Shades of Green: Extreme Weather – Floods, Fires, Storms and Droughts

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The realization that we might be partly responsible for the recent spate of destructive weather is difficult to accept because it requires us to change the image of ourselves from innocent victim to guilty perpetrator. And, given the psychology of denial, we are inclined to avoid this sea-change of perspective. However, as climate science tracks the effects of the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere from our burning of fossil fuels, its conclusions are forcing us to consider that our behaviour might be implicated in the extreme weather we are getting.

Weather, of course, is difficult to predict – this is why forecasts are often inaccurate. But climate is a much easier because general principles apply. Add heat and the weather becomes more active and extreme. Greater temperature differentials cause stronger convection activity and higher winds. When a 1.0°C rise in temperature increases the activity of the hydrological cycle by 7 percent, a modest warming translated into higher rates of evaporation and precipitation. (A disturbed hydrological cycle may explain why coastal BC is getting such a cold and wet spring this year – other places are getting our heat while we are getting their rain.) The climatic energy of warmer places always generates more dramatic weather.

Now apply these general principles of climate to the weather extremes that have recently traumatized Canada and the US:

  • The Richelieu River in Quebec reached a record level in early May of 30.7 metres above normal. The unprecedented flooding was attributed to heavy rainfall combined with exceptional melt from the high snowfall in the Adirondack Mountains. The excessive rain and snowfall have been attributed to an increase in the activity of the hydrological cycle.
  • Flooding has ravaged Manitoba, the worst in at least 300 years. The cause, as in Quebec, is excessive rainfall and the melting of unusually heavy snowpacks.
  • Similarly, US states along the Mississippi River have been hit by record floods as unprecedented volumes of water make their way into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • In a tragic irony, nearby Texas and the adjacent states of New Mexico and Oklahoma have been hit by record droughts and fires.
  • “Unprecedented wildfires” were burning in 30,000 hectares of northern Alberta. Winds of 100 km/h swept one of the province’s 115 forest fires into the town of Slave Lake, burning nearly half the buildings in the settlement of 7,000 people. Similar conditions threatened Russia last year and are of concern again this year as some 400 forest fires burn uncontrolled through its dry forests. Last year, Australia ended a record drought with record floods. Pakistan got only an unprecedented flood. The Amazon, in four years, is in its second once-in-century drought.
  • The tornado season in the US has been particularly destructive. April saw a record 600 twisters hit the South, causing widespread damage and a death toll of over 300. On a single day in May, a record of 226 tornados terrorized southern states. Then, on May 23, a horrendous tornado touched down in Joplin, Missouri, flattening a 1.6 km swath through the town, obliterating 2,000 buildings and killing 142 people – 90 more are missing. Two days later, 13 people were killed by a twister in Oklahoma. And the tornado season isn’t officially over until the end of June.

No one can be certain that global warming and the resulting climate change are implicated in these extreme weather events. Meteorologists are particularly careful to avoid the implication because the detailed causal connections are characteristically complex and uncertain. But indisputable global measurements show the biosphere is warming and the hydrological cycle is becoming more active. Extreme weather events are consistent with the computer models predicting the consequences of rising concentrations of greenhouse gases. The science is clear. It’s the specifics of weather that confuse us. We can’t be certain whether an individual weather event is extreme because of mere probability or because something more systemic and sinister is occurring.

But the simple physics of climate tell us that a gradual increase in global temperature will cause more frequent and sudden outbursts of extreme weather, extremes that we can erroneously attribute to the normally unusual. Such extremes that arrive in the guise of ordinary exceptions are particularly dangerous because each individual event can be rationalized, excused, overlooked and dismissed as if it were nothing portentous.

This has generally been our reaction to extreme weather events – we dismiss each one as a normal exception. Without the perspective of time, we fail to realize that once-in-a-century events are happening more frequently, or that melting ice is actually raising sea levels – BC government planners recently announced that all coastal structures with a design life to 2050 should allow for a 0.5 metre rise in sea level while those with a design life to 2100 should allow for a 1.0 metre rise.

Sea level rise, global warming and increasing storm intensity all came together in an “ecologically unprecedented” 1999 event in Canada’s Mackenzie Delta. High sea levels, the absence of Arctic sea ice to blanket waves, and a large surge from an intense storm all combined to send a flood of salt water 20 kilometres inland. This wide swath of the fresh-water Delta is still dead after 12 years. “It’s just another example of how recent climatic factors seem to be out of our normal range of variability,” said Professor John Smol of the Paleoecological Environment Assessment and Research Lab at Toronto’s Queen’s University. “We actually have evidence now that [global warming] has started happening and it isn’t just part of some natural variability” (Globe & Mail, May 17/11).

We all worry when weather’s variability becomes extreme. But we don’t want to accept that extreme weather events are actually linked to our greenhouse gas emissions, a reluctance that condemns us to be victims of our own doing – a sad irony that makes every weather disaster even more tragic.

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About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on commonsensecanadian.ca as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

7 thoughts on “Shades of Green: Extreme Weather – Floods, Fires, Storms and Droughts

  1. Judy, you can’t kid a kidder. 9 out of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred over the past decade. And don’t tell me we have nothing to do with it. For the last time, I concur there are all manner or scams being peddled by the Goldman Sachs of the world to turn carbon trading into the next big bubble – or by GE to compel us to hand over our rivers for private river diversion projects…I hear you. I get it. But human-caused climate change from carbon emissions is real. You’ll have to do much better than Oil-funded “Friends of Science” in this forum. Your skepticism towards the financial community and politicians is well warranted – but not that toward the scientific community.

  2. Obfuscation will get you nowhere. Climate change is due to natural causes, and anybody who tries to tell you differently is a con-artist. The scam is trying to make people feel responsible for natural phenomena and then have them pay some bankster run entity a tariff.

    Try some real science for a change…Study finds global warming over past 4 centuries was due to increased solar activity
    A peer-reviewed paper published in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics finds global warming over the 20th century “not significantly different” from warming episodes that occurred in earlier centuries. The paper finds that the increase in solar activity over the past 400 years explains the warming, without any need to search for a unique cause of late 20th century warming, such as greenhouse gas concentrations. The NIPCC website just posted this summary of the paper:
    http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2011/06/study-finds-global-warming-over-past-4.html

  3. Judy, this is all I have to say on the matter, so spare me your diatribes: Climate Change is USED to perpetrate scams. Climate Change itself is NOT a scam.

  4. Come on Damien…I thought you were smarter than that.
    Don’t you get that the global warming scam is just that?
    It’s about robbing us and shutting down economies. It’s about global governance by banksters.
    I’m writing here because I admire the other work this site has been doing and hope to wake you all up. But you are going to stay entranced by this hogwash unless you start exposing yourselves to something other than the green gorp that passes for science.

    “The Central England Temperature (CET) database is the world’s oldest instrumental temperature record. Its temperature data has been used in hundreds of peer-reviewed studies because of its uniqueness and accuracy. It also has the advantage of never being manipulated by NASA’s team of global warming fabricators.
    What’s CET’s venerable temperature record telling us as of the end of 2010? It confirms there has been no significant warming in the 15 years since 1995; actually, it instead reveals a slight cooling trend (green linear trend line) over that time span.”
    http://www.c3headlines.com/2011/01/worlds-oldest-temperature-record-no-significant-warming-since-1995-cooling-instead.html
    Take a look at the evidence!

  5. Who is this Dutch scientist and does he have any connection to Royal Dutch Shell or any other funding from the oil industry? That would be important to know…I just don’t understand your persistent view that climate change is a hoax, Judy. You certainly won’t get much support in these pages.

  6. “a Dutch scientist reviewed 22 recent peer-reviewed studies regarding disaster losses and global warming. Not a single study found a connection between extreme weather, global warming and increased disaster losses. The 22 studies covered the entire spectrum of disasters, including: bushfire, earthquake, flood, hail, landslide, windstorm, thunderstorm, tornado, tropical storm, hurricane and hail.

    “The Dutch researcher reports that “most of the 22 studies have not found a trend in disaster losses, after normalization for changes in population and wealth.” In fact, he says that “all 22 studies show that increases in exposure and wealth are by far the most important drivers for growing disaster losses ,” a conclusion that has also been reached by Changnon et al. (2000), Pielke et al. (2005) and Bouwer et al. (2007). And he adds that “no study identified changes in extreme weather due to anthropogenic climate change as the main driver for any remaining trend.”.Reiterating these observations in his paper’s concluding paragraph, Bouwer says that although “economic losses from various weather-related natural hazards, such as storms, tropical cyclones, floods, and small-scale weather events (e.g., wildfires and hailstorms), have increased around the globe,” the 22 studies he analyzed “show no trends in losses, corrected for changes (increases) in population and capital at risk, that could be attributed to anthropogenic climate change.”” [Laurens M. Bouwer 2011: Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society]
    http://www.c3headlines.com/2011/06/dear-gov-christie-22-peer-reviewed-studies-prove-that-global-warming-is-not-the-cause-of-increased-d.html

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