/ 17 June 2011

Wacky weather is new normal

Welcome to the climate rollercoaster, or what is being called the “new normal” of weather.

Last year, more than two million square kilometres of Eastern Europe and Russia were scorched — 50 000 people died as a result as temperatures stayed more than 6°C above normal for many weeks, crops were devastated and hundreds of giant wildfires broke out. The price of wheat and other food rose as two thirds of the continent experienced its hottest summer in about 500 years.

This year, it is Western Europe’s turn for a mega-heatwave, with 16 countries, including France, Switzerland, Germany and much of England and Wales experiencing extreme dryness. The blame is being put on El Niño and La Niña, naturally occurring but poorly understood events that follow heating and cooling of the Pacific Ocean near the equator, bringing floods and droughts.

Vast areas of Europe have received less than half the rainfall they would normally get in March, April and May, temperatures have been off the scale for the time of year, nuclear power stations have been in danger of having to be shut down because they need so much river water to cool them and boats along many of Europe’s main rivers have been grounded because of low flows.

In the past week, the great Euro­pean spring drought has broken in many places and massive storms and flash floods have left the streets of Germany and France running like rivers. But for real extremes in 2011, look to Australia, China and the southern United States in recent months.

In Queensland, Australia, an area the size of Germany and France was flooded in December and January in what was called the country’s “worst natural disaster”. It cost the economy up to A$30-billion (about R200-billion), devastated livelihoods and is still being cleaned up.

In China, a “once in a century” drought in southern and central regions this year has dried up hundreds of reservoirs, rivers and watercourses, evaporating drinking
supplies and stirring political tension.

The government responded with a massive rain-making operation, firing thousands of rockets to “seed” clouds with silver iodide and other chemicals. It may have worked: the heavens opened last week, with a record 30cm of rain falling in some places in 24 hours, floods and mudslides killing 94 people and tens of thousands losing their homes.

Meanwhile, the US’s most deadly and destructive tornado season ever resulted in 600 “twisters” in April alone and 138 people were killed in Joplin, Missouri, by a 1.6km-wide whirlwind. Arizonans were this week fighting some of the largest wildfires they have known and the greatest flood in recorded American history is occurring along sections of the Missouri river. This is all taking place during a deepening drought in Texas and other southern states — the eighth year of “exceptional” drought there in the past 12 years.

“I don’t know how much more we can take,” said John Butcher, a peanut and cotton farmer near Lubbock, Texas. “It’s dry like we have never seen it before. I don’t remember anything like this. We may lose everything.”

The impact of extreme weather is greater in poorer countries, which this week are trying to secure a climate deal in the resumed talks in Bonn. In Mexico, the temperature peak­ed at 48.8°C in April, the warmest in the world that month, and nearly half the country is now drought-affected. There have already been 9 000 wildfires and the biggest farm union says that more than 3.5-million farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy because they cannot feed their cattle or grow crops.

“We are being battered by the adverse impacts of climate change,” said a negotiator for the G77 group of developing countries. “Frontline states face a double crunch of heat and poverty. But the rich countries still won’t give us the cash they prom­ised to adapt or reduce their emissions.”

Wherever you look, the climate appears to be in overdrive, with stronger weather patterns gripping large areas for longer and events veering between extremes.

Last year, according to US meteorologist Jeff Masters, 17 countries experienced record temperatures. Colombia, the Amazon basin, Peru, Cuba, Kenya, Somalia and many other countries had all registered far more or less rainfall or major heatwaves in the past few years, Masters said.

Temperatures in Bangladesh have been near record highs, leaving at least 26 people dead in the past week, Kuwait has experienced temperatures in excess of 50°C and Rajasthan in India 49.6°C, and parts of Canada, including Toronto, have been sizzling at a record 33°C.

Rich countries may be more or less immune in the short term because the global trading system guarantees food and access to electricity allows air conditioning but in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia millions have little or no food after successive poor rainy seasons. Last week, international aid agencies warned of an impending disaster.

Sceptics argue that there have always been droughts and floods, freak weather, heatwaves and temperature extremes, but what concerns most climate scientists and observers is that the extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, their intensity is growing and the trends all suggest long-term change as greenhouse gases steadily build in the atmosphere.

Killer droughts and heatwaves, deeper snowfalls, more widespread floods, heavier rains and temperature extremes were now the “new normal”, said Nikhil da Victoria Lobo of the insurance firm Swiss Re, which last month estimated losses from natural disasters had risen from about $25-billion a year in the 1980s to $130-billion a year today. “Globally, what we’re seeing is more volatility,” he said.

People in the worst-affected areas are not waiting for climate scientists to confirm that climate change is happening to adapt. In Nepal, where the rain is heavier than before, flat roofs are giving way to pitched roofs, and villagers in the drought-prone Andes are building reservoirs and changing crops to survive.

New analysis of natural disasters in 140 countries shows that the climate is becoming more extreme.

Last month Oxfam reported that, although the number of “geophysical” disasters (including earthquakes and volcanic eruptions) had remained more or less constant, those caused by flooding and storms had increased from about 133 a year in the 1980s to more than 350 a year now.

“It is abundantly clear that weather-related disasters have increased in some of the world’s poorest countries and this cannot be explained fully by better ways of counting them,” said Steve Jennings, the Oxfam report’s author. “Whichever way you look at the figures, weather-related disasters have been increasing and are set to worsen as climate change further intensifies natural hazards.”

“I think that global ‘weirding’ is the best way to describe what we’re seeing. We’re used to certain conditions and there’s a lot going on these days that is not what we’re used to,” said climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University.

New trends had been emerging for a decade or more, said the United Nation’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). “In Europe, a clear trend is emerging towards drier springs. This year’s drought follows exceptionally dry years in 2007, 2009 and 2010,” said a spokesperson.

Many scientists argue that these phenomena are textbook examples of what can be expected in a warming world. Natural events, such as La Niña and El Niño, are now being exacerbated by background warming.

“It’s almost impossible to pinpoint specific events and say climate change caused them,” said William Chameides, atmospheric scientist at Duke University, who was vice-chairman of a US government-funded National Research Council study on the climate options. “But we do know that because of climate change such events will very likely become more frequent, more intense. The kind of events we’re seeing are consistent with climate change.”

He is backed strongly in Europe.

“We have to get used to extreme weather conditions as climate change intensifies,” said Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Heavy storms and inundations will happen in northern Germany twice or three times as frequently as in the past.”

“We’ve always had El Niños and natural variability but the background that is now operating is different. They [La Niña and El Niño] are now happening in a hotter world [which means more moisture in the atmosphere],” David Jones, the head of climate monitoring and prediction at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne told Reuters after the Queeensland floods.

David Barriopedro, a researcher at Lisbon University’s Instituto Dom Luiz, last month compared last year’s European heatwave with the one that struck in 2003 and calculated that the probability of a European summer experiencing a “mega-heatwave” would increase by a factor of five to 10 during the next 40 years.

But there may be some respite coming from extreme weather be­cause the El Niño/La Niña episodes were now fading fast, according to the WMO. “The weather pattern blamed for extremely heavy downpours in Australia is unlikely to redevelop in the middle of 2011,” it advised. “Looking ahead beyond mid-2011, there are currently no clear indications for enhanced risk of El Niño or La Niña in the second half of the year.”

The WMO concluded, tentatively, that global weather would now return to something approaching normal. The trouble is, no one is too sure what “normal” is any more. —