Common Sense Canadian

Shades of Green: A Weather Report – the Local and the Global

Posted September 25, 2011 by Ray Grigg in Climate Change

The story of three blind men describing an elephant illustrates the shortcomings of trying to understand global climate change by regarding only local weather. One man wraps his arms around a leg and decides that an elephant is like a tree. Another is feeling the contours of its trunk and deduces that an elephant is like a snake. The third is touching an ear and concludes that an elephant is like heavy canvas. A little more perspective would lead them to a more accurate description.

Just as we are inclined to construe the personal as universal, individual experience inclines us to believe that the local is global. So for people who lived in the southwest corner of British Columbia during spring and early summer of 2011, the protracted bout of unseasonably cool and wet weather might be erroneously construed as the weather occurring elsewhere.

The six-state region of the US southwest – Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee – had months of “exceptional” drought. By September, Texas was enduring its worst dry spell since measurements began in 1895. A “disaster declaration” has been announced for every month of 2011. To date, wildfires have burned 40,000 hectares and engulfed more than 1,000 homes. Meanwhile, the nearby Missouri and Mississippi Rivers have offered some of “the greatest floods in US history” (Guardian Weekly, June 24/11).

For America’s Atlantic coast, 2011 was the stormiest year on record – these intense weather systems brought heavy rains but winds must exceed 119 km/hr for hurricane classification. Even though September’s “Irene” was downgraded to a storm, it still ravaged much the East Coast, deluging 11 states in torrential rains, killing 38 people and causing an estimated $20 billion in flood damage.

Elsewhere in the US, a record number of tornadoes twisted through the southern states – 600 alone in the month of April. Wind, heat and drought in Arizona created some of the largest wildfires that state has ever known (Ibid.). Oklahoma set yearly records for cold (-35C) and 24-hour snowfall (68.5 cm). Record weather damage is now noted as a factor in America’s economic woes.

Mexico suffered the hottest temperatures (48.8C) on the planet in April. “Nearly half the country is now affected by drought. 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 cattle or grow crops” (Ibid..).

After one of the coldest winters in 300 years, drought zones were declared in much of England and Wales in June when rain failed to arrive, making it the hottest and driest spring in 100 years. Kent was receiving as much rain in May as Timbuktu, Manchester was getting more sunshine than Spain’s Costa del Sol, and soils in southern England were drier than those in Egypt (Ibid.). Meanwhile, “Scotland registered its wettest-ever May” (Ibid.). British meteorologists were describing their weather as “remarkable”, “unprecedented” and “shocking” (Ibid.).

Although hot conditions still prevail in the agricultural regions of eastern Europe and Russia in 2011, last year was extraordinary. The hottest summer in at least 500 years scorched 2 million square kilometres of crops, contributed to the death of 50,000 people, caused hundreds of giant wildfires, and created crop failures that initiated worldwide grain shortages when Russia curtailed all exports. Summer drought and heat are causing even more fires in Northern Russia for 2011 than 2010.

As the Guardian Weekly pointed out, western Europe had its turn of extreme weather this year. Record hot weather stressed 16 countries in March, April and May. Rainfall was half of normal. Then the heat and dryness ended with “massive storms and flash floods [that] left the streets of Germany and France running like rivers” (Ibid.).

Australia ended a 10 year drought of unprecedented magnitude last year with record Queensland floods in January of 2011. Australians deemed this event their “worst natural disaster”, with economic costs expected to be about $32 billion.

2011 brought another once-in-a-century drought to China, scorching the southern and central regions, drying up rivers and reservoirs, shrivelling crops and fomenting political unrest. In an effort to quell the turmoil, the Chinese seeded the sky with various rain-inducing chemicals. By design or coincidence, the drought ended with torrential rains – in some places, as much as 30 cm in 24 hours – that caused floods, mudslides, thousands of wrecked homes and 94 deaths.

A worldwide tracking of local weather in 2010 identified 17 countries that measured record high temperatures, including Colombia, Peru, Cuba, Kenya, Somalia and the Amazon Basin. While Rajasthan in India registered 49.6C, Kuwait reached temperatures above 50C.

Climate statistics confirming more freak and extreme weather are corroborated by insurance companies. Worldwide claims from natural disasters have risen from $25 billion per year in the 1980s to $130 billion in 2010. Canada’s freaky weather has been confirmed by the Insurance Bureau of Canada which notes that the severity and frequency of tropical storms has caused “water damage” to replace “fire and theft” as half of all its claims.

Although climate scientists cannot attribute any specific weather event to global climate change, a trend is clearly discernable. Extreme weather has now become the “new normal”, according to officials at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Vancouver Sun, Aug. 26/11). Whether this trend is meaningful, of course, is quite another matter. But it should remind coastal British Columbians that a little cooler and wetter than normal may be better than the alternatives.

About the Author

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 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.


    Damien Gillis

    It’s been a while since we’ve heard from our resident climate change denier – so good of you to drop in again, Roger. It’s important that voice your be represented. And I, for one, like you, accord as much or more scientific credibility to the Bible and Wizard of Oz as to the world’s top peer-reviewed scientific journals. Touché!


    I guess Mr. Grigg didn’t catch Frank Baum’s Yellow Brick Road published over 100 years ago. Tornados happened even back then, but they didn’t try to make them into a cash grab loony theory.

    Dorothy and Toto had a hell of an adventure being swept away by the weather and in those days AGW hadn’t been invented.

    Two thousand years ago no one had heard of HCCC, HCGW or AGW but the Bible says . . .

    “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell and great was its fall.”

    Or was an incarnate Al Gore at it back then?

    Jeezless, we have problems enough . . .

    . . . without inventing scary stories.

    I’m no Bible thumping fundie, hell no, but evidently inclement weather was just as inconvenient (forty days and nights in the wilderness (perpetual arid desert: ring a bell?) thousands of years ago as now and all they did was ride camels!

    I’ll take Mr. Grigg seriously, Rafe and Damien too for that matter, when I see them practicing what they preach . . .


    Great article. However, “climate scientists cannot attribute any specific weather event to global climate change” is not quite right any more. Some scientists did so for the rains and flooding in Pakistan in 2010.

    So the statement was correct until a few months ago. Now the statement should be “”climate scientists are rarely able to gather enough evidence to state conclusively that a specific weather event was due to global climate change”

    Within a few years expect to see confirmation for a number of past events.

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