Drone Captures Historic Floods in Central China’s ‘iPhone City’

Gif: BBC News/YouTube

The BBC has aired drone footage of the devastation in Zhengzhou, a city in central China that has experienced deadly floods this week. At least 33 people have died in Henan province, with 376,000 more displaced by the historic flooding over the past seven days.

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The flooding caught international attention this week when at least 12 people were killed in Zhengzhou’s flooded subway. Footage of stranded passengers in chest-deep water went viral in what can only be described as a living nightmare.

Hospitals in Zhengzhou have been evacuated, with about 5,000 saved so far, according to Chinese state media outlet Xinhua. But many more are still waiting for help, as hospitals now lack supplies of food, water, and electricity. Internet is unavailable as well according to local reports.

Zhengzhou is home to the world’s largest iPhone assembly plant, though it’s not clear if the disaster will impact Apple’s supply chain. That’s obviously the least of anyone’s concerns at the moment.

The photos and video are absolutely heartbreaking, including the story of a baby pulled from the aftermath of a mudslide. The baby girl was buried in rubble but was saved by her mother, who was discovered dead on Thursday, according to the BBC.

These historic floods, where roughly eight months of rain fell in just a 24 hour period, according to the Financial Times, are going to only get worse as humanity struggles with the severe impacts of climate change. The rain of just three days in the province was a “once in a thousand year event,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Deadly floods have been hitting other parts of the world this month as well, with Germany seeing a death toll of at least 117 people from major floods that took the country by surprise.

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Sadly, this appears to be the world’s new normal.

Archaeologists Find Ancient Roman Road in the Venetian Lagoon

San Giorgio Maggiore island in the Venetian lagoon in 2019.

San Giorgio Maggiore island in the Venetian lagoon in 2019.
Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP (Getty Images)

Researchers have spotted the remains of a Roman-era road at the bottom of the Venice’s famous Venetian Lagoon. The discovery gives clues to what the city looked like in antiquity, well before the legendary date of its founding in 421 CE.

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The Venetian Lagoon is the water body on which Venice sits, tucked away from the Adriatic Sea thanks to a couple of wafer-thin barrier islands, Lido and Pellestrina. Over the centuries, the water level in the lagoon has gone up and down but mostly risen, erasing old features from the landscape and creating entirely new ones. That also means that the archaeological record is faltering, with hints of habitation—the remains of a tower here, a stop-and-go bit of road there—but much of it concealed under the blue-green waves. The recent team’s analysis of these huge submerged features in the lagoon was published today in Scientific Reports.

“We have to imagine a totally different landscape at that time, in order to understand why we find a road, a tower, and probably many other structures along the inlet,” said study co-author Maddalena Bassani, an archaeologist at Università Iuav di Venezia, in a video call. “It’s important to try and represent this different situation to encourage the idea of protection of this place.”

A reconstruction of how the road may have looked in Roman times (left), and the site today (right).

A reconstruction of how the road may have looked in Roman times (left), and the site today (right).
Graphic: Fantina Madricardo

The research team scanned the floor of the Treporti Channel, a waterway a few miles east of the city. They found 12 rectangular features lined up over the course of about three-quarters of a mile, ranging from about 6 to 60 feet wide. Some of the structures were over 12 feet tall, and one was massive, with an almost circular protuberance. The team suspects that the formation, which would’ve sat on the water based on previous research on water level change in the area, may have been a harbor structure, perhaps a dock.

“There was very, very little information about the world of the tidal channels, because the water is very turbid and the currents are very strong. It’s difficult for divers to go there, and it’s difficult to sample,” said Fantina Madricardo, the study’s lead author and a physicist specializing in acoustic systems at the Institute of Marine Sciences in Venice, in a video call. “We collected a huge data set … At some point, I started to analyze the data more carefully and saw that there were features that were for sure anthropogenic.”

The Venetian police conducted dives in 2020 to investigate the features the team saw and found that some of the linear structures were made up of stones similar to Roman basoli, basically paving stones, indicating that the linear features were paved—ergo, a road. No maritime archaeologists have yet been on the site, though that may yet come. Though road has yet to be dated outright, amphorae (vases) dating to first century CE were found alongside it.

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One of the stones found when the diving police unit checked out the site in 2020.

One of the stones found when the diving police unit checked out the site in 2020.
Image: Squadra Sommozzatori della Polizia di Stato di Venezia

Roman remains have been found in the lagoon over the centuries, and many of those objects were repurposed for ongoing construction or new decorations, especially during the Medieval Period and the Renaissance. Much of the archaeological work in the lagoon is built on the work of Ernesto Canal, who in the 1960s spearheaded much of the early research into who inhabited the area before Venice was founded (Canal even suspected a Roman road lay at the bottom of the lagoon, according to Madricardo). But a lot of the knowledge of Roman habitation in the area was “gray literature,” Madricardo said—information that is included in places outside of the published archaeological record. That clouded the knowledge base the team was working with. Since Canal’s days, archaeological techniques like remote sensing have been developed, allowing Madricardo’s team to take high-resolution images of the lagoon’s floor without worrying about the murkiness of the water and before doing any dives.

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Though the road remnants lie at various points below the water, Madricardo said that’s not necessarily where the road was when it was in use. The land on which Venice sits is prone to natural subsidence, which could be hastened by anthropogenic changes to the landscape. Venice’s sinking is an existential concern today, but it also affects how the archaeological team interprets this submerged site. Based on paleoclimatological data, they know the road sat on what was once a beach stretching into the lagoon, but just when the structure slipped under the waves is still up for debate. Being bombarded by waves would have expedited its fall, the researchers wrote, but it will probably take more study to figure out the exact events that led to the disappearance of Roman habitation near Venice.

More: Venice High Tide Floods City, Worst in 50 Years

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Record Floods Unleash Deadly Destruction Across Central China

People look out at cars sitting in floodwaters after heavy rains hit the city of Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on July 21, 2021.

Photo: STR/AFP (Getty Images)

At least 25 people are dead and seven are missing in central China after a deluge of rain hit the province of Henan on Tuesday, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate, trapping passengers in subways, and turning city streets into rivers. Officials said that more than a dozen cities in Henan have been hit by the heavy rains, affecting 1.24 million people, and at least 160,000 people across the province have been evacuated.

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Videos and firsthand accounts posted to social media show an especially scary scene inside the subway in Zhengzhou, where commuters on the No. 5 subway line were trapped in water reaching up to their necks. Other riders filmed floodwaters rushing past doors. Officials said 500 have been rescued, but at least 12 people have died in the subway and five have been injured.

“I texted my mother, ‘Mom, I don’t think I can make it, I’m scared,’” a post by a person who was trapped in the subway and shared by state media online read. “I was on the brink of breaking down.”

The rain keeps falling in Zhengzhou and across the province—and the crisis keeps unfolding as the government scrambles to help people still in danger. By Wednesday, local media reported that some trains carrying some 10,000 passengers had been trapped in by deluge for more than 40 hours, including one train with more than 700 people aboard that has been stopped outside of the Zhengzhou city limits for two days. Officials said food and water supplies are running out for those still on the public transit system. Hospitals in Zhengzhou, a city of more than 10 million people, are also working to evacuate hundreds of patients as the power is still out and waters are still flooding buildings.

President Xi Jinping said in an appearance on state television Wednesday that the floods had caused “significant loss of life and damage to property” across the province. “Some reservoirs had their dams burst,” Xi said. “The flood control situation is extremely severe.”

Social media posts shared by state-affiliated media outlets show dramatic scenes from across Henan: a person being swept away by floods in the street, a group holding hands struggling waist-deep against water, firefighters floating children out of their flooded school in plastic bins, a woman being pulled out of raging water by a rope.

While urban flooding is common in China, the rainfall that unleashed these floods was record-setting. The annual rainfall average for Zhengzhou is 25.2 inches (64.1 centimeters), but 24.3 inches (61.7 centimeters) fell in the city between Saturday and Tuesday alone. The level of rain, state meteorologists said, was a “once in a thousand years” event, and the heaviest rainfall in Zhengzhou in 60 years. The heaviest rate of rainfall in the city reached 7.95 inches (20.2 centimeters) per hour over the weekend, beating the previous record of 7.81 inches (19.9 centimeters) set in 1975.

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A 2017 study found that China hasn’t seen a change in average precipitation but that “the intensity of heavy rainfall and the area suffering from extreme precipitation events have expanded” since the 1950s. The study looked at the influence of natural climate factors as well as local human ones like urbanization and found that the latter played a greater role in the increase. Climate change has also increased the odds of heavy rainfall in large swaths of the world. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which makes downpours like the one hitting Zhengzhou more common. A 2018 study found that climate change will make extreme rainfall significantly more likely in Zengzhou.

The floods add to a growing set of climate-charged disasters, including wildfires raging across the U.S., Canada, and Siberia, deadly heat waves across the West, and floods in Detroit and across Europe that have devastated communities since the beginning of the summer.

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“Such extreme weather events will likely become more frequent in the future,” Johnny Chan, a professor of atmospheric science at City University of Hong Kong, told Reuters. “What is needed is for governments to develop strategies to adapt to such changes.”

6 Photos Show Siberia’s Raging Wildfire Season

A volunteer heads to douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha.

A volunteer heads to douse a forest fire in the republic of Sakha.
Photo: Ivan Nikiforov (AP)

According to Russian officials, more than 2,270 firefighters are taking on 187 active wildfires in Siberia. Heat gripping the region has played a role in making them worse. In June of this year, European Space Agency satellites recorded a jaw-dropping ground temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) in Yakutia, Eastern Siberia—hot enough to suggest that the area’s permafrost, which contains huge amounts of methane trapped in it, is in very serious trouble.

Areas above the Arctic Circle also saw freak heat in May and it continued into June. Last month, a large portion of central and northeastern Siberia averaged up to 12 degrees Fahrenheit (6.7 degrees Celsius) hotter than normal, according to data from NASA. That has helped give flames the fuel they need to burn the region over.

The Worst European Floods in 100 Years Have Left 120 Dead, 1,300 Missing

People use rubber rafts in floodwaters after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, Thursday, July 15.

People use rubber rafts in floodwaters after the Meuse River broke its banks during heavy flooding in Liege, Belgium, Thursday, July 15.
Photo: Valentin Bianchi (AP)

At least 120 people have died and around 1,300 people are still missing across western Europe in the wake of extreme rainfall, bursting rivers, and heavy flooding that devastated parts of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

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The bulk of the casualties were in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, where authorities say some mobile networks are still out of service, making it impossible to contact people on the ground. Some 114,000 people remained without power Friday. Most of the 1,300 people unaccounted for are in the northern part of Rhineland-Palatinate.

Infrastructure and Emergency Services Are Overwhelmed

The stories and photos coming out of the area are ghastly. Floodwaters swept through a disabled care home in a town south of Cologne, killing 12 of the 35 residents as they slept. The village of Schuld, population 700, was almost entirely destroyed by floods, and dozens are still missing there after houses collapsed.

“In some areas, we have not seen this much rainfall in 100 years,” Andreas Friedrich, a German weather service spokesman, told CNN. He also said that “in some areas we’ve seen more than double the amount of rainfall which has caused flooding and unfortunately some building structures to collapse.”

Authorities say they are taking in calls from people trapped in their homes by the flood but aren’t able to send rescue crews to get them. A minister for the state of Rhine-Westphalia said rescuers had carried out “about 30,000 missions” airlifting people from flooded and destroyed homes and buildings. A hospital on the banks of the Maas River in the Netherlands, which overflowed its banks and caused damage in multiple areas, is preparing to evacuate 200 patients in hopes of avoiding more flooding.

An area completely destroyed by floods in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, western Germany on July 15.

An area completely destroyed by floods in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, western Germany on July 15.
Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP (Getty Images)

“The network has completely collapsed. The infrastructure has collapsed. Hospitals can’t take anyone in. Nursing homes had to be evacuated,” a spokeswoman for the regional government of Cologne told Reuters.

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Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said this “could be the most catastrophic flooding our country has ever seen” and has declared July 20 a national day of mourning even as the toll of the disaster is still becoming clear.

Record-Breaking Rain Caused the Damage

The floods were preceded by widespread heavy rainfall, with totals that have shattered records. In France, the French national weather service reported that the equivalent of two months’ worth of rain fell over the past two days. Many locations saw up to 7 inches (178 millimeters) of rain over two days, according to the Weather Channel. Some totals were even more extreme, though.

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A station in Cologne clocked 6 inches (154 millimeters) of rain in 24 hours; the previous high had been around 3.7 (95 millimeters) of rain in one day. CNN reports that Reifferscheid, a town near Bonn, received 8.1 inches (207 millimeters) in just nine hours.

In Hof County, located in Bavaria along the Czech border, a station recorded 3.34 inches (85 millimeters) in just 12 hours, according to Accuweather. It came less than a week after the same station saw 3.5 inches (89 millimeters) in the course of a day, meaning the fresh batch of rain fell on already saturated soils that couldn’t absorb more water. That, along with how widespread the heavy rain was, worsened flooding.

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Destroyed houses are seen in Schuld, Germany, Thursday, July 15.

Destroyed houses are seen in Schuld, Germany, Thursday, July 15.
Photo: Michael Probst (AP)

“With climate change we do expect all hydro-meteorological extremes to become more extreme,” Carlo Buontempo, the director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, told the Guardian. “What we have seen in Germany is broadly consistent with this trend.”

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Heavy rainfall has become both more common and intense due to the climate crisis. That’s due to a simple relationship that warmer air can hold more water, increasing the odds of heavy downpours. When that extreme rainfall comes, it’s falling on infrastructure built for another era. This reality has unfortunately come to bear in Europe this week with deadly results. Other regions of the world have also seen intense rainfall recently with destructive results. Detroit was flooded late last month while the New York region, including the city’s subway, was recently overwhelmed by an afternoon of heavy rain.

A “Monumental Failure of the System”

It’s not just physical infrastructure that has failed to cope with the floods. The European Flood Awareness System, which monitors flood threats across the continent, issued an “extreme” flood warning earlier this week in anticipation of the heavy rain across multiple countries. Yet parts of Europe seem to have been so unprepared for the deluge.

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Germany’s federal meteorological service told Politico it had passed on the warning to local authorities and that they were responsible for evacuating citizens. Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist with EFAS, told Politico the disaster was “a monumental failure of the system.”

“I would have expected people to be evacuating, you don’t expect to see so many people dying from floods in 2021. This is very, very serious indeed,” she said.

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Aerial view shows an area completely destroyed by the floods in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, western Germany, on July 16.

Aerial view shows an area completely destroyed by the floods in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, western Germany, on July 16.
Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP (Getty Images)

The Floods Could Influence Germany’s Election

The floods are coming just ahead of this year’s German elections, set to be held in September, when the country will elect its new chancellor to replace Angela Merkel. The two leading candidates are Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party and the center-right Christian Democratic Union’s Armin Laschet, who is also the state president of North Rhine-Westphalia, where much of the destruction hit. There’s a chance, some analysts say, that the disasters could push public opinion more towards the Green Party and climate activism.

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Regardless of party, many German politicians voiced concern over how climate change may have juiced up this disaster.

“We’ve experienced droughts, heavy rain and flooding events several years in a row, including in our state,” said Malu Dreyer, the governor of Rhineland-Palatinate. “Climate [change] isn’t abstract anymore. We are experiencing it up close and painfully.”

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Satellite Images Reveal the Shocking Toll the Heat Wave Had on Pacific Northwest Snow and Ice

A satellite composite showing the North Cascades on June 26, 2021 and July 11, 2021. A wildfire is also visible.
Gif: Brian Kahn/Sentinel Hub

The North Cascades sit in Washington and run right up against the U.S.–Canadian border. The glaciers are an important source of water for farmers and residents. (The same is true for glaciers that dot the entire Cascade range, which runs from California to British Columbia.) In fact, the long, snake-like Lake Chelan visible in the lower part of the picture above provides drinking water for an entire district. Overall, the North Cascades glaciers provide a quarter of the region’s water supply in summer.

The glaciers and snow are also big when it comes to recreation; North Cascades National Park’s roughly 300 glaciers bring hikers and mountaineers from around the world. Mauri Pelto, the head of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project and vice president for academic affairs at Nichols College, is leading a team into the field to see how the ice is doing this year, particularly in the wake of the heat wave. The biggest concern is what the heat wave did to the snow, which normally acts as insulation for the glacial ice underneath.

“For us, the most important thing is just really having an assessment of how much of the glacier is bare ice,” Pelto said. “[This] is really crucial because if you think back to 2015, the real problem for those glaciers was that they were essentially mostly bare ice by Aug. 1. Ice melts, 30% to 40% faster in the same place snow would.”

Back in 2015, the region saw a major heat wave in early July. This year’s heat wave, though, was even more extreme. That doesn’t bode well for the snow.

The image above gives a sense of the scope of the snow’s disappearance (as well as the appearance of a wildfire, one of hundreds raging throughout the region).

Poor Neighborhoods Are Up to 7 Degrees Hotter Than Rich Ones

The sun sets behind power lines in Los Angeles, California on September 3, 2020.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP (Getty Images)

New research finds that not all Americans are equally bear the burden of extreme heat. Poorer communities are at disproportionate risk of searing temperatures, according to a study published in Earth’s Future, the American Geophysical Union’s interdisciplinary journal, on Tuesday.

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The findings come right as the West lives through another blistering heat wave. And as policymakers grapple with how to protect people from heat, it shows that some neighborhoods need more help than others to adapt as the climate crisis worsens.

To conduct the analysis, the authors used satellite surface temperature data for 1,056 U.S. counties that have 10 or more census districts within them. They found that in 76% of cases, poorer neighborhoods were notably hotter during the summer than wealthier ones. The temperature differences were stark—there can be an up to 7-degree-Fahrenheit (3.9-degree-Celsius) difference between rich and poor communities in a single county.

The researchers also found a stark difference between summer temperatures in white communities compared with communities of color. Even when areas had similar income levels, non-white neighborhoods were hotter than white ones in 71% of counties examined. Immigrants also face greater risk from heat: In 64% of all counties, regions with higher concentrations of non-U.S. citizens saw higher temperatures.

If you want to see if and how this plays out in your city or town, you can. The researchers made their data publicly available and created an interactive map. I used it to confirm that the fancy area north of my Baltimore neighborhood is, indeed, cooler during hot days.

The main reason for these disparities, the authors write, is that poorer neighborhoods of color tend to have more asphalt, buildings, and highways, all of which absorb the incoming solar energy and then radiate heat. The phenomenon, known as the heat island effect, has come under increasing scrutiny by researchers in the past several years, particularly the uneven distribution of it. Richer neighborhoods tend to include more green elements, like parks and tree-lined streets, which help beat the heat. Trees can provide shade from the heat, and through transpiration, vegetation also releases water, which cools the air as it turns into a vapor.

“The findings are really quite staggering,” Jeremy Hoffman, a climate scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia who was not involved in the research, said in a statement. “These disparities exist across virtually every built environment in the country. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but it is certainly concentrated underneath them across the U.S.”

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Separate recent studies have drawn similar conclusions. A Nature Communications report from May found that in nearly every major U.S. city, people of color are more likely to live in census tracts with a more intense heat island effect. And last month, one nonprofit research group published Tree Equity scores for 150,000 neighborhoods in 486 urban areas in the U.S., which showed that nationwide, wealthier areas have 65% more tree coverage than lower-income neighborhoods overall. Past research by Hoffman has also shown that formerly redlined neighborhoods—a racist practice that labeled Black neighborhoods as “risky” investments—experienced more intense heat as well.

One way to weather the extreme heat is to stay inside and crank the air conditioning, but that can be difficult for low-income communities who are more likely to already be struggling with electricity bills. A report out last year found poor households spent four times as much on utilities as well-off households.

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The findings speak to the need to keep people of all classes and races cool. There are a number of strategies to do so, including boosting investments in green space for low-income neighborhoods. This could come with additional co-benefits, like improvements in mental health. As the authors note, we’ll need to ensure that the introduction of green space doesn’t become an engine of gentrification, which has happened in the past.

Not addressing this disparity could allow risks to multiply, particularly as the climate crisis worsens. The study notes that these extra hot zones could put more people at risk of heat-related illness and reduce productivity, widening the wealth gap. Heat also amplifies the effects of pollutionwhich poor people of color are already disproportionately exposed tocreating a whole other layer of health issues. In the U.S., heat is the single most deadly form of extreme weather. Keeping people safe from high temperatures must be a priority.

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Moon’s Wobble Will Intensify Flooding Along U.S. Coasts by the Mid-2030s, Research Suggests

High-tide flooding in Honolulu, Hawaii.

High-tide flooding in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Image: Hawaii Sea Grant King Tides Project

Recurrent high-tide floods are expected to worsen as sea levels continue to rise on account of climate change, but, as a new study warns, a regularly occurring 18.6-year cycle involving the Moon could trigger unprecedented flooding along U.S. coasts in the 2030s.

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Nuisance flooding, sunny day flooding, or high-tide flooding—it’s all the same thing, and an annoying pain in the ass. In 2019, NOAA tracked more than 600 of these recurring high-tide flooding events, in which high tides extend 2 feet (0.6 meters) above the norm. These floods aren’t life threatening, but they can damage coastal infrastructure in affected areas and create annoyances like flooded parking lots. Needless to say, nuisance flooding is happening more frequently on account of human-induced climate change, and it’s poised to get even worse as sea levels continue to rise.

If that’s not bad enough, an 18.6-year lunar cycle is expected to amplify this effect even further, according to new research published in Nature Climate Change. The authors of the paper, led by Phil Thompson from the University of Hawaii, say the confluence of rising sea levels and a periodic wobble in the Moon’s orbit will increase the frequency and severity of high-tide floods along U.S. ocean coastlines. By the mid-2030s, tidal floods could occur in batches that last for a month or more and on a nearly daily basis, the scientists say. Members of NASA’s Sea Level Change Science Team from the University of Hawaii contributed to this research.

Scientists have known about this wobble in the Moon’s orbit since the early 18th century, as well as how alignments involving the Moon, Earth, and Sun can influence the tides. During the first half of this cycle, high tides are below the normal average and low tides are higher than normal. During the other half of the cycle, both the high and low tides are amplified, appearing both higher and lower than usual. The reason for this has to do with the Moon’s gravitational pull, which causes Earth’s ocean tides. We’re currently in the amplification phase of this cycle, but the Moon’s gravity is not affecting tides to the degree expected in the mid-2030s when the amplification phase renews.

This is all well known, but scientists are now having to predict the effect of this lunar cycle in the era of climate change and rising sea levels. Indeed, the situation looks bad, Moon wobble or no. Figures provided by NOAA paint a grim picture, with estimates suggesting global sea levels will rise by at least 12 inches (0.3 meters) by the turn of the century. Unfortunately, the world is currently on track for the worst-case sea level rise scenario that scientists have modeled and researchers have uncovered increasing worrisome signs about Antarctica’s ice. As of 2014, nearly 40% of the U.S. population inhabits coastal areas that could be vulnerable to rising sea levels.

“Low-lying areas near sea level are increasingly at risk and suffering due to the increased flooding, and it will only get worse,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement. “The combination of the Moon’s gravitational pull, rising sea levels, and climate change will continue to exacerbate coastal flooding on our coastlines and across the world.”

To build the new predictive model, Thompson and his colleagues studied tidal information gathered by 90 gauges distributed along U.S. coasts, statistics on high-tide flooding and meteorological events like El Niño events, astronomical cycles, among other data points. Recurrent high-tide floods are expected to happen more often along nearly all U.S. mainland coastlines, Hawaii, and Guam. Alaska won’t experience these problems for at least another decade or longer, because its land masses are actually rising on account of geological processes.

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Thompson said that high-tide floods are not as bad as hurricane storm surges, but he warned of the cumulative effects and also the emergence of “seeping cesspools” as a public health issue. Urban planners should take notice of the new findings and act accordingly, the scientists conclude in the study.

More: Sea level rise alone threatens to crush the global economy.

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The Climate-Safe Houses of the Future

When Brandon Jorgensen picked up the phone, he was in the middle of staging his latest house in Napa, California. “We are getting very very close to, I wouldn’t say fireproofing, but fire-resisting a house,” Jorgensen, an architect, said, speaking from the home’s driveway. He described the eight-inch (20-centimeter) wall of the house he’s building, layered like a cake. There’s a corrugated steel skin, a vapor barrier, aluminum foil-layered fiberboard, cement, and some fire-resistant drywall, all of which create a series of challenges for a potential fire to work through. When all is said and done, this house, Jorgensen said, has around a four-hour fire rating, meaning that “a fire could be right next to it, burning for four hours at 1400-plus degrees [Fahrenheit, or 760 degrees Celsius], and the house would stand.”

As climate change hits our world, our homes are increasingly coming under attack from raging fires, fierce storms, skyrocketing temperatures, and rising seas. The idea of weather-resilient homes of the future often conjure up images of Jetsons-like cities floating on water or geodesic domes that guard against heavy wind or rain. The eco-cool mansions of the rich and famous, which are often front-and-center in architectural publications, can make anyone think that the future of sustainable and climate-resilient homes are only for the wealthy and imaginative.

But, experts say, building climate-resilient homes is actually possible now—and they look a lot like the homes or apartments of the present day. Some of the things blocking our homes from becoming as resilient as they can be aren’t the need for new technologies, but simply a question of shaking up the world of regulations and code.

Jorgensen creates drool-worthy, cool California homes; you’d expect that his fireproof houses would cost a pretty penny more than the already expensive price tag required to build in the area. But Jorgensen said that his team is using low-tech design that doesn’t cost a lot extra to make the houses as safe as possible. “I try to set a situation up where you’re not reliant on technology” for fireproofing, he said. “It’s a question of a professional like me understanding the means and methods [of climate resilience] and then putting a team together to figure this all out, versus just going along and doing what’s been done before.”

Jesse Keenan, an associate professor in the school of architecture at Tulane University, pointed out how our homes are already being subtly influenced by climate change. “Architecture has been adapting to changing environments since the beginning of architecture,” he said. Just last year, he said, the American Society of Refrigeration, Heating, and Engineers, which puts out guidance maps for air conditioning regulations, updated its maps to allow for larger air conditioning units in more states because of rising heat.

“AC is moving further north,” he said. “Now, we need to think about larger units in places where we might have only had smaller units.”

Climate-proofing a house, meanwhile, often starts not with walls, but with the yard outside. For Jorgensen, making his homes fire-resistant includes setting low walls in the landscape to keep embers blowing along the ground from getting too close to the house. Other types of landscaping like mulch- and stone-filled gardens and hardy shrubs with less moisture can help discourage fires from spreading as can so-called “defensible space” clear of any type of vegetation. New California regulations slated to be developed by 2023 will require an “ember-resistant zone” around houses.

Homeowners living in fire-prone areas aren’t the only ones that need to think about their yards; for those in the paths of hurricanes, it’s also crucial to consider the trees that can fall during storms and destroy homes. A series of recommendations issued by the University of Florida based on a study that surveyed how hurricanes impacted trees in the Southeast between 1998 and 2005 advises that native species often fare best in heavy winds. Other tactics like planting trees in clusters to strengthen root systems and having cities and towns routinely remove dead or dying trees that could fall in storms are also among the recommendations. Dead or non-native tree on a property can be an equity issue, too. “The insurance companies, when they see dead trees [in the yard], they jack up the cost on the home,” Keenan said, which poses a problem for homeowners who can’t afford to remove problem trees from their properties.

Both Jorgensen and Keenan mentioned how the building industry is developing new materials that are more fireproof or extremely resistant to mold, the latter of which could be helpful not just in hurricanes but in the case of other types of floods.

Some people preparing for the future, however, are less interested in the possibilities of high tech solutions and more interested in helping people who can only afford the basic stuff. Those mold-resistant walls would likely come in handy for those who faced flooding in Detroit last month. But many affected community members barely have insurance to cover what was lost, let alone building back more resiliently. While prices might go down in the future, “those materials are horrendously expensive,” said Elizabeth English, a professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture and the founder of the Buoyant Foundation Project. “I’m trying to do this for people with fewer resources.”

English’s work on amphibious homes showcases how climate-proofing homes can be relatively inexpensive—but doing so can run up against outdated regulations. She was studying how wind-borne debris affects architecture at Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit. She toured the city while the water was still high and afterward and saw soaked homes covered in mold.

“In New Orleans after Katrina, quite a number of houses lifted up off their foundations and floated into the middle of the street,” she said. “The houses were floating unintentionally, but I wanted to try the idea of retrofitting houses so they’d float on purpose.”

There are historic examples of houses that can float on flooded land from Thailand to the Netherlands; English found that in some areas of Louisiana, people were already building shotgun-style houses specially retrofitted in a way that allowed them to rise and fall with the water. Her resulting design for what she calls an “amphibious” house is based on retrofitting existing homes with a special crawlspace and posts that gently guide the home up and down with the water while keeping it from floating away. This kind of design emphasizes working with existing homes rather than building new ones in order to be as helpful as possible to communities already in flood-prone areas. English’s team has since done pilot retrofits with rice farmers in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and is working on floating house projects in Nicaragua and with First Nations communities in Canada.

“It doesn’t stop the water from rising, but it means that your house and all your belongings, your possessions, everything you live with is not going to be wiped away by a flood,” she said. “When you move, it’s not going to be in the face of a disaster or all that trauma.”

Listening to English, who said that the cost to make a house amphibious starts at $20 per square foot in the U.S., it’s hard not to wonder why we’re not roaming around the country retrofitting every house on a floodplain this way. Raising homes on stilts—one of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s preferred retrofit methods—can, English said, start at $60 per square foot and can be upwards of $120 per square foot. FEMA only reimburses people after the changes are made, meaning people without the substantial up-front cash and good credit needed to raise their houses are out of luck.

But thanks to a byzantine set of rules and concerns raised by FEMA—including the worry that approving amphibious homes will allow people to settle in areas increasingly prone to flooding—the agency has mandated that homes retrofitted in flood-prone areas be “adequately anchored to prevent flotation.” That rules out amphibious homes. Similarly, there are no standardized building codes for amphibious houses anywhere in the world; English said she’s working on developing guidelines that could eventually be building codes for amphibious retrofits for simple houses in Canada.

Jorgensen has similar frustrations with how a lack of guidance from building authorities is making houses less safe. The homes he builds have no vents, which can be entry points for fire to get inside the house, and gutters that run underground, which prevent a buildup of dead leaves and debris that can act as kindling. These tweaks, he said, are not too expensive, are within regulations, and can add valuable time to how long a home can withstand a raging fire. But they require the builder to have some imagination, something building codes seem to almost discourage.

“Any normal contractor, they’re going to say that’s impossible, it’s code, you have to have the gutter and you have to have the vents,” he said. “I say, if you research the code, a gutter doesn’t have to be on the house, it can be in the ground. If you insulate the attic, guess what: You just got rid of all your vents. If you get rid of all the vents and gutters, boom. You just added 1 or 2 hours automatically to the house.”

And a lack of updated codes or enforced change in design doesn’t just mean that innovative solutions, like underground gutters, aren’t being more widely used. It also means that mistakes of the past can be repeated by homeowners in a rush to rebuild and contractors not thinking outside the box. Jorgensen lives near Atlas Peak in Napa, where the Atlas Fire roared in 2017.

“If you drive up Atlas Peak Road, every single one of those houses had wood decks before [the fire], and every single house was gone because of those wooden decks,” he said. “If you drive back up there now, they all have wooden decks again.” (The home he’s designing, Jorgensen explained, has a deck that uses thicker timber cantilevered farther out from the house to discourage it from going up in flames.)

At the end of the day, regardless of what codes are in place where, the real long-term question, Keenan said, is not what types of materials will make a house more resistant, but whether or not we need to abandon building structures in climate-doomed areas altogether. It’s already happening in some places. Individuals are making more climate-conscious decisions about where they buy homes, and research has shown people are retreating from the coasts. California this month started looking at policies to discourage building in wildfire-prone zones. A super-fire-resistant home can buy time, but it will probably go up in flames at some point if wildfires rip through consistently each year. Meanwhile, there’s not much you can do for a house that is consistently flooding.

“We need to remove the cost of tearing down buildings and moving people,” Keenan said.

English, however, said her work is focused more on the realistic short-term of what will be likely the biggest problem over the next decade: helping people in flood-prone areas buy time. “I want to support the people who are already in a community who don’t want to move, especially when flooding happens pretty rarely,” she said.

Jorgensen said builders need to get personal.

“When you build a home, you get to know the family, and you want to take care of them. You want to protect them,” he said. “A lot of builders are just printing money from the insurance company. They follow the code to the T and they walk away and could just care less. But for the rest of us, it’s like, what’s the legacy here? What are we going to leave for the people here?”

What Makes a Heat Wave?

A thermometer in Death Valley showing a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54 degrees Celsius).

Broke a sweat just looking at this.
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP (Getty Images)

We live in an era of endless heat. Winter or summer, Arctic or tropics, it doesn’t matter. Heat waves have become a fixture of the climate crisis and modern life.

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The U.S. has faced record-smashing heat in 2021, including a June that’s now in the record books as the hottest ever. Temperatures across the country were 4.2 degrees Fahrenheit (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal, and dangerous heat has repeatedly gripped the West.

The impacts of this year’s heat, let alone the heat of years to come, are profound. Hundreds of people died in the Pacific Northwest as did an estimated 1 billion sea creatures amid record heat. Reservoirs have shrunk. Infrastructure literally melted.

The future heat waves will only be worse. That makes understanding them ever-more crucial, from what exactly a heat wave is (a surprising tricky proposition!), how to predict them further in advance so people have warnings, and just what’s in store.

What Is a Heat Wave?

A heat wave is when it’s freaking hot out for a long period of time, of course. But that doesn’t quite cut it from a meteorological standpoint. (Seriously, imagine the record books if the internet had its way.)

“That being a simple question, there surprisingly is not a simple answer,” said Karen McKinnon, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Despite heat being the top weather-related killer in the U.S., there’s no standard heat wave definition or threshold. Certain temperature marks can trigger heat warnings or advisories from the National Weather Service on any given day or even days. But when it comes to nailing down a heat wave, the agency’s formal glossary contains this definition:

“A period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and unusually humid weather. Typically a heat wave lasts two or more days.”

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Compare that to the detailed entry on “heavy freezing spray” a few spots down in the glossary, which reads, “An accumulation of freezing water droplets on a vessel at a rate of 2 cm per hour or greater caused by some appropriate combination of cold water, wind, cold air temperature, and vessel movement.” OK then.

McKinnon noted there are a few other ways to think about what constitutes a heat wave beyond temperatures being hotter than normal for two days or more. For researchers, it can be helpful to think of what percentile a period of extreme heat falls into. That makes it easier to parse data. A lot of how we talk about heat waves also focuses on daytime highs, but she noted the overnight lows are just as important to look at.

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“Especially for human health, it’s really important for our bodies to be able to cool off at night,” she said. “And so people who focus more on human health, definitions of heat waves will often think about what’s happening to the nighttime temperatures as well. One way to think about it is that you might want to define a heat wave for the input you’re interested in. So a heat wave for human health could be different from, say, a heat wave in terms of impact on crops.”

How Do Heat Waves Form?

Well, depends on how long you got. The short answer is, lots of ways. The longer answer is it depends on how in-depth you want to go.

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Areas of high pressure are frequent heat wave culprits, particularly in summer. They can lock in persistent sunny skies and actually intensify as heat radiates off the ground, locking in more high pressure. There’s even a term for it: heat domes. This is the setup that led to the deadly Pacific Northwest heat wave in June 2021. But local topography can also play a role.

“In the PNW, the Cascade Mountains helped to boost temperatures as warm air ‘downslopes’ off the mountain thanks to the east wind from the clockwise high pressure,” Kathie Dello, the North Carolina state climatologist, said in a Twitter DM.

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Sometimes wild zigs in the jet stream can also help bring heat streaming up from the lower latitudes to cooler locales to the north (or south depending on which side of the equator you’re on). In fact, when the jet stream gets really wavy, it can actually help researchers predict just where heat waves will form. You can imagine the jet stream like the battle ropes at a gym that folks use to work out their arms. When you use those ropes, it can send oscillations from your flailing arms down the line, and you can control whether they make big oscillations or small ones.

So it is with the jet stream. All sorts of perturbances, whether it’s a tropical cyclone in the western Pacific or a big area of high pressure somewhere else, can cause the jet stream to oscillate like the gym ropes. And those oscillations set up into predictable numbers. That’s often why you’ll have various hot spots around the globe. During the Pacific Northwest heat wave, for example, there were also scorching temperatures in parts of Europe.

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“Extremes are not singular,” McKinnon said. “They tend to be co-located.”

Great news for forecasters, but perhaps bad news for disaster managers (or your humble extreme weather correspondent) since it means having to potentially juggle multiple crises at once.

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Climate Change Amplifies Heat Waves

It’s perhaps not a shocker that climate change (aka global warming) leads to worse heat. But it might be surprising that the roughly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius ) of warming has had an outsize impact on heat waves frequency and severity.

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“Our background state is shifting,” Dello said. “So when we talk of warming of a few degrees on average, we’re getting there by having more hot days. As we continue to add heat trapping gases to the atmosphere, we’re seeing just how sensitive the climate is and having unprecedented heat.”

Scientists often invoke this idea that climate change is like loading the dice that makes it more likely that extreme weather will happen. I’d like to propose a new analogy, though. It’s instead like swapping out the dice completely. Instead of offer 1 through 6 on a six-sided die, our new dice runs from 2 through 7, and they’re loaded to boot. The Northwest heat wave in late June and early July of 2021 neatly illustrates that. A recent snap analysis shows it was a 1-in-150,000-year event without climate change. It was 1-in-1,500-year event in our current climate, making the all but unimaginable a now fringe event. If the world manages to somehow keep heating to the Paris Agreement threshold of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit), the event will have a likelihood of happening every five to 10 years. It’s mind-bending to think about.

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“Climate change is causing us to obliterate our heat records, and these will be some of the cooler summers of the 21st century if we don’t act on climate,” Dello said.

We Urgently Need to Adapt to Living With Heat Now

Given the risks that played out in the Northwest and have played out elsewhere from unprecedented fires in Australia and Siberia last year to heat eroding sea ice in the Arctic, it’s clear we have our work cut out for us. First and foremost, cutting emissions is vital.

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But so, too, is adapting to heat waves. There are some success stories to look at, though they all came after tragedies. In 2003, a heat wave killed an estimated 70,000 in Europe. Governments responded with more user-friendly warning systems and other heat plans, and in subsequent years, even worse heat waves have left fewer dead.

The Northwest is still counting the dead, but it’s increasingly clear that many were poor, old, and/or alone when they died. More cooling centers or programs that subsidize air conditioning for those in need are one way to help. Low-income households, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous ones, spend four times as much on utilities as their wealthier counterparts. Clearly the playing field needs to be leveled. Social programs could also play a role. New York recently implemented a pilot program to “promote community cohesion” by ensuring those who were homebound had someone checkup on them during extreme heat. Mutual aid groups also played a key role in responding to the Pacific Northwest heat.

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But individual-level fixes aren’t enough. Our cities need a major overhaul for heat. That includes more greenspace to combat the heat island, particularly in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. Redlined communities, for example, face more extreme heat. Given the energy burden Black and brown communities bear along with extreme heat, it’s more vital than ever that any plan to help keep people cool is a just one.