The rise of freak weather events
A huge winter storm is sweeping across the southern United States (US), with Texas being the worst-hit. Millions of people in the state have been struggling to cope with the lack of power and frigid conditions. The extreme weather is expected to continue until the weekend, and deaths attributed to the storm have been recorded in four other states, besides Texas. Many other parts of the world — The Netherlands, Russia, Syria, Greece — also saw unusually cold weather this week, but nowhere is it as bad as in Texas. Difficult weather conditions across the US have had serious implications for the pandemic: Some shipments of vaccines have been delayed and some clinics have had to cancel vaccine appointments.
While scientists are trying to establish the link between this particular episode of freak weather in the southern US and the climate crisis, there is a growing body of research that has established the connection between the climate crisis and a phenomenon called the polar vortex. Scientific research suggests warming in the Arctic, where temperatures are rising faster than anywhere else on the planet, may be weakening the jet stream that confines the cold air in the northern hemisphere. A weakened jet stream allows freezing air to move to lower latitudes. As experts have pointed out, what is happening in Texas can’t be just seen as a natural event, and is in part due to the climate crisis.
The Texas event and other freak climate events across the world — India too has witnessed such incidents in recent years — are a reminder for governments that they must re-evaluate their nation’s utility infrastructure for climate resilience, and invest heavily to upgrade them so that they can quickly adapt and function during freak and extreme weather events. For example, the main electric grid in Texas was built with the state’s most common weather extremes in mind — soaring summer temperatures that cause millions of Texans to turn up their air conditioners all at once — but now it has to be recalibrated to tackle such cold events too. All over the world, operators have to be ready for intense heat waves, floods, water shortages and other calamities, all of which could create unknown risks for electricity set-ups. This transition won’t be easy, because most planners face an unprecedented challenge. The extreme weather events of the 21st century will look nothing like those that happened before — and years of past preparation will not provide any workable template.