THE NEWS FROM the natural world these days is mostly about water, and understandably so.
We hear about the record-setting amounts of water that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston and other Gulf cities and towns, mixing with petrochemicals to pollute and poison on an unfathomable scale. We hear too about the epic floods that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Bangladesh to Nigeria (though we don’t hear enough). And we are witnessing, yet again, the fearsome force of water and wind as Hurricane Irma — one of the most powerful storms ever recorded — leaves devastation behind in the Caribbean, with Florida now in its sights.
Yet for large parts of North America, Europe, and Africa, this summer has not been about water at all. In fact it has been about its absence; it’s been about land so dry and heat so oppressive that forested mountains exploded into smoke like volcanoes. It’s been about fires fierce enough to jump the Columbia River; fast enough to light up the outskirts of Los Angeles like an invading army; and pervasive enough to threaten natural treasures, like the tallest and most ancient sequoia trees and Glacier National Park.
For millions of people from California to Greenland, Oregon to Portugal, British Columbia to Montana, Siberia to South Africa, the summer of 2017 has been the summer of fire. And more than anything else, it’s been the summer of ubiquitous, inescapable smoke.
For years, climate scientists have warned us that a warming world is an extreme world, in which humanity is buffeted by both brutalizing excesses and stifling absences of the core elements that have kept fragile life in equilibrium for millennia. At the end of the summer of 2017 — with major cities submerged in water and others licked by flames — we are currently living through Exhibit A of this extreme world, one in which natural extremes come head-to-head with social, racial, and economic ones.
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