Weather patterns promise a wild ride

Weather records falling and extreme storms becoming more frequent

It was 42 degrees C in St. Louis, Mo. earlier this month, about the same as in Saudi Arabia. Along the U.S. Atlantic coast, it was cooler, but not much: 41 C in Washington D.C., just short of the city’s all-time record. And 46 Americans were already dead from the heat wave.

In Britain, it was incredibly wet. Almost six cm of rain fell July 7 in parts of southern England, and there were over 20 flood warnings and 100 flood alerts in effect. The wettest April ever was followed by the wettest June (more than double average rainfall), and July is shaping up to be the same.

Russia had its hottest summer ever in 2010, with peat wildfires raging out of control — over 5,000 excess deaths in Moscow in July alone — but this summer it’s wet in Russia too. An astonishing 28 cm of rain fell overnight in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, and flash floods killed 155 people.

It is a big planet, and some local record for hottest, coldest, wettest or driest is being broken somewhere or other almost every day. But these are records being broken over very large areas, in regions where records go back a long time. As Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev said: “No one can remember such floods in our history. There was nothing of the kind for the last 70 years.”

There are very unusual events happening in winter too: last January only 14.7 per cent of the United States was covered by snow, compared to 61.7 per cent at the same time in 2011. At least 300 people died in a cold wave in northern India in the previous January.

One could go on, enumerating comparably extreme weather events in the southern hemisphere in the past couple of years. But that would just be more impressionistic evidence, and no more convincing statistically. The events are too few, and the time period is too short. But it does feel like something is going on, doesn’t it?

The most recent opinion polls indicate that a majority even of Americans now accept that climate change is happening (although, being American, many of them still cling to the belief that it is a purely “natural” event that has nothing to do with human greenhouse gas emissions). But opinion polls are not a good guide in these matters either. Can we really say that something serious is happening, and that it is evidence that the climate is changing now?

No, we can’t. It’s a statistical long-shot, but it is possible that this is just a random collection of extreme events signifying nothing in particular. Occasionally a tossed coin comes up heads six times in a row. But usually it doesn’t.

The best way to approach the question is to ask what we would actually see if global warming had crossed some threshold and triggered big changes in weather patterns. The actual change in the average global temperature would be almost imperceptible: only one or two degrees C, or the difference in an average day’s temperature between 9 a.m. and 10:30. What we would notice is that the weather is getting wild.

We never really experience the climate; what we feel is the daily weather that it produces. A climate that is changing will produce unfamiliar weather — and if it is getting warmer, it will be more energetic weather. Wilder weather, if you like.

That means hotter, longer heat waves, and bigger storms that bring torrential rain and killer wind speeds. But it can also mean prolonged droughts as rainfall patterns change — and much more severe winters, like the “Snowmageddon” storm that hit Washington D.C. in February 2010 and shut down the U.S. federal government for a week.

That last phenomenon confuses people who think colder winters prove that the climate isn’t getting warmer, but complex systems like the climate can produce strange local results. As an article by C.H. Greene and B.C. Monger in a recent issue of Oceanography points out, the melting of the Arctic sea ice will cause colder winter weather in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

“Since the dramatic decline of Arctic sea ice during summer 2007,” the authors point out, “severe winter weather outbreaks have periodically affected large parts of North America, Europe and East Asia. During the winter of 2011-12, an extended and deadly cold snap descended on central and eastern Europe in mid-January (with temperatures approaching -30 degrees C)…By mid-February, the death toll had exceeded 550.”

How does melting Arctic sea ice cause colder winters? Much of the solar heat absorbed by the ice-free parts of the Arctic Ocean in the summer is released into the air by evaporation in the autumn. The higher atmospheric pressure in the Arctic weakens the Jet Stream, which allows cold Arctic air masses with a high moisture content to spill out into the middle latitudes. Hence colder winters and more snow in the U.S., Europe and northern Asia.

You can’t prove that all this means we are sliding into a new and steadily worsening climate right now — that the long-threatened future has arrived. The statistics aren’t good enough to support that conclusion yet. But if you have to put your money down now, bet yes.

 

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

 

Just Posted

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Geordie Fife exits the dunk tank during 2017’s Discovery House Father’s Day festivities at Skaha Lake Park. The fundraiser helps raise awareness of the work done at the house and break down the stigma associated with addiction. (Western News File)
Discovery House Father’s Day fundraiser goes digital

The addiction recovery program will be rolling out videos ahead of the fundraiser

The proposed design of the five-storey building on Front Street. (City of Penticton)
Five-storey building proposed for Penticton’s Front Street

It will be the second time the proposal will head to council

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from St. Eugene’s residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

RCMP thanked the public for assistance in finding Benjamin Archie, last seen in Princeton. (RCMP)
Missing Chilliwack man found safe and sound

The 80-year-old had walked away from his home in Chilliwack

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

(Heather Lueck image)
Crash north of Enderby knocks out power, slows Highway 97A traffic

A witness captured footage of a medical helicopter landing at the scene

The RCMP presence in Central Okanagan public schools is being reviewed by the board of education. (File photo)
RCMP presence welcomed in Central Okanagan public schools

Staff survey feedback overwhelmingly positive from students, staff and parents

Most Read