Nation Grapples With Several Climate Disasters At Once

12:06 minutes

a white man in a hazard vest, hard hat, and water pants holds an oar with one hand and pulls a small inflatable rescue boat with four people in it through a flooded street. the water goes up to his shins
Philadelphia Fire Department personnel carry residents of the River Walk apartments to safety at 22nd andArch streets after they were trapped by flood waters. Credit: Emma Lee/WHYY

Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the eastern U.S. this week. It all started in Louisiana, leaving daunting damage and a long road to recovery for residents

Even though Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm after leaving the state, it left a trail of destruction through the eastern U.S. and mid-Atlantic, flooding cities and damaging homes. In the New York area, at least a dozen people died after the region was pummeled by more than half a foot of rain in just a few hours

a waterfall of flooding going over a hill on a quiet residential street
Flooding in Pittsburgh, PA. Credit: Noah Zych

This happened all while the western U.S. continues to battle wildfires, from Oregon to Colorado. In California, the extreme wildfire season led the state to close its National Forests through Labor Day weekend, a time where many people get outside and enjoy nature. 

If it feels like these apocalyptic-level events are happening more and more frequently, you’re correct. Extreme weather is inextricably tied to climate change, and the science backs that up

Joining Ira to talk about these climate stories and more is Maggie Koerth, science reporter for FiveThirtyEight based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I know you’ve seen the pictures or heard the stories. Hurricane Ida wreaked havoc on the US this week, starting in Louisiana leaving daunting damage and a long road ahead for residents. Even though Ida was downgraded to a tropical storm, its trail of destruction moved throughout the Eastern US and mid-Atlantic, flooding cities, damaging homes. Boy, New York City was pummeled by more than half a foot of rain in just a few hours, flooding streets, subway stations, and apartments. Altogether, more than 40 people were killed by the storm in the Northeast.

Now, we’ve heard it from scientists before. Extreme weather like this is inextricably tied to climate change, and it feels like those apocalyptic level events are happening more and more frequently. And if that’s how you feel about it, you’re right. Joining me today to talk about this and other big science stories of the week is Maggie Koerth, science reporter for 538 based in Minneapolis. Welcome back, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: So it really does seem that these terrible storms are happening more and more. Is there data to back this up?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah. Coincidentally, this week, the World Meteorological Association released a study that was showing that since 1970, the number of weather related disasters– so storms, floods, droughts– that’s all increased five-fold over the last 50 years. There definitely are more weather related disasters happening now than there used to be.

IRA FLATOW: And you know, we’ve heard scientists say that the storms would get more intense. There’d be bigger storms, and this storm was a doozy, wasn’t it?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so Ida is of the storms that scientists have tracked over the last two decades, where it hits this big patch of warm water in the Gulf of Mexico and just goes from ho-hum to a monster overnight. In 24 hours, Ida went from not much at all to a category 4, and that was right before it made landfall in Louisiana.

And this is something that scientists have noticed more and more in the past couple of decades. It’s not clear whether it’s happening, that particular mechanism is happening more, but it is something that we’ve become a lot more aware of. And it’s one of those ways that heat levels in the water affect the hurricanes that happen.

IRA FLATOW: And I guess the takeaway message here is, that storms like Ida, they’re not going to stop any time soon.

MAGGIE KOERTH: They absolutely are not. One of the things that came out of that Meteorological Association report was that, on the plus side, deaths have gone down. So we have way more of these disasters, but way fewer deaths. On the down side, we are spending way, way, way more money cleaning up after these things, and protecting against them.

IRA FLATOW: You know, and that’s what climatologists said years ago. I remember talking to them, is that they said, not only will the storms or whatever be more intense, but you’re going to be diverting your money away from other things you might need it for in metropolitan areas or localities, to just keeping up with the damage.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right, yeah, I mean, you look at what happened in New York with the flooding. You look at what has happened to the electrical grid system in Louisiana. And that’s just going to be a lot of money to not necessarily upgrade anything, but just to fix it.

IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s move from flooding to fires out west to talk about the story from California–

MAGGIE KOERTH: It’s such a great day.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know. Labor Day, it’s usually a weekend for hikers and campers and outdoor explorers, but California is closing its national forests for safety reasons.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, 20 million acres of California’s national forests are going to be off limits this Labor Day. And that’s because of these wildfires. So, no camping, no hiking, no biking. And that’s not just for Labor Day, the closures are actually going to extend at least through September 17th. Now, these are extensions of closures that we’re only applying to nine of the national forests in northern California. And those were set to expire just after Labor Day. But then, the Forest Service came back and said, you know what, we’re actually extending this to all 17 of the national forests in California, and it’s going to last longer.

So this is basically an effort to try to keep new fires from starting. If you go and look at the California fire map right now, there’s just forest fires all up and down the state. And the Forest Service is running out of resources to fight that. And they kind of can’t deal with more new fires starting, so they’re just trying to keep people out of those places.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So this is for national forests. What about others, other kinds of national parks, so to speak?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, national parks will still be open. So Yosemite is going to still be open. State parks will still be open, but it’s these national forests that are going to be closed. And there’s also some private forest lands that have also already been closed to the public.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another big story this week. Oh goodness.

MAGGIE KOERTH: I’m full of ’em.

IRA FLATOW: Texas this week, essentially, banned abortion by passing a so-called Heartbeat Act, which bans abortion past the first six week mark, and the Supreme Court did not overturn it. There’s so much, so much we can talk about here in terms of politics. Maybe we can find a science angle on this, and that’s this Heartbeat Bill, right? There are a lot of these so-called Heartbeat Bills. Talk about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: So there is a lot that is deeply messy about trying to tie human personhood to a heartbeat. It’s probably worth saying here that I know this from firsthand experience. I’ve had two miscarriages, and the second of those had a heartbeat, even at the same time that my doctor could see it was non-viable. So heartbeats are an encouraging sign for success of a pregnancy, but they are not actually the solid indicator that a lot of these bills present them as. And that means, inevitably, you’re going to be getting into territory where women with non-viable pregnancies are forced to continue them until the heartbeat stops. And that’s something that can take weeks. And on top of this, a fetal heartbeat can continue even after a woman’s water has broken, and the risk of infection is starting to rise.

So we’ve seen in other countries, in some hospitals, that rules preventing doctors from performing abortions while there’s still a fetal heartbeat, those are things that have led to the deaths of women who are experiencing a miscarriage and couldn’t obtain an abortion before sepsis set in. That’s exactly, in fact, what happened to Savita Halappanavar, the woman in Ireland whose death in 2012 at the age of 31, ultimately set in motion the overturning of Ireland’s anti-abortion laws. And the science, it just gets more murky from there.

What we’re calling a fetal heartbeat, for example, isn’t exactly that. The fetus doesn’t have a circulatory system at six weeks of development. It doesn’t even have a heart. What we’re talking about is, some cells that have started initiating electrical impulses. But that’s really different from what most of us think about when we think about a heartbeat, and it gives you an idea of what a fetus at that stage of development. And again, six weeks is counted from the woman’s last period. So that’s not even two weeks after a missed period. What that actually looks like, it’s not a heart.

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry to hear about your loss there, Maggie. And if I’m not incorrect, I remember from my biology days, you can put heart muscle cells in a Petri dish and they’ll start beating.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, I mean, the process of creating new life is really, really messy. And it’s not like, this neat and tidy miracle that we want it to be. And any time we kind of start trying to set objective, hard cutoffs for when life begins, you’re inevitably getting into some muck, science wise.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let’s move into some other news in the medical sphere. Johnson & Johnson’s HIV vaccine– not talking about COVID, we’re talking about HIV– it’s a potential vaccine doesn’t work as promised. Tell us about that.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, so back in 2017 Johnson & Johnson started a trial for a vaccine against HIV. And this week, that trial ended after the vaccine turned out to be only about 25% effective, which is not enough to justify continued research. So, this failed trial was for one that combined a couple of different types of protection in two different shots. The first was introducing HIV genes to the body that were ferried inside a harmless adenovirus. And the second shot contained genetically engineered versions of HIV surface proteins.

Now, this is different than what you’ve probably heard of Moderna doing an mRNA-based HIV vaccine. That research is still going. They’re actually probably going to start a really small trial sometime this month of that Moderna vaccine. And there are lots of other groups that are working on HIV vaccines. That’s been true for at least the last decade. But so far, none of them have really managed to get efficacy rates that are high enough to justify getting this out there to people. And they’ve all been pretty small trials as well. Like this J&J trial, was 2,600 people. The Moderna trial that’s going to start soon is probably going to be fewer than 100. Scientists think this work is promising. They think they’re on the trail of something effective, but it’s probably going to be years before any of these things are going anywhere.

IRA FLATOW: Remind us why it’s so difficult to get an HIV vaccine. They have been working on it for 40 years.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right! Well, part of the problem is that our bodies don’t naturally clear an HIV infection. So a lot of the way that we have designed vaccines in the past is by looking at how the body produces antibodies, kills the virus, gets it out of your body. And that’s not how HIV in your body works. Our immune systems can’t see it half the time. And it’s not something that we just get rid of naturally on our own. So we don’t know how to make the right amount of antibodies to do it ourselves.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of not knowing how to do something, let’s move on to the International Space Station, and I mean by that, I mean, it’s worked pretty well. It’s lasted longer than people expected. But now, it looks like it’s getting past its prime. Like all of us, it’s getting old.

MAGGIE KOERTH: Right. Yeah, so this was originally built in 1998, and it was supposed to last 15 years, or have a lifespan of 15 years. So it is being pretty good for what it was designed for. But, we are also kind of starting to see that it’s going to have an endpoint. There were Russian officials, this past week, that were warning that 80% of the in-flight systems on the ISS, they’re past an expiration date. And there are these small cracks that are starting to form in some places on the station in its structure. And those are things that are going to worsen over time. Russia has been hinting that they might leave the station permanently by 2025. And it might not last past 2030.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. OK, well, we’ll stay tuned for that, and talk about alternatives to it next time you’re with us, Maggie, OK?

MAGGIE KOERTH: Yeah, thanks a lot.

IRA FLATOW: It’s always great to have you. Maggie Koerth, science reporter for 538 based in Minneapolis. We’re going to take a break, and when we come back, kids across the country are heading back to school, which begs the question, how do we keep them safe during this Delta variant? SciFri back to school issue coming up, after the break. Stay with us. This is Science Friday from WNYC studios.

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Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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