Climate Change Gaining Momentum

The start of 2019 has been marked by high impact weather in many parts of the world, including record heat, wildfires and rainfall in South America and Australasia, dangerous and extreme cold in North America, and heavy snowfall in the Alps and Himalayas. Experts say that it will get worse.

Meteorologists are already talking in superlatives as extreme weather patterns have brought cities and towns across the globe to a standstill.

Globally, temperatures were a little over 0.4°C warmer than the average January from 1981-2010, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. Australia continued to experience exceptionally hot conditions. Further regions with much above average temperature include the Middle East and eastern Siberia, Mongolia and northeastern China. Regions of below-average temperature were quite widespread over land and over the frozen Arctic Ocean. In Europe, temperatures were close to or just below average, it said.

The Alps experienced much above average snowfall. Along the northern parts of eastern Mediterranean and the northwest of Spain rainfall was much above average, leading to several rivers overflowing and a number of fatalities. Australia, southern Africa and eastern Brazil saw very dry conditions.

Madagascar and northern Argentina saw much wetter than average conditions. The latter was severely affected by flooding, according to Copernicus Climate Change Service.

Australasia:Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology announced it had been the country’s hottest January on record. Tasmania had its driest January on record. The unprecedented heat wave that burned its way through the country melted roads, saw infrastructure fail and killed thousands of animals, including herds of wild horses. The month saw a new series of heatwaves unprecedented in their scale and duration. Overall rainfall was 38% below average for January.

Australia saw an unusual extended period of heat waves which began in early December 2018 and continued into January 2019. The city of Adelaide reached a new record 46.6C on 24 January. Other records in South Australia included Whyalla 48.5, Caduna 48.6°C, Port Augusta 49.1°C, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Large fires fuelled by extremely dry and hot conditions have been burning since mid-January in central and southeast Tasmania, the southernmost state of Australia. As of January 28, the Tasmania Fire Service reported 44 fires. The Great Pine Tier fire in the Central Plateau had burned more than 40,000 hectares. The Riveaux Road fire in the south had burned more around 14,000 hectares. News outlets reported smoke from some of the fires was visible as far away as New Zealand, and had a serious impact on air quality. The Tasmania Fire Service issued several emergency warnings to residents to relocate, as dangerous fire conditions and strong wind persist. Many of the fires are in the world heritage area, hitting rare gondwana ecosystems only found in Tasmania which historically do not burn.

Parts of the state of Queensland saw record rainfall late January and early February as a result of a monsoonal drought. The town of Townsville received one year’s rainfall in the space of nine days, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, prompting flooding and the evacuation of hundreds of people. The Bureau said the flood risk will continue into the first week of February.

On 5 February, the Bureau of Meteorology issued yet another flood warning for the Upper Burdekin river in Queensland. “We have done the calculations and the flow moving past Macrossan Bridge is enough to fill about 2.6 Sydney Harbours every day and still increasing.”

Over the past several weeks, the sea surface temperatures (SSTs) have warmed in the Tasman Sea with anomalies of +2.0˚C to 4.0˚C. Compared to the exceptional conditions at this time last year, SSTs are even warmer to the north and east of New Zealand and about equally as warm in the Tasman Sea, according to the New Zealand Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. Given that SSTs have been significantly warmer than average for several weeks, marine heatwave conditions are likely now occurring in parts of the Tasman Sea and New Zealand coastal waters, it said. Australia had its hottest month of December on record and its hottest December day (27 December) on record. Marble Bar, in Western Australia, recorded a temperature of 49.3 °C on 27 December.

This followed an extreme heatwave that affected the tropical Queensland coast during late November 2018. Temperatures spiked again in mid-January, topping 45°C in many places in New South Wales and central Australia on 16 January.

Australia’s annual mean temperature has warmed by just over 1 °C since 1910, and summer has warmed by a similar amount. Australia’s annual warming trend is consistent with that observed for the globe, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

Heatwaves are becoming more intense, extended and frequent as a result of climate change and this trend is expected to continue.

South America:Extreme weather in the form of heat, drought and precipitation affected widespread parts of South America in January and into February. Intense rainfall caused damage and casualties in Bolivia, Peru and northern Chile in early February, whilst heat records tumbled in southern part of the continent.

Argentina:Temperatures in southern Argentina broke a number of high temperature records on 4 February, when all stations in Patagonia topped 30°C.  The temperature in Perito Moreno reached 38.2°C, and wildfires broke out in Tierra del Fuego. There was the result of an intense anticyclone on the centre-east of the country, driving warm air to all of Patagonia.

Northeast Argentina, and the adjacent parts of Uruguay and Brazil have been hit with extensive flooding, with well above the long-term expected average rainfall. On January 8, the Argentine city of Resistencia recorded 224mm rainfall. This is a new 24-hour rainfall record, much higher than the previous highest of 206mm, recorded in January 1994, according to the national meteorological service, SMN Argentina.

Brazil: January 2019 was hot, following the trend recorded in recent years, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, with heatwaves influencing the weather conditions in much of the country, and new historical records established. In the southeastern part of the country, state capitals have set records in Belo Horizonte (Minas Gerais) of 30.9 °C, São Paulo (São Paulo) of 31.9 °C, Vitória (Espirito Santo) of 33.3 °C. In Rio de Janeiro, a temperature of 37.4 °C was considered the second hottest since 1961. The country’s southern, where climatology has milder temperatures, recorded in Curitiba (Paraná) of 30.3 °C considered warmest since 1935 and the same occurred in Florianópolis with a record of 32.5 °C.  In Brasilia, the Federal District, in the country’s Midwest, was considered the third driest January in 57 years of measurements, with a cumulative of 70.9mm.

Chile:Weather extremes were seen throughout Chile, according to Meteo Chile. Rains in the Andes led to damaging flooding as a result of water pouring into the Atacama desert,  normally one of the driest places on Earth, and causing a 60 meter waterfall that had run dry for 10 years to be reactivated by the flooding. In the south, record breaking temperatures have sparked forest fires burning thousands of hectares of land and forcing the government to declare disaster areas. More than 600 forest fires are raging throughout 9,500 hectares of land. Besides high temperatures, low humidity, high winds and drought conditions there is a man-made element to the reason these wildfires are so large.

A weather station in the capital Santiago set a new record of 38.3°C on 26 January.  In other parts of central Chile, temperatures topped 40°C, according to Meteo Chile. Heat gripped Patagonia in February, and for the first time ever, Porvenir and PuertoNatalaes in the southern tip of the country exceeded 30°C. Coyhaique reached a new record of 35.7°C and en Cochrane 36.1°C.  

Paraguay also saw a number of heat records broken. On 23 January, many places saw temperatures of between 36°C and 43°C. Mariscal Estigarribia reached a new record of 44°C. One town, Pedro Juan Caballero, smashed its 1999 record by a massive 2.6°C

Southern Africa:Tropical cyclone Desmond made landfall in Mozambique on 22 January, bringing high winds and causing flooding in the city of Beira and enhancing rainfall in Madagascar and Malawi. 

Mozambique: Cyclone Idai hit the city of Beira hard and the scale of damage is massive, say Red Cross and Red Crescent aid workers who reached the Mozambican city a few days ago.

climate change and hurricanes

Jamie LeSueur, who is leading the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) assessment team into Beira, noted, “The situation is terrible. The scale of devastation is enormous. It seems that 90 percent of the area is completely destroyed.”

The Red Cross and Red Crescent team was among the first to arrive in Beira since Cyclone Idai made landfall March 14-15. With Beira’s airport closed and roads cut off due to flooding, the team drove from Maputo, the capital city, before taking a helicopter for the last leg of the journey.

“Almost everything is destroyed. Communication lines have been completely cut and roads have been destroyed. Some affected communities are not accessible,” said LeSueur. “Beira has been severely battered. But we are also hearing that the situation outside the city could be even worse. Yesterday, a large dam burst and cut off the last road to the city.”

Northern Hemisphere:Large parts of North America were gripped by an influx of Arctic air in late January. In southern Minnesota, the wind chill factor pushed readings down to minus 65°F (-53.9°C) on 30 January. The national low temperature record was measured at minus 56 °F (-48.9°C).

The bitterly cold temperatures were caused by the influence of the Polar Vortex. This is a large area of low pressure and cold air surrounding the North Pole, with strong counter-clockwise winds known as the jet stream that trap the cold around the Pole. Disturbances in the jet stream and the intrusion of warmer mid-latitude air masses can alter the structure and the dynamics of the Polar Vortex, sending Arctic air south into middle latitudes and bringing warmer air into the Arctic. This is not a new phenomenon, although there is increasing research into how it is being impacted by climate change.

Colorado and the northern plains states experienced what could be the first bomb cyclone—an extreme weather event that brought a blizzard with hurricane-force winds.

“The cold weather in the eastern United States certainly does not disprove climate change,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Several record high temperatures were broken or tied across parts of the Eastern US on 4 February, according to the National Weather Service. This included 59°F (15°C) in Buffalo, New York, and 61°F (16°C) in Syracuse, New Jersey.

“In general, and at global level, there has been a decline in new cold temperature records as a result of global warming. But frigid temperatures and snow will continue to be part of our typical weather patterns in the northern hemisphere winter. We need to distinguish between short-term daily weather and long-term climate,“ he said. 

“Arctic has faced warming, which is twice the global average. A large fraction of the snow and ice in the region has melted. Those changes are affecting weather patterns outside the Arctic in the Northern Hemisphere. A part of the cold anomalies at lower latitudes could be linked to the dramatic changes in the Arctic. What happens at the poles does not stay at the poles but influences weather and climate conditions in lower latitudes where hundreds of millions of people live,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alaska and large parts of the Arctic have been warmer than average.

In Canada, Ottawa airport received a record 97 cm of snow on 29 January, beating the 1999 record of 93 cm, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. Winter snowstorms and heavy snowfall are also not inconsistent with weather patterns under a changing climate.

Parts of the European Alps saw record snowfalls earlier in January. In Hochfilzen in the Tirol region of Austria, more than 451 centimeters (cm) of snow fell in the first 15 days of January, an event statistically only expected once a century. Other resorts in Tirol also received once-in-a-century snowfalls. Eastern Switzerland received twice as much snow as the long-term average.

The German weather service or Deutscher Wetterdienst, DWD, also issued a number of top-level snow and winter weather warnings. Climate projections show that winter precipitation in Germany is expected to be more intense, according to the German Weather Service, DWD. This will necessitate adaptation measures, for instance in regulations for buildings to withstand the weight of snow.

During the month, severe winter storms have hit the eastern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East, with particularly severe impacts on vulnerable populations including refugees.

A cold front in the third week of January that swept south through the Arabian Peninsula, bringing a widespread dust storm from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Iran and the United Arab Emirates, brought heavy rain and precipitation to Pakistan and northwest

India. The Indian Meteorological Department issued warnings on 21 January of heavy or very heavy rain and snow for Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, prompting warnings of avalanches amid an intense cold wave.

The severe flooding in the American Midwest is set to only be a prelude to “unprecedented” levels of flooding across the US in the coming months that will imperil 200 million people, federal government scientists have warned.

Nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states will have a heightened risk of flooding until May, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) forecast.

Communities living near the Mississippi river, which has received rain and snow levels up to 200% above normal, the lower Ohio river basin, the Tennessee river basin and the Great Lakes are at the greatest risk, NOAA said on Thursday. Vast swaths of the rest of the country may also get mild or moderate flooding, including most of eastern US and parts of California and Nevada.

“The extensive flooding we’ve seen in the past two weeks will continue through May and become more dire and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream,” said Ed Clark, director of NOAA’s National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The flooding has been fueled by rapid snow melt combined with heavy rainfall that has already inundated much of the Midwest and plains, particularly in Nebraska and Iowa. The torrents of rainfall have not been able to penetrate the frozen ground, causing water to swell rivers and make them break their banks.

Authorities were using boats and large vehicles on Saturday to rescue and evacuate residents in parts of the US Midwest where rainwater and snowmelt has poured over frozen ground, overwhelming creeks and rivers. At least one person was dead.

In eastern Nebraska, rescue efforts were hampered by reports of levee breaches and washouts of bridges and roads, including part of Nebraska Highway 92, leading in and out of southwest Omaha.

Some cities and towns, such as North Bend on the banks of the Platte, were submerged. Others, such as Waterloo and Fremont, were surrounded by floodwaters, stranding residents in virtual islands.

NOAA said that further spring rain, combined with melting snow, will make the flood threat “worse and geographically more widespread”, extending to southern states such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

Scientists say climate change is responsible for more intense and more frequent extreme weather such as storms, floods, droughts and fires, but without extensive study they cannot directly link a single weather event to the changing climate.

According to last year’s US government climate assessment, increasing precipitation has already increased flooding risks in the Midwest, causing widespread damage to property, soil erosion and water quality problems.

“The flooding isn’t only a factor in the Midwest, it’s also on the coasts,” said William Sweet, a coastal flooding expert at NOAA. “There’s a clear climate change signal from the rising seas and the mid-Atlantic area in particular is in the crosshairs. Climate change is here, it’s clear and communities are being flooded far more than they used to be.” Sweet said Noaa expects the mid-Atlantic region, stretching from New Jersey to Virginia, to experience a massive increase in flooding days, up from around 10 days to as many as 130 days a year, by 2050. “The numbers are staggering, some places will be flooding almost every other day,” he said.

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