Sweltering heat. Frequent, raging wildfires. Intense flooding. Crushing drought. In recent years, we have witnessed a concerning increase in the frequency and strength of natural disasters. While these events have always been a part of the earth's natural cycle, science shows that the current uptick in natural disasters is linked to climate change. The global climate crisis is driving changes in weather patterns and amplifying the impact of these disasters, which also directly harms our health – including our lung health.
Rising global temperatures, caused by greenhouse gases trapped in our atmosphere, directly contribute to worsening heatwaves. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the average global temperature has risen approximately 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. This warming trend has led to more intense and prolonged heatwaves.
Enduring even just two to three days of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90 degrees can be more than uncomfortable – it can be deadly. Extreme heat is often attributed to the highest annual number of deaths in the United States among all weather-related disasters and can happen anywhere across the country.
But we are not only seeing extremely hot temperatures. Extreme cold is also on the rise. Our increasingly hot climate contributes to frigid temperatures by warming the polar vortex, leading it to dip lower toward the earth. According to the National Weather Service, the polar vortex is “a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the earth’s poles.” When this area of colder air lowers, it brings the frigid temperatures we have recently experienced with it.
Intensified rainfall, sea-level rise and melting glaciers contribute to an increase in flood occurrences across the globe. The Fourth National Climate Assessment in the United States highlighted that heavy rainfall events have increased frequency and intensity, leading to more frequent and severe flooding. Higher temperatures have contributed to the increase in rainfall, since warmer air can hold more moisture, resulting in denser clouds producing heavy rain.
Also, because glaciers are melting and the oceans are rising, floods are causing more damage as flood plains (low-lying grounds near water) are expanding and storm surges are worsening. Learn more about what to do before, during and after a flood.
Wildfires and Droughts
Rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns contribute to longer and more severe droughts, creating ideal conditions for wildfires to ignite and spread. The link between climate change and the wildfire crisis is well-established. A 2021 report supported by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) concluded that climate change is the main driver of the increase in wildfires in the Western United States.
The National Climate Assessment also reported that warming temperatures and earlier snowmelt have extended the wildfire season across the western US. Find out how to plan for a wildfire.
Impact on Lung Health
Extreme weather driven by climate change profoundly impacts lung health. All of the types of weather listed above put our health at risk, including the health of our lungs. Flooding can cause mold growth, exacerbating asthma and other chronic lung disease symptoms. Extremely hot and humid conditions can strain the respiratory system, making breathing harder for individuals, especially those at higher risk. Warmer temperatures also lead to the formation of more ground-level ozone pollution, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular harm, asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke and premature death.
Wildfires release a complex mixture of pollutants into the air, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and they don’t just affect the communities nearby. Smoke from fires can travel thousands of miles – causing poor air quality and endangering people far away. Exposure to wildfire smoke can exacerbate respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and can cause respiratory and cardiovascular harm, lung cancer, and premature death.
Rising temperatures, intensifying wildfires, increased flooding and more all point to the detrimental influence of human-induced climate change. Urgent actions to address climate change could not be more critical. For policymakers at every level of government, that means urgently enacting measures to slash greenhouse gas pollution and switch to zero-emission electricity and transportation. For companies, that means prioritizing reducing pollution. For individuals, that means raising your voice in support of strong action, and taking steps now to protect your own family’s health from disasters before they strike.
Three things you can do today:
- Call on President Biden to finalize strong standards to clean up cars and trucks. Vehicles are the nation’s leading source of the pollution that causes climate change.
- Call on your governor to get more zero-emission trucks on the road.
- Visit Lung.org/disaster and take steps now to prepare so that you’ll be ready if disaster strikes.
Blog last updated: August 30, 2023