It’s not only the U.S. that has experienced record-breaking extreme weather events recently, in the last couple months extreme weather has struck around the world with startling ferocity.
In addition to the much-covered heatwaves, wildfires, and droughts in the U.S., killer floods struck India, the worst drought yet recorded plagued South Korea, and massive forest fires swept through Siberia to name just a few.
Fires in Siberia:Exceptionally dry and warm conditions have led to hundreds of wildfires in Siberia this summer. Greenpeace has stated recently that the organization believes more forest has burned this year in Russia than the devastating fires of 2010.
Killer Russian floods:Fire is not the only extreme weather event in Russia this summer: an incredible flood killed 171 people in southern Russia, damaged 13,000 homes, and has created a crisis of trust for Russian political leaders.
Over 30 fires burning in Eastern Russia yesterday. Photo by: NASA.
Over two days, the region of Krasnodar Krai saw as much rain as it usually sees in five months. In less than 24 hours 300 millimeters (11.8 inches) of precipitation fell.
Wet Britain:The U.K. saw its wettest June on record, after an already rainy spring, leading to massive floods and property damage. Already, insurers are predicting the flood-heavy season will cost tens of millions of pounds. Forecasters predict more floods this month even as a month’s worth of rain fell in 24 hours in southwestern Britain.
Battered Bangladesh:Five days of torrential downpours in Bangladesh resulted in landslides and flooding, killing 100 people and stranding 250,000. The monsoon downpours were some of the heaviest seen in recent years. Most of the fatalities occurred in landslides. Bangladesh is considered among the world’s most vulnerable nations to climate change.
Drowning Assam:Tremendous flooding has also struck the Indian state of Assam. To date, the floods have inundated over 4,500 villages and killed at least 125 people. Over a million people have been forced to flee their homes during the deluges.
The flooding also swamped one of India’s most famous wildlife parks, Kaziranga National Parks, killing 595 animals, including 17 Indian rhinos and two Asian elephants.
Korean drought:Both North and South Korea are suffering from their worst drought on record. The drought is decimating crops and worsening an on-going food crisis in North Korea. Tens of thousands of hectares of crops have already been lost.
Hunger in the Sahel:Officials have been warning for months that weak rains and ongoing drought in the Sahel region of Africa could lead to a famine. UNICEF has said recently that 18 million people are at risk of malnutrition and starvation. The food crisis has been exacerbated by local conflict.
Floods in Nigerian port:The massive port city of Lagos has seen dramatic flooding, as have other parts of southwest Nigeria. Waters submerged houses, the airport, and roads. Seven children were killed after their school collapsed due to the heavy rains.
Meanwhile in the U.S.:Following an unprecedented spring heatwave, the U.S. has just suffered its worst heatwave since the devastating Dust Bowl. Warm temperatures and drought also helped fuel epic wildfires, including the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado that forced the evacuation of 36,000 people, destroyed over 300 homes, and killed two people. Meanwhile, New Mexico also had its largest wildfire on record: with 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) burned in the Gila Wilderness.
Extreme weather: more and meaner in a hotter world
Fire scar from Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado. Photo by: NASA.
While it’s difficult for scientists to connect one weather episode to climate change (though not impossible as recent studies have shown) they have long warned that a hotter planet will likely increase the number and the strength of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, flooding, fires, and drought.
“In the sum of events the link to climate change [and extreme weather] becomes clear. It is not a question of yes or no, but a question of probabilities,” Dim Coumou, with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), recently explained.
Comparing the impact of climate change on day-to-day weather to rolling a dice, Coumou says “a six can appear every now and then, and you never know when it happens. But now [with climate change] it appears much more often, because we have changed the dice.”
Coumou was a lead author of a recent study that found “strong evidence” linking climate change to extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts.
Climatologists are currently working hard to unravel the links between a warmer world and worsening extremes. It’s generally accepted that climate change will increase the probability and tenacity of heatwaves and droughts. Given such conditions, worsening wildfires are also expected.
Major flooding may be less intuitive, but a warmer atmosphere over the oceans causes an increase in evaporation, which leads to increased chances for greater floods. This is also why climate change is expected to increase the number of mega-snowstorms. Currently, the atmosphere holds 4 percent more moisture over the oceans than forty years ago.
The climate link to other extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, are less well-understood. Although an earlier spring could mean a longer tornado season, while scientists expect that hurricanes might become fiercer, even if there are fewer overall.
As bizarre as 2012 appears in terms of extreme weather events to date, last year was just as bad: 2011 saw twelve extreme weather events in the U.S. that cost a billion or more dollars in damages; Thailand experienced its worst flood on record, costing $45 billion; while South Korea—which is now dry as a bone—had its wettest summer yet, killing 69 people; and drought, exacerbated by conflict and government instability, pushed Somalia into famine, killing between 50,000 and 100,000 people, half of whom were likely children under five.
“What we’re seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University climatologist Michael Oppenheimer in response to U.S. extremes. “It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this kind of environmental disasters.”
Globally, climate change has pushed temperatures up 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.44 degrees Fahrenheit) to date, but greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise worldwide. To stop climate change, experts generally recommend moving aggressively from fossil fuels to green energy, vastly improving energy efficiency, and protecting and restoring forests and other carbon-rich ecosystems.