For much of human history, winter has been the most brutal season to survive. The winter of 536 saw rapid cooling followed by crop failures, disease outbreaks and general misery, leading to an estimated 100 million deaths in Europe alone. While exacerbated by volcanic eruptions, it was like many other winters where suffering predominated. These harsh winters are bookended by fall ceremonies and spring celebrations. Winter was a time of starvation, bitter cold and loss.
Throughout generations, winter has been united with suffering and struggle — in stories, children are carried away by the Snow Queen or lost to winter wolves — reflecting the anxious anticipation of generations of villages huddled against the cold.
But now, it seems things have begun to change. While cold snaps and unseasonal weather still loom, temperatures double digits above average in Europe and Asia herald that summer is rapidly becoming the season of suffering.
Punctuated by the pandemic, the summers of 2020 and 2021 were a time of climate reckoning worldwide. The worst wildfire seasons to date left charred forests and poor air quality across the Northern hemisphere, mirroring the Southern hemisphere six months before. These fires burned over 18 million acres in the US alone, representing over 100 million metric tons of CO2 (2020) and altering the land cover across diverse landscapes.
Whether the ecosystems can recover from these fires while suffering drought and rising temperatures remains to be seen. These hot-burning fires leave a growing legacy across the landscape — fires in the US in 2021 alone cost over $70 billion. The summer of 2022 is primed to be worse.
Drought conditions, well-reported for the American West, have impacted every continent except Antarctica, diminishing coffee production in Brazil, food and wine crops in California, and water availability everywhere from Israel to Italy to India. Parched wildlife across the world is forced to adapt to dry, hot conditions at a record pace — and is unable to keep up. For humans, retrofitting water infrastructure will cost an estimated $114 billion annually, but the total costs from rising heat to all life are untold.
Already, the heat has been hard to bear. In 2021, the “heat dome” effect in the American Pacific Northwest trapped temperatures 20 degrees Fahrenheit above average, killing over 1 billion marine animals. This year, temperatures in India have already peaked at nearly 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with Europe’s heat waves decimating records this past week. The combined impact of drought, heat waves and wildfires promised the North American West what may become the worst summer on record.
Weather weirding continues in the deluge-drought dynamics driven by atmospheric warming. Atmospheric rivers in the interior west led to historic flooding in Yellowstone National Park, while across the Pacific, exponentially increasing summer monsoons continue to shake nations across Asia. These storms have been followed by extreme heat and subsequent drought, taxing first responders and society.
Human-driven climate change is doing what volcanic eruptions and ice ages never could-turning summer into the deadliest season. As humanity hurtles into unknown territory, increasing the carbon concentration of the atmosphere and depleting biodiversity responses worldwide, we must prepare for more “historic” events. As a well-circulated cartoon has recently claimed, this is the coolest summer of the rest of your life. The only way to remedy this dying season is to slow climate change at its source.
Kimberley R. Miner, Ph.D., is a Climate Change Institute research assistant professor at the University of Maine. She works on the Arctic Methane Project looking at the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. Miner’s opinions are her own and do not reflect those of the University of Maine.