Expanding drought conditions, coupled with hot and dry weather, extreme wind and unstable atmospheric conditions, have led to explosive fire behavior in the south-western US, federal officials warned. The climate crisis has set the stage for increasing and intensifying heatwaves in the coming decades, and models indicate that there could be between 25 and 30 extreme events a year by mid-century – up from an average of between four and six a year historically. They are also expected to cover wider swaths of land regionally than before.
Wildfires have broken out this spring earlier than usual across multiple states in the western US, where climate change and an enduring drought are fanning the frequency and intensity of forest and grassland fires. The nation is far outpacing the 10-year average for the number of square miles burned so far this year. Nationally, more than 5,700 wildland firefighters were battling 16 uncontained large fires that had charred over a half-million acres (2,025 sq km) of dry forest and grassland, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The largest fire currently burning in the US has blackened more than 300,000 acres. In New Mexico, the country’s biggest blaze – and the largest in state history – continues to burn.
Dozens of states across the US are bracing for historically high spring temperatures this weekend, as a scorching heatwave moves east. The early onslaught of sweltering weather, before what’s expected to be another hot, dry summer, is forecast to break or tie roughly 130 heat records for this time of year, with temperatures between 20F and 30F above average in the mid-Atlantic and north-east.
More than 120 million Americans are expected to be affected by the punishing heat, raising fears of health risks for the most vulnerable, outdoor workers and those who do not have access to indoor cooling. The National Weather Service issued a special statement cautioning residents to remain vigilant for signs of heat illness, take breaks inside when possible, and stay hydrated. Heat is a silent killer, often responsible for more deaths than higher-profile disasters like floods, hurricanes or tornadoes, and the rising toll is expected to worsen as the world warms.
Records are expected to be broken in large swaths of the east, including in Washington DC, forecast to hit 96F on Saturday, and in Boston, which could get up to 93F. Already, Texas has been pummeled by the heat, which delivered Dallas’s hottest May in history, and the south-west has cooked as strong winds fanned wildfire risks throughout the drought-stricken region.
Meanwhile, India's heatwave also continues. Last weekend, as temperatures in some parts of India’s capital Delhi hit a record-breaking 49C.
“In a warming world, I would expect a place like India to experience these types of events as the norm rather than as an extreme,” said Luke Parsons, a climate researcher in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. “As we warm the globe, not only do the midday temperatures rise, but also the heat exposure in the early morning hours and evenings, times when outdoor workers traditionally do more labour intensive tasks. Therefore we will see more people exposed to extreme and unsafe labour conditions."
Farmers across north India began to harvest their wheat crop in mid-April, amid temperatures that were regularly above 40C, they were confronted with damaged, shrivelled grain. Unseasonable winter rain and then a scorching summer heatwave that arrived two months early – both markers of climate change – had stunted crop growth and laid waste to grain and their livelihoods. The wheat harvest losses, which occurred across India, have left the farmers in terrible debt, having loaned money from a middleman to pay for seeds and fertiliser, but all found themselves with at least 50% less grain to sell. Profits from the harvest were not nearly enough to cover the money owed, and now interest on those debts is rising.
The low wheat yield had meant that the government’s own supplies have dipped to a 13-year low, and the shortage – exacerbated by alleged hoarding of wheat by private traders – led to prices in wheat and flour soaring by 40% in recent weeks. The Indian government announced it was putting a ban on all wheat exports, due to the heatwave decimating India’s expected harvest.
German agricultural minister Cem Özdemir warned that “if everyone starts to impose export restrictions or to close markets, that would worsen the crisis”. The United States said it hoped “India would reconsider” its decision to ban wheat exports which “will make the current global food shortage even worse”.