A YEAR OF EXTREME WEATHER, AND NO REPRIEVE IN SIGHT...

AFP/Getty Images: Spectators gather to watch waves stirred up by typhoon Soudelor in Wenling, China on Aug. 8. The storm was one of countless extreme weather events of 2015.

Wild weather conditions continued in 2015, leading some experts to make a definitive link to ongoing climate change. Meanwhile, record heat may continue into 2016...

Warmest July for planet Earth, warmest May for Alaska. Deadly heat waves in India and Pakistan, then deadly flooding. Flooding in Africa, too. Oh, and 2015 will most likely be the hottest year on record — the World Meteorological Organization, the world’s leading body on the state of the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, says so.

Will 2015 go down as the Year of Severe Weather Events?

No, the past 20 years will.

“We have been seeing an uptick in extreme weather events,” says Brett Anderson, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather in Stormstown, Pa. “There’s heavy rainfall and snow, and then heat waves and long periods of drought.”

Even hurricanes are more intense now, he notes.

The past two decades “have been different — there has been an uptick in extreme (weather) events in the U.S. and all over the world.”

There is no definite answer, yet, and a lot of debate, still, as to whether climate change is the culprit and, if yes, to what extent. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its 2014 report that there is evidence linking extreme events like these to climate change.

It also said that as warming increases, extreme weather events will likely increase in frequency and intensity.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society was more certain and to the point: it examined some extreme weather events of 2014, including heat waves, drought, wildfires and floods, and concluded they were definitely linked to climate change.

The report, “Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective,” used research from 32 groups of scientists around the world. It said, for example, that the drought in East Africa, the extreme rainfall in France and the long heat waves on nearly every continent could be linked to climate change.

For David Phillips, Environment Canada’s senior climatologist, the climate has changed and it is warmer everywhere. “We see more reports of extreme weather events, causing more economic losses,” he says.

“It isn’t a one-off.”

Buffalo had record snowfall last winter (remember the Polar Vortex?). This year, the city’s first measurable snow came mid-December, breaking a 116-year-old record for lateness.

Even the extremes are different — they are frequent and longer-lasting.

In Canada, says Phillips, weather systems “are taking their time walking through us, they are spreading more misery. It’s almost as if they are in slow motion.”

But the link between extreme weather events and climate change is still anecdotal, he points out, and it’s hard to say with full confidence that “all this extreme weather is linked to climate change. Scientifically, it has to be very clear and that has kind of not been shown yet.”

On the other hand, scientific breakthroughs have helped curtail fatalities in extreme weather events, says Phillips. A hurricane in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the 1970s still leaves a trail of destruction and extreme economic loss, but the number of people killed has dramatically come down, he points out.

Science, he says, has helped with advanced monitoring, forecasting and warning systems.

“We know what’s coming days in advance. The fact is the oceans can’t burp without us knowing about it.”

There is another layer to the debate about extreme weather events and whether they have increased in frequency and intensity: social media.

“We see all these extreme weather that we didn’t really see that much before,” says Anderson. “Tornadoes, floods, rainfall … people are recording it all and playing it on social media where everyone sees it. Technology is also playing a role.”

Anderson emphasizes, however, that he is not saying climate change has played no role in extreme weather events.

For Phillips, weather extremes are happening more, there is no doubt about that. “But you know what, we are also hearing about them more. We know we report them more now, we watch them unfold in real time. The world’s a smaller place now.”

2016 may be even warmer

Much of 2015’s weather and climate patterns were influenced by El Nino, one of the strongest on record. Turns out 2016 might also be the same — or, at least, the first few months.

“A strong El Nino is in place and if it continues, and we think it will, it will exert a strong influence over the weather this winter,” says Phillips.

Western Canada, he adds, will be in a “much more difficult situation” than in 2015 if El Nino continues.

Moisture levels in big swaths of the Prairies still haven’t been recharged after the paltry rains of 2015, “so if there is less than usual or not enough precipitation in winter and spring … it could exacerbate the situation for agriculture” in 2016, Phillips says.

In Saskatchewan, the crops sucked up ground moisture from the previous year “but now they have no reserve … so winter precipitation is vital.”

There is a good chance, says Phillips, that as El Nino winds die away in the spring, the Atlantic hurricane season will come back.

“It could be rip-roaring.”

This winter in Canada will be a bit of a flip-flop, says Anderson. Western Canada will likely be drier and milder while eastern Canada will be colder and stormier, especially Quebec and the Maritimes.

And the spring?

Again, thanks to El Nino, it will be a milder and maybe even drier spring across Canada, he says. “We are looking at some computer models and they are leaning toward a drier spring across Ontario. I suspect we are heading for a drier summer than usual, too.”

Overall, Anderson says, there is a chance that 2016 will be warmer than 2015.

“A lot of it is due to El Nino; it’s warmer than what we started with in 2015,” says Anderson. “2016 will be really warm, if not the warmest.”

Finally, a bleak word on oceans.

Globally, ocean water temperatures are the warmest since the 1880s, Anderson says.

“That means we are seeing a lot of heat, the oceans are absorbing a lot of it. I don’t see that changing at all next year — they will be abnormally warm next year too.”


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