Good evening, Vermont.
On the fourth day of our unprecedented heat wave, tragedy struck the Northeast Kingdom town of Lyndon. One of the many wildfires ravaging Vermontswept through the town, destroying virtually everything in its path and causing an unknown number of deaths and injuries. Search and rescue operations are on hold until the fire can be contained.
Today’s high temperature in Lyndon was 113 degrees. It was the fourth consecutive day of temperatures over 110 in a town where the normal July high is less than 80 degrees. Firefighters had to be pulled from the field because of the oppressive heat and the drought that struck Vermont in the spring.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Lyndon,” said Gov. Phil Scott, promising to do “everything I can” to bring help to that town and so many others. Wildfires are burning throughout the Kingdom, as well as the Green Mountain National Forest, the Champlain Valley, the Mad River Valley, and along the Connecti — let’s just say that there are fires all over the state. Areas not directly threatened by fire are dealing with extreme heat and heavy smoke; health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine has urged Vermonters to stay indoors due to the poor air quality.
Before the heat wave, Vermont was struggling to recover from a calamitous spring. First there was the record-shattering Blizzard of April 13 that dumped three feet of snow in a 24-hour period over large sections of Vermont. Immediately after that came a spell of warm, wet weather that overwhelmed our waterways and flooded cities and towns across the state. The flooding left damage as costly and widespread as Tropical Storm Irene back in 2011. The heavy rains were followed by two months of bone-dry weather, which left the forests ripe for wildfire.
And now this. Every weather station in Vermont has set new records for high temperatures this week. Many saw heat that obliterated the state’s former record of 105 degrees, set in Vernon on July 4, 1911. The National Weather Service says the extreme weather is caused by a heat dome, similar to the one that brought such misery to the Pacific Northwest earlier this summer. State health officials aren’t even trying to estimate the number of heat-related deaths. Hospitals are overwhelmed with those suffering from heat stroke or smoke inhalation.
The forecast calls for some relief by the weekend, but what will be left of Vermont when it ends? We can only wait, watch, and pray.
I think you know where I’m going with this. The devastation in the Pacific Northwest is so far away that it doesn’t feel entirely real, so I brought it close to home. Apologies to the good folk of Lyndon; I chose your town only because “Lyndon” is so similar to “Lytton”.
I’m not a meteorologist or a climate scientist; no guarantees on the accuracy of my scenario. I’m sure Bill McKibben could do it better. But if the destruction of Lyndon and the devastation of our landscape doesn’t happen, something else will.
The fires in western Canada were intense enough to cause the formation of “pyrocumulonimbus clouds” or, if you prefer a more colorful name, how about “fire-breathing clouds“? ScienceAlert reports that “These thunderheads produce their own weather, including tornadoes in rare cases, which can then spark new fires. It’s a vicious cycle.”
In one 15-hour period, these fire clouds sparked more than 710,000 lightning strikes across British Columbia and Alberta. That’s a little under eight hundred lightning strikes per minute, continuously, for 15 hours.
Weather disasters will continue to become more common and more severe as long as we keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere — and for decades after we get our act together, since there’s a lag before the full effects of greenhouse gases come to bear. I can’t predict that Vermont will get a Lytton-like heat wave after a disastrous flood followed by a drought. But something like this will happen here.
You want to delay and limit climate action in the name of affordability, Governor? That future is not affordable in the least. Just look at this week’s report from the bean counters in your own Department of Financial Regulation, describing the new challenges facing the insurance industry.
You want to limit large-scale renewable energy to preserve Vermont’s character? That’s a fleeting whisper compared to the coming impact of climate change.
It’s time to get serious about this. Well, it’s way past time. But now, in the face of the western heat dome and several other extreme weather events that happened at the same time around the world, there’s no room for denial or delay anymore.