'07 weather extremes seen as sign of what awaits us

The Washington Post

 

WASHINGTON — A monsoon dropped 14 inches of rain in one day across many parts of South Asia this month. Germany had its wettest May on record, and April was the driest there in a century. Temperatures reached 113 degrees last month in Bulgaria and 90 degrees in Moscow in late May, shattering longtime records.

The year still has almost five months to go, but it has already experienced a range of weather extremes that the United Nations' World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said Tuesday is well outside the historical norm and is a precursor of much greater weather variability as global warming transforms the planet.

The warming trend confirmed in February by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — based on the finding that 11 of the past 12 years had higher average ground temperatures than any others since formal temperature recording began — appears to have continued with a vengeance into 2007. The WMO reported that January and April were the warmest worldwide ever recorded.

"Climate-change projections indicate it to be very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent," the organization said.

"The average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were very likely the highest during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years, and likely the highest in the past 1,300 years," the report said.

The heavy rains in South Asia have resulted in more than 500 deaths and displaced 10 million people, and floods have affected 13.5 million Chinese, the report said.

In England and Wales, the period from May to July was the wettest since record-keeping began in 1766, resulting in floods that killed nine and caused more than $6 billion in damage. On two days in late June, northeast and then central England had downpours of 5 inches within 24 hours.

The warming of the globe is expected to result in more extreme weather because of changes in atmospheric wind patterns and the ability of warmer air to hold more moisture, according to Martin Manning, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) working group on the physical science of climate change.

He said one year of heavier-than-normal rains and warmer-than-usual temperatures says nothing definitive about climate change but is consistent with the IPCC's long-term predictions.

"What we have projected is an increase in extreme events as the global temperatures rise," Manning said. "Floods, droughts and heat waves are certainly consistent with that."

The IPCC has also predicted that temperate zones, such as Europe and the United States, are likely to become more prone to flooding and areas closer to the equator will experience more drought.

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said he was at a London airport recently when the torrential rains began and that "it turned so black you couldn't see the plane next to you." The downpour, "unlike anything I've ever seen before," continued for four or five hours, he said.

"What I saw just brought home exactly what the IPCC and this report are saying — that we will be having more extreme weather," Clapp said. "What's frightening to me is that it's all happening more quickly than the earlier models predicted, which tells us that the effects of the buildup of greenhouse gases is probably more damaging than we've thought."

According to the World Meteorological Organization report, the extreme weather occurred in many parts of the globe.

In May, a series of large waves (estimated at 10 to 12 feet) swamped almost 70 islands in 16 atolls in the Maldive Islands off south India, causing serious floods and extensive damage. Halfway around the globe, Uruguay was hit during the same month by the worst flooding since 1959 — floods that affected more than 110,000 people and severely damaged crops and buildings.

Two months later, an unusual winter brought high winds, blizzards and rare snowfall to parts of South America.

Two extreme heat waves affected southeastern Europe in June and July, breaking records with temperatures exceeding 104 degrees. Dozens of people died, and firefighters worked nonstop battling blazes that destroyed thousands of acres. On July 23, temperatures hit the record 113 degrees in Bulgaria.

The WMO is the United Nations' authority on weather, climate and water issues. The report was based on information supplied by WMO members and was done with the collaboration of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center, Germany's National Meteorological Service and the Met Office in Britain. A more comprehensive report on the world's weather will be released at the end of the year.

The WMO, which is a co-sponsor of a series of meetings and reports on global climate change, is putting together an early-warning system for climate extremes and is establishing long-term monitoring systems and plans to help the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

 

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