The new normal of extreme weather events

Ilaria Meggetto explains how “crazy storms” of today are likely to become harmfully normal.

Science tells us that we should expect increased temperatures in the upcoming years and that, even if we were to suddenly cease all anthropic emissions of greenhouse gases today, the global thermometer would still go up by some points, due to the climate system’s inertia, and stabilize only in the long term. As discouraging as it is, this is not the worst thing about climate change. The data we have is also consistent in indicating not only an increase in temperature records, but also an increase in their variance, so that while all temperatures rise on average, so does the frequency of their extremes and the events connected to them – droughts, floods, heatwaves and storms.

Hong Kong. Together with the Pearl River Delta cities, this coastal area hosts about 50 million people. Source: Author (August 2014)

I have lived in different places, experiences hot and cold climate. Before 2013, though, I had never been to the Tropics so when I moved to South China I did know what a typhoon is but had no idea what it means. During my first week there I was awoken by a strong thundering noise, so overwhelming and continuous that it could not be ignored. They sky over the 14-million-people-megacity of Guangzhou had turned deep red and, together with the intense smog above the whole area – making the horizon smoky all the time – for a moment I was under the impression the city was being bombed. Then, all of a sudden, a violent wind carried a mountain of water down the place. The rain did not stop for 4 days. Streets flooded. Electricity failed. Typhoon Utor had landed.

Typhoon Haiyan’s trail, 11 November 2013. Source: GDACS – Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System

A typhoon is a tropical cyclone is a storm system generated by the evaporation of massive amounts of water and it is characterized by intense thunderstorms whose winds blow above 118 km/h. As I learnt, locals call the period from May to September the “Season of Storms” and 2013 was the most active Pacific typhoon season since 2004 and the deadliest since 1975. A total of 52 depressions, 31 storms, 13 typhoons and 5 super typhoons formed in that year, the last being Category 5 Super Typhoon Haiyan that, with its winds up to 230 km/h, bought devastation across the South China Sea and 6,300 victims in the Philippines.

Understanding how this system works was crucial for me as it will be for many: deciding whether the apartment you want to rent is at risk of flood, knowing where to go when the typhoon alarm rings, stocking water supplies, putting together an emergency kit… are only some of the basic things needed to live in a place hit by intensified weather events. This situation, however, is not a local problem as it is transforming in geography and occurrence as we speak.

Oceans are warming up all over the world. The duration, intensity and number of storms has already increased by 50% compared to the 1970s. 70 to 100 tropical storms used to be the annual average but in the past few years this number has been almost matched by the storms generated in the North Pacific Ocean alone

Half of the world’s population resides along the coast, threatened by the sea level rise and the violence of weather events. When it comes to climate talks, water scarcity is in the spotlight but where water is too much, rising above the 2-meter-threshold and storming densely inhabited shores, the situation is equally dreadful. As disrupted climate patterns and unpredictable trends reach areas considered stable or safe in the past, being able to “read the signs”, subscribing to weather alerts, living “prepared” is likely to become the new normal for most of us.

IMIlaria Meggetto (email) is a Project Manager at Hydroaid (Italy), researcher, traveller, and passionate about climate change.

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2 thoughts on “The new normal of extreme weather events”

  1. As a resident of the UK, where historically the weather has not be prone to extremes, the fact that I have noticed a distinct change in the annual weather cycle goes to show how disastrous it must be in other places that are much more affected.

    While we Brits may complain about the unexpected humidity, or describe a heavy storm as having ‘biblical proportions’, I’m very well aware that we still have it pretty good compared to other places in the world, and it’s important that awareness of that is heightened.

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