Weather Report

With floods in the north of England and no summer in sight what has happened to the weather? Merlin Sheldrake tries to make sense of a record-breaking year for the setting of weather records

Until late April, Australia lay in the grip of the worst drought in its history. River after river dried up, and in the absence of winter rain, the government contemplated cutting off water supplies to the Murray-Darling basin, an area of land the size of France and Spain accommodating 72 per cent of the country’s farm and pasture land. This was the only possible step that could have been taken to guarantee retention of enough drinking water for the population.

Without water, the crops would have certainly failed, resulting in a food shortage, increase in food price and uncertain futures for the region’s 55,000 farmers. Five years of drought and evaporating incomes have already devastated many smaller towns, with agricultural production falling by 25 per cent in the past year. Communities in New South Wales lie abandoned, with many of the residents forced to migrate to the cities. Thieves even stole water from storage areas as its scarcity increased.

The drought threatened three-quarters to a whole one per cent of the nation’s GDP – the amount, according to the Stern report, it would cost countries to limit greenhouse emissions and slow climate change if action was taken now; another reminder of the economically devastating potential of a change in climate. Still, however, the Australian government led by Prime Minister John Howard is denying links between climate change and the drought. Australia is the world’s second highest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita, and has refused to sign the Kyoto protocol, despite climate models’ predictions that it would be one of the first areas to be seriously affected by climate change.

In contrast with such dryness, on April 22nd areas east of Sydney were hit with flash floods triggered by thunderstorms. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology said that nearly 100mm of rain fell in just a few hours – around 75 per cent of what is usually expected for the entire month.

The country’s struggle to manage water resources is an indication of how unprepared even the worlds most developed countries are for dealing with such environmental crises.

If Australia’s experience was a one-off then it could be seen as an aberration, but extreme weather conditions have appeared elsewhere.

At one stage last summer over 60 per cent of America lay in a state of drought or abnormally dry conditions, and was scorched by record temperatures. The United States experienced its second warmest March on record, over 5°C higher than the national average for the month. The drought in the US’s mid-west and south west was crippling. It was not a one-off year, much of the region having languished in severe drought since 2000. According to a study published in the April issue of Science, this marks the onset of a long, dry era, comparable to the multiyear droughts of the Dust Bowl period.

A winter heat wave in New York had the sunbathers out in Central Park in the early part of this year. Temperatures during the winter months usually peak in the high 30s, but in January temperatures reached the 70s in some parts of the state. On the 6 January, before dawn, the temperature in Central Park hit 65°C, breaking the previous record of 63°C, set in 1950. I chatted to a friend in the city who moaned that she couldn’t wear a jacket all month.

Meanwhile, on the west coast of America, in the middle of this same month, yet more records were set as a rogue cold spell descended on California, Oregon and Washington states. Citrus crops in California were damaged and snow fell in the southern parts of the state. This was preceded by long periods of unusually heavy rainstorms and flooding in much of Washington and Oregon.

This pattern of freak weather has emerged throughout the world.

The northern provinces of Thailand were also subjected to an unusually cold spell. Temperatures sunk below 15°C. An estimated 140,000 people were left without suitable clothing to cope with the weather. It was not the only country to shiver. Bangladesh suffered from an unexpected bleak period, and Russia was afflicted by its coldest winter for 25 years, with temperatures falling to –31°C. There were more than 30 deaths in the country over three days in January and an unprecedented strain placed on the energy grid as people struggled to keep warm. Animals in a zoo near Moscow, not accustomed to such frigid conditions, were treated accordingly. Monkeys were given wine three times a day to keep off the chill, and a performing lion that was stricken with pneumonia was rubbed all over with brandy.

Meanwhile, on January 18th a huge storm piled in from the Atlantic to batter mainland Europe. At least 47 people were killed as 133mph winds cut into the continent as far as Russia, outing power in hundreds of thousands of homes. Thirty-foot waves scuppered the container vessel MSC Napoli off the coast of Britain. Much of its cargo, including cars, motorbikes and wine barrels, was washed up on English beaches attracting hoards of looters. In Germany alone, according to the German Federation of Insurers, around a billion euros’ worth of damage was inflicted.

2006 was also a heavy year for China weather-wise. Floods, droughts and typhoons resulted in 2,704 deaths, and economic losses of around $27.5 billion. The country’s mainland was hit by seven typhoons and tropical storms, among them Typhoon Saomi, the strongest to strike China since 1949. Eighteen sandstorms whirled through the northern part of the country (the most since 2000), and the south west suffered from the worst drought in a hundred years with severe water shortages affecting 17 million people.

Late in the year, four major typhoons hit the Philippines in as many months, including the first super-typhoon in the country’s history. Hundred-plus mile-an-hour winds, flooding and volcanic mudslides claimed hundreds of lives, and caused widespread devastation.

In Malaysia, the frequent occurrence of extreme and unpredictable weather has prompted a government-commissioned report, which announced that ‘the weather is undergoing a metamorphosis’. The heaviest rainfall in a century fell over the state of Johor, in the western part of the country, resulting in the area’s worst-ever flooding.

During April, guerrilla hailstorms flattened crops in north India. Fifty to 70 per cent of the apple harvest in the state of Himachal Pradesh was destroyed after two storms struck in a week. An hour-long hailstorm in the Punjab left wheat crops mouldering in the fields when the harvesting machinery failed to run on the waterlogged grounds. The monsoon usually starts in June, and although winter rains do occur, it is not often that they strike with such vigour.

Nowhere in the last year has had as many records set as Tasmania. Last year, every month apart from September was host to the breaking of a rainfall or temperature record. February, April, May and June all featured their lowest minimum monthly temperatures, and June saw the lowest total rainfall recorded. October forged new records for the hottest night, coldest night, hottest day and lowest rainfall.

Returning to mainland Australia, the city of Melbourne endured its coldest Christmas on record. The temperature peaked at 14.5°C, with summer snow falling on the nearby mountains. Hail and thunderstorms affected the rest of the southern state of Victoria.

To bring it all back home, April has been the warmest in the UK since records began in 1659. There has been unusually low rainfall too, around 36 per cent of the national average for the month. Indeed, 2006 has been scattered with broken records, including the warmest September and autumn in the books, and the hottest month ever – July.

Quite simply, a record number of records have been broken around the world. Whether or not these events are part and parcel of climate change is still disputed by scientists; such drastic consequences of the global climatic shift are not expected so soon.

It is hard to believe, however, in view of the abundance of freak weather worldwide, that the incidents are independent of each other and that such signs of a changing climate are not in fact climate change.

There is a difference between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’. The weather is a consequence of the short-term atmospheric conditions, whereas climate is based on trends and patterns observed over a longer time period. The weather-record phenomenon, though based on the atmosphere’s short-term moods, also involves looking to precedents to inform us of what is ‘normal’ or ‘expected’. Although a single broken record is not indicative of a trend, the recent spate of unprecedented events does make a statement. According to the Met Office, ‘Climate model predictions indicate that we might expect to see unusual weather occurrences as climate change begins to take effect.’ But climate science moves slowly, and can be rather a blunt tool. Models project future scenarios based on what is happening now, and what has happened before, but are unable to anticipate more radical climatic developments until they are upon us.

In the absence of another green world for us to inhabit, we had better watch out.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2007