Extreme Weather Events and Our Changing Climate

In the First IPCC Assessment Report published in 1990, they stated that episodes of high temperatures would most likely become more frequently observed in the future. In the Third IPCC Assessment Report published in 2001, the likelihood of higher maximum temperatures, higher minimum temperatures and more intense precipitation had increased from most likely to very likely (90-99% probability).

The most recent IPCC Assessment published in 2007 takes this even further, mentioning the contraction of snow area, decrease in sea ice extent and glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere and increases in permafrost thawing. So have these climate predictions based on assessment of scientific research been borne out? The following text was produced by the World Meteorological Organisation in December 2010, who reviewed extreme weather events over the past decade.

The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The 2000s decade was warmer than the 1990s which was warmer than the 1980s and earlier decades. The first ten months of 2010 tied the same period in 1998 for the warmest combined land and ocean surface temperature on record worldwide, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UK Met Office’s Hadley Centre. On 19 September 2010 at the end of the melt season the sea-ice extent was the third smallest on the satellite data record, after 2007 and 2009 (data of U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center) (Figure 1On 19 September 2010 at the end of the melt season the sea-ice extent was the third smallest on the satellite data record, after 2007 and 2009 (data of U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center).). Global mean sea level is higher now and is rising more rapidly than at any other time in the past 3 000 years at the pace of approximately 3.4 mm per year from 1993 to 2008, according to data published by the WMO co-sponsored World Climate Research Programme. This is almost twice the average rate for the twentieth century.

Greenland will record its warmest decade (2001-2010) since modern measurements began. Most stations in West Greenland especially in the south western part will very likely record its warmest ever year in 2010. In August, ice measuring more than 200 sq. km calved from the Petermann Glacier in northern Greenland – the largest chunk in the past 50 years of observations and data (since 1962). Tens of thousands of icebergs calve yearly from the glaciers of Greenland, but this one was exceptionally large and because of its size more typically resembled icebergs in the Antarctic.
Source: World Meteorological Organisation, 2010. A snapshot of some extreme events over the past decade.

The following listing of 34 notable extreme weather events, taken from a WMO report (2010), provides sobering reading, and emphasises the impact on societies as we try to cope with our changing climate.

  1. Extreme cold winter in Siberia and Mongolia. Minimum temperatures dropped to near -60°C across central and southern Siberia resulting in hundreds of deaths. (2001)
  2. Between February and April, heavy rainfall and flooding hit the southern African countries of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. (2001)
  3. Typhoon Rusa hit Korea causing flooding and hundred of deaths. It was reported as the worst national storm since 1959 and also led to a new national record of 24-h rainfall with 870 mm. (2002)
  4. Unprecedented extreme heat waves occurred across much of Europe during summer. This led to record breaking temperatures, surpassing in some cases 40°C, and tens of thousands of related deaths. (2003)
  5. Tropical cyclone Gafilo hit Madagascar with winds up to 260 km/h, causing hundreds of deaths. (2004)
  6. Hurricane Ivan hit the Caribbean causing flooding, massive destruction and deaths. (2004)
  7. For the first time in history a documented hurricane developed in the South Atlantic Ocean in March. Unofficially named Catarina it made landfall along the southern coast of Brazil causing great damage. (2004)
  8. Warmest summer on record in central Canada (2005).
  9. Worst drought in 60 years in Brazil caused the lowest Amazon flow in 30 years. (2005)
  10. The monsoon season brought unprecedented heavy rain and widespread massive flooding to parts of western and southern India affecting more than 20 million people. (2005)
  11. Most active Atlantic hurricane season on record. Hurricane Katrina hit the southern United States killing more than 1300 people, and was considered as the deadliest hurricane to hit the country since 1928. (2005)
  12. Typhoon Durian hit Philippines causing massive damages and more than 1000 deaths. (2006)
  13. Long term drought continued in the early part of the year over Greater Horn of Africa. (2006)
  14. Severe to extreme drought was present across large parts of western United States, as well as in the southern plains. Devastating fires caused massive destruction and millions of hectares burned. (2006-2007)
  15. In July extreme rainfall triggered the worst flooding in 60 years over the United Kingdom. (2007)
  16. Coldest winter in 50 years and unusual snowfalls in large parts of southern South America. (2007)
  17. Massive flooding in Mexico in early November was considered the worst weather-related disaster in the nation’s history. (2007)
  18. Summer heavy rainfall caused flooding and flash floods in several African countries. Thousands of homes were destroyed and more than 1.5 million people were affected. (2007)
  19. Tropical cyclone Gonu formed in the north Indian Ocean making landfall in Oman and then reaching Iran. It was reported as the strongest cyclone on record in the Arabian Sea. (2007)
  20. Remarkably mild winter over most parts of Scandinavia. With monthly anomalies exceeding +7°C, large parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland had the warmest winter ever recorded since the beginning of measurements. (2008)
  21. Extreme cold temperatures combined with the worst snowstorm in 5 decades were observed across China during January. The extreme cold event extended as far west as Turkey. (2008)
  22. Severe prolonged drought hit Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil causing severe damage to agriculture, livestock and water resources. For large areas it was one of the driest years on record. (2008)
  23. Several all time winter snowfall records were set across Canada. (2008)
  24. During September-November period heavy and extended rainfall affected Algeria and Morocco, causing severe infrastructure damage. These were the worst floods in a century for Algeria. A similar meteorological situation was repeated one year later across the same region. (2008)
  25. In southern Australia dry conditions reinforced long term drought. These conditions exacerbated severe water shortages in the agriculturally important Murray-Darling Basin, resulting in widespread crop failures. (2008-2009)
  26. Tropical cyclone Nargis was the worst natural disaster to hit Myanmar. It killed more than 70 000 people. (2008)
  27. Exceptional heat wave in late October/early November in northern and central Argentina, with record breaking temperatures of more than 40°C in large areas. (2009)
  28. Record heat waves across Australia during January/February, August and November. Disastrous bushfires associated caused more than 170 fatalities. Highest temperature ever recorded so far south anywhere in the world was observed in Victoria with 48.8°C. (2009)
  29. Extreme cold waves and record snowfalls were observed during winter 2009/2010 in Europe, and large parts of the United States. (2010)
  30. Extreme heat and drought in July and August led to disastrous bushfires in western Russia. (2010)
  31. In summer Pakistan experienced the worst floods in its history. More than 1 700 deaths were reported and more than 20 million people were affected. (2010)
  32. Heavy rainfall in China contributed to floods and landslides, including a devastating mud-rockslide which killed more than 1,500 people in Zhoqu County, northwest China (2010)
  33. Extreme precipitation events in West Africa, with the worst flooding in 50 years in Benin (2010)
  34. Flooding affected Central and Eastern Europe several times during the decade. Poland was most affected in 2001, while Germany, Romania, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia suffered the most in 2002, with thousands of people evacuated. More recently, in 2008, Germany was hit by a large number of thunderstorms with hail and tornadoes and in 2009 some countries suffered from similar floods to those observed in 2002. In 2010 flooding in the Danube river basin caused severe damage. (2001-2010)

Source: World Meteorological Organisation, 2010. A snapshot of some extreme events over the past decade.

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Dr Tom Wakeford 2005 / 78°N 11.5°E

Tom Wakeford "Today you will have almost certainly inhaled an atom of carbon exhaled by Julius Caesar, when he uttered the question 'Et tu Brute?' to his treacherous aide. Now multiply your breathing by the respiration of every plant, fungus, bacteria, human being and other animals. You do not need a calculator to conclude that organisms have, by their very existence, exerted a powerful influence over the global climate..."
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Satellite image showing sea surface temperature (SST). National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.
Illustration showing sea surface temperature. National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
Satellite image of the High Arctic environment. Image: NASA.
On 19 September 2010 at the end of the melt season the sea-ice extent was the third smallest on the satellite data record, after 2007 and 2009 (data of U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center).
Scientist Kathryn Clark at the glacial lake near Humantay Glacier during the 2009 Andes Expedition
Arctic sea ice extent (data of U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center).
Studying landslides at Tres Cruces during the 2009 Andes Expedition
Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science, and crew during the 2009 Andes Expedition
Satellite image of the High Arctic environment. Image: NASA.

Satellite image of the High Arctic environment. Image: NASA.