There were no tornado warnings last Friday night, when I muted the Nationals game around 11 p.m. I listened intently through my living-room window. A train, I thought. Definitely a train.
I should have known better. The warnings have been building for many months. We had historically hot temperatures in Washington and Baltimore last summer. Then epic rain and flooding from Tropical Storm Lee in September. Then March temperatures across the U.S. so hot they surpassed normal high temperatures for April in many places. Now a wildfire rages in Colorado that firefighters just don't know how to describe. Extreme weather has suddenly become virtually the norm across Maryland and the rest of the nation.
Still, I was unprepared when that "train" hit my Takoma Park street. It was a locomotive of wind, arriving around 11:05, gusting up to hurricane strength across many parts of Maryland. As my wife and I crouched for safety in the basement, we had no way of knowing that 16 people across the region would die and 1.3 million, like us, would lose electricity for a long time.
There really is a train that passes within four blocks of my house every day. And its cargo, scientists say, is increasingly driving much of the extreme weather we're seeing worldwide. That train carries coal to a power plant in nearby Virginia. Much of this black stuff is "mountaintop removal" coal, a radical form of mining that makes it possible to extract more and more of this carbon-intensive, planet-warming rock. This is "extreme energy," and it's increasingly fueling extreme weather.
Consider the daily media superlatives. Highest temperature here. Biggest storm there. Highest wind speed. Worst flood. Most destructive wild fire. Meanwhile, last year, Westech Corp. introduced the biggest dump truck ever used for coal mining: three stories tall. And gas companies detonated the longest-ever line of underground explosions to recover "fracked" methane gas. And Shell Oil recently completed the deepest offshore oil-drilling rig in history. It sits in 8,000 feet of Gulf of Mexico water, has a hull nearly as big as the Eiffel Tower and drills under thousands of pounds of pressure. We now have energy that matches the weather and vice versa: extreme. All of these fuel sources produce the carbon dioxide emissions that scientists say are driving global warming. And the warming is increasingly linked to a range of extreme weather trends observed worldwide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As fossil fuels grow increasingly harder to find, our extraction methods grow increasingly more radical to keep up with energy demands. So CO2 emissions keep rising. And the weather gets weirder.
Take the tar sands fields in western Canada. What's more extreme than this: Earth-moving machines the size of small buildings are digging up and "peeling back" a surface terrain that could eventually grow to an area the size of Florida. The oily sand below is then literally cooked and fed into massive pipelines for export. Canada's tar sands are the second-largest pool of carbon on earth, and if we exploit them fully it will be "game over for the climate," according to America's top climate scientist, James Hansen of NASA. "Game over" means extreme, unrecognizable, violent weather pretty much forever.
Polling shows that most Americans understand and accept the link between climate change and more-frequent extreme weather. Less well understood is the need to abandon radical and dangerous energy sources like tar sands in order to have any hope of limiting extreme weather in the future.
Which is why Maryland, as it recovers from one of the strangest and most destructive storms in its history, should assiduously avoid the embrace of exotic fossil fuels. There are no tar sands in our state, thankfully, and no offshore oil drilling — and only limited mountaintop removal for coal. What is a real threat is hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" for natural gas in Western Maryland. Several companies are pre-positioned to drill hundreds of wells. But beyond creating flammable tap water — as experienced in neighboring Pennsylvania — this drilling method for natural gas is now strongly suspected to be the cause of an astonishing rise in earthquakes all across the mid-section of America. And even if such drilling could be made "safe," the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from natural gas use are (despite popular perception) only marginally better than coal.
Thus, a large expansion of natural gas use worldwide would bake the planet with up to six more degrees of global warming by 2100, according to the International Energy Agency. Translation: a permanent nightmare of storms, fires, flooding and heat waves.
The cost of extreme weather has grown clearer this week in Maryland. In the aftermath, a rapid push toward wind power, solar energy, electric cars and energy efficiency never looked better.
It's time, finally, to move away from extremism — in our weather and in our energy supply.
Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. email@example.com.