the form of stark denials and criticisms of the Green New Deal. “You wouldn’t know it if you watched the first night of the Republican National Convention, but we are in the middle of a climate emergency with scientists telling us we have just a few years to act in order to save our planet for future generations,” Senator Bernie Sanders said.

 

When it comes to the link between tropical cyclones and climate change, warmer water means more heat energy that is available for storms to develop. According to a recent study from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at NOAA, tropical cyclone intensities will continue to increase with global heating—including the number of storms that reach category four and five status. NOAA projects the number of these storms to increase by 20% globally and 29% in the Atlantic by 2081-2100. Perhaps even more alarming is that the same findings imply that we will need to expand our categories to higher than five. For perspective, a category four or higher hurricane like Laura has 256 times the potential for damage than a category one storm.

 

A similar connection exists between climate change and the fires in California. According to David Romps, Director of the Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center, “Were the heat wave and lightning strikes and the dryness of the vegetation affected by global warming? Yes. Were they made significantly hotter, more numerous, and drier because of global warming? Yes, likely yes, and yes.” And yet, the Trump administration continues to choose denial.

 

Included in the damage left in Laura’s wake is a petrochemical plant that went up in flames, spewing smog into the region. It’s a reality that’s not new for the prominently Black communities in the surrounding area—environmental racism in action. “The Biolab facility that’s burning out of control right now is part of the toxic soup that Mossville residents have been exposed to for decades,” said Monique Harden of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. Did I mention what is manufactured at that facility, the reason for this poisoning? Pool and spa cleaning supplies.

 

The far Right can continue to deny the epidemic of racism in America just as it denies the pandemic, the climate crisis, and the way the winds are changing in this country. That’s the thing about the wind, though: it may be invisible in its approach, but it’s also undeniable in its force. And it only gets stronger with pressure. So when the storm comes, they better be ready.

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