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Extreme weather: the new normal
Climate experts link current droughts, heat waves, and extreme weather events to climate change.
Last Modified: 27 Jul 2011 14:29

Climate experts warn that setting weather records, be they for high or low temperatures, or record amounts of rain or snow as well as record drought, will likely be the new normal.

According to a UN report released July 5, humanity is close to breaching the sustainability of Earth, and needs a technological revolution greater and faster than the industrial revolution in order to avoid "a major planetary catastrophe".

The report said that major investments need to be made in developing, and scaling up, clean energy technologies, sustainable farming and forestry techniques, the climate-proofing of infrastructure, and technologies aimed at waste reduction, in order to shift civilization away from dependence on oil.

"It is rapidly expanding energy use, mainly driven by fossil fuels, that explains why humanity is on the verge of breaching planetary sustainability boundaries through global warming, biodiversity loss, and disturbance of the nitrogen-cycle balance and other measures of the sustainability of the earth's ecosystem," the report, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said.

The survey says investments of at least $1.1 trillion will need to be made in developing countries to meet increasing food and energy demands. "Business as usual is not an option," says the survey. "An attempt to overcome world poverty through income growth generated by existing 'brown technologies' would exceed the limits of environmental sustainability."

Scientists have been warning for decades that burning fossil fuels increases greenhouse gasses that cause global climate change by altering the Earth's weather patterns.

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Drought and famine are afflicting East Africa, where more than 12 million people across the region are struggling for survival amidst the worst drought in 60 years.

A study by the US Geological Survey, published earlier this year, directly linked the increased frequency of drought in East Africa with global climate change.

Meanwhile, this summer in North America has been one of record high temperatures, with more than 1,000 records set or tied in July alone.

Fourteen US states announced last month was in their top-ten hottest Junes on record. A subsequent drought has led to at least 5.8 million acres having burned, also a record for the period and almost twice the normal 10-year average.

In the southern US, more than three-quarters of Texas is suffering from drought amid the worst dry spell in the state for several decades.

At least 22 people have died from the current heat wave, and last week found nearly half of the entire US population (150 million people) under a heat alert.

Nearly 4,000 daily high-temperature records were also broken in June, according to the monthly summary from the National Climatic Data Centre.

In Canada, temperature records were broken in two-dozen cities across Ontario and Quebec recently, including the hottest ever July temperature in Toronto, at 37.9C (100.2F).

"In the US in the last ten years, there have been roughly twice as many high temperature records set as low temperature records, whereas roughly 50 years ago it was about the same, which is what you would expect when the climate is stable," Professor Phillip Duffy, Chief Scientist with Climate Central journalism and research organization, told Al Jazeera, "So we see this change now because the climate is warming up."

Consistent patterns

Bob Ward, the Policy and Communications Director for the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, feels that while climate change cannot be considered as the sole cause of these extreme weather events, it is certainly a contributing factor.

"It remains a fact: you can't take an individual weather event and link it to climate change," Ward told Al Jazeera. "It's equally invalid to say climate change doesn't have anything to do with a particular event. There is a strong reason to believe the drought in East Africa is at least partly influence by climate change because from [climate change predictive] modelling that's been done one would expect to see drier conditions in that particular region."

Climate change research suggests that droughts will indeed become more frequent in East Africa along with a continuation of heat waves like that which recently blanketed much of the US.

"You are seeing a pattern of changes in both frequency and intensity of extreme weather which is consistent with patterns you'd expect from climate change. We can see there has been a rise in global temp in the last century of .8 degrees, so you would expect a rise in the extremes as well."

Duffy cautions against blaming climate change, solely, for extreme weather events, but like Ward, sees climate change exacerbating these situations.

"In the southwestern US we already had problems with lack of water and wildfires, but these problems are now intensified by climate change," he said. "So climate change isn't necessarily creating new phenomenon, but it is certainly bringing already existing situations to new levels."

Al Jazeera senior weather presenter Steff Gaulter says much of the recent droughts and floods have most likely been triggered by La Nina conditions, the name given to a slight cooling of the surface waters of the Pacific Ocean.

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"This year has brought some particularly destructive weather and as the climate continues to change we're likely to see more cases of extreme weather events," she said. "It was one of the strongest La Nina's on record and affected the weather around the globe."

But she said there is currently a theory that La Nina events may well be linked to climate change.

"Certainly the frequency of La Nina and El Nino events have increased in recent decades, and studies are currently being undertaken to see whether our warming world is making them become more frequent or more intens," she added. "If a link is established, this would have huge effects on the future climate."

Extreme weather events continue across the globe, each of them providing another example for scientists to include in longer-term studies about the ramifications of climate change.

A freak cold snap recently brought snowfall to Brazil's southern states. While it is winter in the southern hemisphere, Brazil is located between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator, in an area where frosts and ice storms are common, but snow is not.

China's normally more temperate northwest saw temperatures over 38C, with highs reaching 45 last week. At least eight of the region's prefectures have been afflicted by heat waves since the beginning of the month.

Achim Steiner from the UN Environment Programme said last week that climate change would "exponentially" increase the scale of natural disasters, and that it "threatens peace".

Steiner warned that an increase in the frequency of natural disasters across the globe could prove a major challenge in the coming decades. He said recent crises, such as the famine in Somalia, show that "our capacity to handle these kinds of events is proving a challenge, particularly if they occur simultaneously and start affecting, for instance, global food markets, regional food security issues, displacing people, creating refugees across borders".

Political debate vs. reality

The most recent assessment report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, reached some key conclusions. The report found that warming of the climate system is unequivocal, most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations, and that world temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4C during the 21st century.

In most countries there is little or no debate about the existence of anthropogenic climate change or its effects on the planet.

A recent heat wave in the US broke scores of temperature records, and killed at least 22 people [REUTERS]

According to Gallup's annual environment poll, published in March, just 51 per cent of Americans, only one percentage point more than in 1998, said they worry either a great deal or a fair amount about climate change.

Duffy, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Price for his IPCC involvement and will be a Review Editor for the IPCC's 5th Assessment Report to be published in 2014, urges people to base their understanding about climate change on scientific fact.

"It's natural for people to judge what's happening by what they've experienced, but the problem is that what they've experienced is not representative of what is going on now," he said, "In any case, you don't prove or disprove the existence of climate change based on one event, or even one year. I'm not claiming that any of these events proves the existence of climate change, because they don't. The reality of climate change is proved by careful analysis of trends over decades."

Ward believes the strength of climate change denial in the US is restricted to political debate, and specifically, to the Republican Party.

The Gallup poll appears to confirm this, finding that 43 per cent of Americans think the media exaggerates the seriousness of climate change. How Americans view climate change varies widely depending upon their political beliefs, the poll found.

It showed that conservative Republicans are three times more likely than Democrats to think the media is over-selling the severity of climate change.

Ward, like Duffy, believes science, rather than political beliefs, should determine understanding of climate change.

"The fact is, when it comes down to it, with each of these [extreme weather] events, you can't rule climate change out, and we are seeing changes consistent with climate change modelling," he said. "Global average temperature has risen. It's basic physics that a warmer atmosphere has more energy in it and can hold more water, so we'll see more extreme precipitation events of flooding as well. These are all consistent with the patterns of global climate change."

Duffy said that no matter what corrective measures are taken to lower the amount of greenhouse gasses, the planet will continue to warm.

"Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gasses today, which we aren't going to do, there is a significant amount of unrealized warming," he explained, "The system responds slowly, so it hasn't responded yet to everything we've added thus far. And not only are we still adding them [greenhouse gasses], but we're adding them at an increasing rate."

Duffy reiterated the fact that in the last 10 years in the US there have been roughly twice as many records set for high temperatures as compared to low temperature records, whereas there was equilibrium between the two records approximately 50 years ago.

Then he pointed out a disconcerting projection made by current climate change predictive models.

"By the end of the century, there will be a 50-to-1 ratio of high temperature records, compared to low temperature records," he said.

Recent extreme weather events:

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source:
Al Jazeera
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