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A climate system on steroids

In early March 2013, Australia’s Climate Commission released a report titled The Angry Summer“, prepared by commissioner Professor Will Steffen. In subsequently discussing the report, Prof Steffen likened our climate system to an athlete on steroids:

“I think the steroids analogy is a useful one. Steroids do not create elite athletes – they are already very good athletes. What happens when athletes start taking steroids is that suddenly the same athletes are breaking more records, more often. We are seeing a similar process with the Earth’s climate.”

Some of the records established during Australia’s 2012/13 summer (December-February) are highlighted in the following image from the report:

Angry-Summer-Graphic-1-from-website-500-333

Please click on the map if you would like to open a larger version. Once open, you can left-click again to enlarge it further.

The results are consistent with those found in other parts of the world. For example, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has reported that 2012 was the warmest year on record “by a wide margin” for the contiguous United States.

Some key points from the Climate Commission’s report and supporting material:

Temperature

  • The length, extent and severity of the heatwave were unprecedented since records began.
  • For seven days running, from 2–8 January 2013, the average daily maximum temperature for the whole of Australia was over 39°C (102°F), easily breaking the previous record of four consecutive days over 39°C.
  • There have only been 21 days since records began in 1910 where the average maximum temperature across Australia has exceeded 39°C; eight of those days happened in the 2012/13 summer (2–8 January and 11 January 2013).

Bushfires

  • In the first weeks of January, dangerous bushfire conditions occurred in many areas across Australia with major bushfires flaring in Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria.

Rainfall Extremes: Floods and Droughts

  • Between 22 and 29 January 2013 extreme rainfall occurred over the east coast of Queensland and the New South Wales coast north of the Illawarra. The heavy rainfall was the result of former tropical cyclone Oswald moving south, just inland of the coast.
  • Extreme rainfall from former tropical cyclone Oswald triggered severe flooding in many areas within 200 km of the Queensland and far northern New South Wales coastlines. In addition to heavy rains, the system brought strong winds, storm surges, high waves and tornadoes.
  • In contrast to what was happening in the north, Victoria and South Australia had the driest summer in decades.
  • Since mid-2012 much of Australia has been drier than usual.

The report states that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has reported a likely net increase in the number of heavy precipitation events globally, although there is a stong regional variation in the trends (as typified by events in Australia). The following image from the Climate Commission’s report describes the connection between a warming climate and increasing rainfall. Higher ocean surface temperatures cause more evaporation, leading to more water vapour in the atmosphere. That, in turn, leads to more precipitation.

Angry-Summer-Ocean-Temperature-500

In an article in The Conversation on 4th March, 2013, Prof. Steffen further explained the influence of the changing climate on weather:

“All weather is influenced by climate change. The climate system is warmer and moister than it was 50 years ago, and this influences the nature, impact and intensity of extreme weather events. All of the extreme weather events of the angry summer occurred in a climate system that has vastly more heat compared to 50 years ago. That means that they were all influenced to some extent by a climate that is fundamentally shifting.”

What happened after summer?

The hot weather continued into March, with more records broken. In Melbourne, a new record of nine consecutive days with maximum temperatures above 30°C (86°F) was established. Each of the previous spells of eight days had occurred in January or February, and the most recent of those occurred in 1961.

Melbourne also experienced its warmest March night since records began, with a minimum temperature of 26.5°C (79.7°F).

Does everyone acknowledge what’s happening?

Professor Steffen has said: “Statistically, there is a one in 500 chance that we are talking about natural variation causing all these new records. Not too many people would want to put their life savings on a 500-1 horse.”

That statement represents an interesting contrast to a statement from Belinda Hutchinson, chair or Australia’s largest international insurer, QBE. In April 2011, following another summer of extreme events, she said: “The catastrophe events that have taken place this year, the floods in Queensland, the fires, have nothing to do with climate change. They are part of Australia’s really long history of floods, fires, droughts.”

It would be interesting to know if Ms Hutchinson has changed her position since that time.

If she has not, then she may not be alone. The Age newspaper recently reported on a climate risk survey of 184 American insurance companies in the Property and Casualty; Life and Annuity; and Health sectors. A report by sustainability advocacy group Ceres said the survey (conducted by insurance regulators in California, New York and Washington) found:

  • Almost all of the 184 companies responding showed significant weakness in their preparedness to address the effects climate change may have on their business;
  • Only 23 demonstrated a comprehensive climate change strategy;
  • 88 viewed climate change as a potential future loss driver, even though scientific assessments such as the recent IPCC Extreme Events report and draft National Climate Assessment emphasise that climate change is already amplifying extreme events that lead to insured losses.

The findings may have disappointed the CEO of major global reinsurer, Munich Re, Nikolaus von Bomhard. In December, 2009, he said, “Climate change is a global problem and a challenge for humankind. If the players do nothing but pursue their national interests, we are headed for a climate catastrophe”.

So what lies ahead?

The Climate Commission’s report says it is virtually certain that extreme hot weather will continue to become more frequent and severe around the globe, including Australia, and that the frequency of heavy rainfall will also increase.

It says: “In Australia and around the world we need to urgently invest in clean energy sources and take other measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. This is the critical decade to get on with the job.”

Although the purpose of this article is not primarily to consider the impact of animal agriculture, Professor Steffen should perhaps also consider the need to urgently draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through reforestation and other measures. As referred to in my article “Omissions of Emissions” and elsewhere, reducing our reliance on animal agriculture as a food source could play a major role in that regard if we were willing to change entrenched practices. (In a forthcoming article, I will comment on some recent widely-publicised comments concerning that issue.)

Megaphone-resized-2 

Paul Mahony is an environmental and animal rights campaigner who is trying to remove what he considers to be blinkers and blindspots in the community, resulting from social, cultural and commercial conditioning. You can find Paul on Twitter, Slideshare, Sribd and his own blogging site, Terrastendo.

Note: This article first appeared on the author’s Terrastendo blogging site on 16th March, 2013.


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