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El Niño And Global Warming - Contributing Factors To Chile's Fires And California's Floods

El Niño and global warming - contributing factors to Chile's fires and California's floods. In distant corners of the world known for their moderate climates, tragic disasters have struck with lethal force.

Cecilia Jones
Feb 07, 202431 Shares3471 Views
El Niño and global warming - contributing factors to Chile's fires and California's floods. In distant corners of the world known for their moderate climates, tragic disasters have struck with lethal force. Chile's forested hillsides have been ravaged by wildfires, claiming the lives of over 120 individuals, while Southern California has been inundated by record-breaking rains, swelling rivers, and triggering deadly mudslides.
At the heart of these calamities lie two formidable influences: the escalating impact of climate change, exacerbating both droughts and heavy precipitation and the natural meteorological phenomenon of El Niño, capable of magnifying extreme weather events.
In California, meteorologists had issued warnings for days about an exceptionally potent storm fueled by unusually high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, known as an atmospheric river. The downpour commenced over the weekend, prompting the declaration of a state of emergency in multiple counties. By Monday, authorities cautioned that the Los Angeles area could face rainfall equivalent to a year's worth in just a single day.
Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, Chile has endured a prolonged drought spanning nearly a decade. This dire backdrop set the stage for a catastrophic weekend, as wildfires erupted amidst a severe heatwave. The president has since declared two days of national mourning and cautioned that the toll from the devastating blazes may rise significantly.
A view of homes and buildings in the town of Quilpué before the wildfires
A view of homes and buildings in the town of Quilpué before the wildfires
A view of destroyed homes and buildings in the town of Quilpué after the wildfire
A view of destroyed homes and buildings in the town of Quilpué after the wildfire
The floods and fires underscore the perilous consequences of a perilous blend of global warming, primarily driven by the combustion of fossil fuels, and this year's El Niño, a cyclical weather pattern marked by elevated temperatures in the Pacific Ocean near the Equator.
The tragedies in Chile and California come on the heels of the hottest year experienced both on land and in the oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they serve as a warning of what is most likely to be among the top five warmest years on record.
"These synchronized fires and floods in Chile and California are certainly a reminder of the weather extremes and their impacts in otherwise benign Mediterranean climates," John Abatzoglou, a climate scientist at the University of California, Merced, said in an email. Climate variables, along with El Niño’s effects "are the main instruments in the orchestra for individual extreme events," he said, "with the drum of climate change beating louder and louder as the years go by."
In California, the Pacific Ocean's unusually high temperatures have amplified the intensity of atmospheric river storms, which commenced on Saturday and are forecasted to persist for at least another day. Some areas of the Santa Monica Mountains received over seven inches of rainfall over the weekend, triggering mudslides in affluent neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
Parts of the region could potentially see up to 14 inches of rainfall on Monday, nearing the annual average precipitation. City and state authorities have strongly advised residents to avoid traveling on the roads. Rainfall is expected to reach its peak around the evening commute period.
The two disasters underscore an often overlooked peril of climate change, according to some experts. While considerable resources and focus have been directed toward preparing for drought in California, the likelihood of successive heavy storms is also increasing in a warming climate. "We're not really ready," remarked Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a video he shared online on Monday morning.
"We've neglected to seriously consider the large plausible increases in flood risk in a warming climate," he said.
Brett F. Sanders, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Irvine, specializing in flood management, noted that atmospheric river events, such as the current one impacting the state, have been forecasted by climate models. These events are now posing new challenges for urban planners.
"The mentality of the past was that we could control floods, and contain where flooding happened. And outside of that, communities and businesses and residents could kind of go about what they do, and not think about floods," Dr. Sanders said. "But we know now that, around the U.S., we're seeing that infrastructure is undersized to contain the extreme weather of today."
View of the Quebrada Escobares neighborhood before wildfire damage
View of the Quebrada Escobares neighborhood before wildfire damage
View of the wildfire damage in the Quebrada Escobares neighborhood after the wildfire
View of the wildfire damage in the Quebrada Escobares neighborhood after the wildfire
Chile has been grappling with severe fire weather conditions due to a persistent drought spanning much of the past decade, which has desiccated forests and depleted water reservoirs. The weekend saw the onset of a severe heatwave, characteristic of an El Niño phase. During such periods, elevated ocean temperatures in certain parts of the Pacific Ocean can disrupt global climate patterns, leading to increased precipitation in some areas while exacerbating drought conditions elsewhere.
Compounding the situation in regions of Chile affected by heat and drought are extensive monoculture plantations of highly flammable trees situated near urban areas. When fires ignited, strong and hot winds rapidly propelled flames, resulting in devastating consequences. Aerial footage depicted cars and homes in the Valparaiso region, one of the country's renowned tourist destinations, reduced to ashes.
Chile has experienced a recurring threat of fires during the sweltering summer months. Approximately 1.7 million hectares have been consumed by flames over the past decade, marking a threefold increase compared to the territory burned in the preceding decade. A recent study published in the journal Naturerevealed that the combination of El Niño events and climate-induced droughts and heatwaves significantly elevates the local fire risk, decisively contributing to the heightened fire activity observed in Central Chile in recent years.
Despite an increase in government funding for firefighting this year, it proved inadequate to prevent the worst fires the country has experienced in a decade. Sarah Feron, one of the study's authors, interpreted this as a harbinger of future challenges. "In some regions of the world, we are facing climate-fueled disasters we are not prepared for and that we will unlikely to be able to fully adapt to," she remarked.
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