February 10, 2019

Extreme weather - should we be worried?

England’s weird weather may seem pretty unpredictable at times. Most of us across the country experienced snow at the beginning of the week, and if you are like us then you will be praying that this winter doesn’t bring another ‘Beast from the East’. However, when compared to other countries across the globe, our weather is pretty dependable.

Exacerbated by the consequences of global warming, extreme weather is becoming an increasingly common occurrence. This doesn’t just mean that temperatures are rising. With more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, extreme rainfall or drought, extreme highs or freezing cold spells, are all becoming increasingly likely.

This past month has seen many temperature records broken across the planet, from scorching temperatures in Australia to polar vortexes in America. It seems impossible to refute that man’s impact on the planet is starting to become more visible.

Waiting for Rain

America is plunged into a ‘polar vortex’

It is all too easy to believe that as global temperatures rise, harsh winters are becoming a thing of the past. We are constantly reminded that over the past few hundred years, averages temperatures have increased due to man made greenhouse gases. What you may not realise is this actually makes extreme cold spells more likely as well.

This week, America has been gripped by one of the worst cold snaps for decades, one that makes the ‘Beast from the East’ look like a light winter breeze in comparison. Over ¾ of Americans, some 250 million people, have experienced ‘polar vortex’ conditions, witnessing temperatures drop below -17C.

 

 

This may sound rigid, but the real temperature if wind chill is factored in is much colder still. Many areas across the Midwest and Great Lakes have experienced temperatures that feel much closer to -50C.

Polar Vortex over America

During this period, more than 30 record lows were broken across the Midwest. Cotton, Minnesota, was the coldest places in the US last Thursday, recording a low of -48C. Chicago shattered its record low, recording -29C on the 31st January, previously standing at -24C set in 1985. Chicago was even forced to use fire to keep the rail tracks warm enough to operate.

Naturally, emergency services have been warning American’s to only leave the safety of their homes if absolutely necessary. Particularly at risk are the young and elderly, as well as those who work outside or who are homeless. The incidents of frostbike have seen a dramatic rise as many struggle to find relief from the cold.

What makes this event unique and really stand out is that it was followed by one of the fastest 3 day weather changes on record, increasing from the -20C’s to +10C’s. 

Temperature changes like this adds incredible pressure to infrastructure which can place the lives of many at risk. With pipes bursting and gas plants unable to cope with the surge in demand, individuals across Minnesota and Michigan were asked to reduce their thermostats whilst they suffered the worst of the storm. As many parts of the country ground to a halt, the economic impacts of this event will be significant. A similar cold event in 2014 cost an estimated $5bn dollars. 

Australia - the hottest month on records

On the other side of the world, Australia has just experienced the hottest month on record. At least 5 days in January were among the warmest in the country's history, with daily national temperatures well into the 40C’s. For the first time ever, the average temperature for the month exceeded 30C.

The city of Adelaide broke its own record twice in 1 month, first reaching 47.7C and then 49.5C. The heat has been so extreme that several tennis matches in the Australian Open in Melbourne have been suspended.

The extreme heat and dry weather has seen a dramatic rise in wildfires. In Tasmania, fire crews have battled to keep control of more than 50 bushfires. Wildlife has also been severely affected, with mass deaths of wild horses, native bats and fish in drought-affected areas being particularly hit hard.

Dead horses in dried up waterhole

It seems that both the duration and intensity of the heat this year is setting records, only made worse by the below average rainfall across much of the country.

Extreme weather is here to stay

Weather events like these seem likely to become increasingly familiar.

Over the past 100 years, Australian temperatures have on average increased by over 1C. This may not sound like much, but a 1C rise in temperatures will place tremendous pressure on natural habitats across the country. Many of the species in Australia are completely unique to the country, but are becoming increasingly threatened by the changes in temperature and rainfall. We are sadly already seeing worrying signs of what’s to come from the Great Barrier Reef.

2018 and 2017 were respectively the third and fourth hottest years on record for Australians. Sydney experienced its hottest day since 1939 last year, reaching a scorching temperature of 47.3C. Although it is a little early to predict, 2019 seems to be heading in a similar direction.

Australian temperatures are getting warmer due to global warming

Australia remains particularly at risk of extreme temperatures as global warming is set to continue. However, as we have seen last year in the UK and currently in America, nowhere is immune to the consequences of the greenhouse effect.

Even if global temperatures are contained to the Paris accord limit of a 2C rise above pre-industrial levels, this change will have a dramatic impact across the globe that is almost impossible to predict.

Sadly, global warming is by definition a global affliction, yet many treat it as if it is a local problem without global repercussions. We may not see how our electricity is produced, the pollution released from the manufacture of cheap clothes, or the plastic entering the oceans, but that doesn’t mean it is not affecting us all.  Sadly, the most vulnerable are also those who are most at risk from changing conditions .

An environmental consciousness must become the norm for all of us if we are to preserve the planet’s natural beauty for future generations. This doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice everything, such as never driving or buying only vegetarian meals, but instead just try being a little more considerate of how something is made, what impact it has on the environment and what the potential consequences of your actions are.

Small changes repeated over time can make significant impact.


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