Kentucky tornado climate change

Peter Dykstra: 2021's unnatural disasters

Unlike downpours, droughts, hurricanes, typhoons and more calamities, there isn’t a clear, undebatable link between climate change and tornadoes.


But last week’s horrific twisters—and hurricane-force winds in a mid-week system—added on to an unprecedented weather year. Let’s rewind to February.

Polar vortex and extreme heat 

The polar vortex brought the Jet Stream and its Arctic air far down south, freezing pipes and knocking out power for millions. The deep freeze was blamed for at least 275 deaths in Texas, Oklahoma, and surrounding states

Hundreds more died in June, when an unheard-of heat wave gripped the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Oregon, reached 116° F (46.7° C). Lytton, British Columbia, set the all-time Canadian record of 121° F (49.4° C).

Related: Worsening heat waves are hammering the disabled community

As roads buckled in a region completely unfamiliar with such heat, scientists said it would be “virtually impossible” for such a heat wave without climate change.

The heat, and record drought, helped spawn a summer of record wildfires. Oregon’s Bootleg Fire burned nearly half a million acres; California’s Dixie Fire doubled it later in the summer.

Hurricanes and water levels 

In late August, Hurricane Henri turned into a tropical storm rainmaker, drenching an area from New Jersey to Nova Scotia. New York’s Central Park received two inches of rain in an hour—then five inches more the next day for good measure. Both were records.

Days later, Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a Category 4, causing $64 billion in damage, according to NOAA. The storm stayed alive long enough to become a lethal rainmaker from Maryland into New England.

Related: How toxic wildfire smoke affects pregnant people

There were record-low water levels in Lakes Powell and Mead, the Colorado River mega-reservoirs. They provide hydropower and water for the cities of the Southwest and irrigation for much of America’s produce. There is at best faint hope that the Colorado will bounce back, even as L.A., San Diego, Phoenix, and Las Vegas continue to grow.

California’s Lake Oroville saw record low levels this summer, only four years after record high levels raised fears of a catastrophic dam failure.

Last month, torrential rains returned to British Columbia. Once all the damage is tallied, it may turn out to be the costliest “natural” disaster in Canadian history.

Overseas, record flooding in Germany, unprecedented sandstorms in Beijing, stunningly accelerating ice-melt in Greenland, and a continental record 119° F (48.3° C) in Sicily were just a few of the reasons that this isn’t a North American anomaly.

Taking the natural out of natural disasters 

So let’s take the “natural” out of most kinds of natural disasters. Volcanoes? Still natural. Earthquakes? Sure, unless they’re the little ones associated with fracking operations. Plagues of locusts? Natural, I think, but I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing one.

Most of the others? Is it asking too much of us that we don’t assault Mother Nature, them hang the blame on her?

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.

His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.

Banner photo: Aftermath of the Mayfield, Kentucky, tornados, December 2021. (Credit: State Farm/flickr)

With the fingerprints of climate change on so many “natural disasters,” it’s time to retire “natural.”

Feds to launch environmental review of Md. offshore wind energy project

The offshore wind developer called the federal government's announcement of an environmental review 'a significant milestone.'
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Intermountain encourages electric vehicle charging

Along with their dedication to Utahns’ health and wellbeing, those at Intermountain Healthcare are committed to sustainability and cleaner air.

Nate Blouin: Fighting climate change in Utah will take political courage

You can’t miss the impacts of climate change all around us. The challenges we face demand urgency, but I’m an optimist and I hold out hope that we can meet the calling of our time if we take action now.

The green transition must be union-powered

Instead of seeing the climate fight as siloed from the labor movement, Matthew Huber, a geography professor at Syracuse University, argues that working-class struggle has ecological stakes and that union power can be harnessed to disrupt the production of fossil fuels.

Ancient penguin bones reveal unprecedented shrinkage in key Antarctic glaciers

Antarctica’s Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are losing ice more quickly than they have at any time in the last few thousand years, ancient penguin bones and limpet shells suggest.

New tick diseases are sickening people

New tick diseases are emerging across the US and around the world — fueled by climate change — but doctors say they're difficult to diagnose.

Virginia coal production climbs
Ben Simo/Flickr

Virginia coal production climbs

Virginia coal production remains high, fueled by ongoing demand for steel as the U.S. embarks on an ambitious program of infrastructure investment and disruptions in energy markets linked to the war in Ukraine.

From our Newsroom
Colorado fracking

Colorado is the first state to ban PFAS in oil and gas extraction

The toxic “forever chemicals” are used in fracking wells across the country.

gun control

Peter Dykstra: Gun and climate change delusions

Millions here suffer from twin hallucinations: Guns don’t cause our mass shootings, and the climate isn’t changing.

Op-ed: An engine for social justice leads the way to change

Engine for social justice leads to change

Virginia Organizing's 27-year history as a role model for The Daily Climate

Using comedy to combat climate change

Using comedy to combat climate change

The Climate Comedy Cohort aims to help comedians infuse climate activism into their creative work.

roe v. wade

Derrick Z. Jackson: Roe v. Wade draft bodes ill for air, wetlands and the EPA

Justice Alito’s longstanding consistency in wanting to restrict EPA authority makes it transparent where he wants the court to go.

solar power schools

Solar power at Pennsylvania schools doubled during the pandemic

“If this growth continues, schools could set Pennsylvania up as a clean energy leader and not just the fossil fuels we’re known for.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.