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How Climate Change Is Setting The Stage For Natural Disasters

NOEL KING, HOST:

In addition to being the year of COVID, 2020 was also a year of extreme wildfires and hurricanes, in part because global temperatures were among the hottest ever recorded. Here's NPR's Lauren Sommer.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: If you caught the weather report in Phoenix, Ariz., this year, you heard one number over and over.

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UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: All right, Jamie. We are hoping for some cooler weather, but I know we're just hovering around these hundreds.

SOMMER: It was over 100 degrees a lot - on a record-breaking 145 days in all.

MARVIN PERCHA: Well, basically, almost everything set records.

SOMMER: Marvin Percha is a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Phoenix.

PERCHA: I've lived here a long time. I grew up here in the '70s, and I've never seen anything quite like this.

SOMMER: Phoenix also doubled the number of days it's been above 115 degrees, and those extremes are dangerous. Almost 300 people died because of heat-related causes in Maricopa County - another record number.

PERCHA: Certainly with the overall warmer Earth, it makes it more likely to get these extreme temperatures.

SOMMER: And those temperatures set the stage for other disasters.

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ARI SHAPIRO: 2020 hurricane season has been uniquely awful. There have been 30 named storms so far - a new record.

SOMMER: Warm waters in the Atlantic fueled the most active hurricane season on record, and many storms intensified quickly, building strength faster than expected. The records kept falling in the Western U.S. too, where wildfires burned more than 9 million acres. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes, some with only minutes to spare. Three states - California, Oregon and Colorado - had the largest fires in their recorded history. Dan McEvoy, a climatologist with the Desert Research Institute, says heat was one of the reasons.

DAN MCEVOY: When you have elevated temperatures and extra dry atmosphere, that really makes the fuels more flammable and easier to burn.

SOMMER: A hot, dry atmosphere is thirsty, he says. It's like a sponge pulling moisture out of plants and soils. That creates the conditions for fires to move fast and burn hot.

MCEVOY: Fire on the landscape in the West is normal. We need that fire. But the thing that's changing is how quickly they become these large megafires.

SOMMER: McEvoy has done studies showing how heat will dramatically increase this fire danger in the West. But even he's surprised to see it play out so quickly.

KRISTINA DAHL: This year is - I mean, how many times can we say the word unprecedented?

SOMMER: Kristina Dahl is a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

DAHL: Events like that make it really hit home for climate scientists that this is not just something theoretical that we're predicting; it's something that we are living through.

SOMMER: 2020 is basically tied with 2016 for the hottest year ever recorded at almost 2 degrees above average. But whether it takes the top spot is beside the point, Dahl says. The last five years were the five hottest on record since 1880, and it's only expected to get worse.

DAHL: For me personally, I think that there's not going to be one wake-up call that spurs the public in the U.S. and our policymakers into action. It's more the accumulation of all of these events and all of the heartache that is incurred because of them.

SOMMER: That heartache, she says, should be a reminder that the more fossil fuels are burned, the more years like this we should expect to see.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THOSE WHO RIDE WITH GIANTS' "THE MOUNTAIN SEED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.