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Cover Story

Future shock

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Nov 30, 2011 | From the print edition

As the world continues to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the global temperatures could rise by 3°C by mid-century, says a soon-to-be-released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Extreme weather events will become even more intense. Erratic monsoons and severe cyclones have already battered large parts of India this century.

Should we still blame the increasing disasters on unpreparedness of governments and bad planning? Down To Earth investigates

flood

It is a definite recipe for disaster, barely short of apocalypse. Thousands may die, millions get affected, and assets worth billions of dollars get destroyed. As human-induced greenhouse gases increase, so will extreme weather events like floods, heat waves and droughts.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents this grim picture. Surely then, the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, which will be released in Uganda on November 18, is no harbinger of good news.

Present imperfect

The report, culled from scientific studies undertaken across the world, makes a strong link between extreme weather events and greenhouse gas concentrations from anthropogenic emissions. This, it says with two-thirds surety, would decrease the number of cold nights in a year and make days warmer. Since the 20th century heat waves, like the one in Asia in 2007, have increased. Droughts have intensified since 1950 and are prolonged, especially in western Africa and southern Europe.

The report also names greenhouse gases as the probable culprit for increase in the mean sea level and tidal intrusions.

Over the years, nations have suffered huge losses because of extreme weather events. The estimate for annual global monetary loss from such events between 1980 and 2010 ranged between a few billion US dollars and 225 billion US dollars. The year 2005 was worst hit, as Hurricane Katrina swept New Orleans in the US. However, monetary loss in developing nations is difficult to ascertain, the report clarifies. Cultural heritage, ecosystem services, informal and undocumented economy cannot be monetised.

Between 1979 and 2004, 95 per cent of all deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing nations. If the loss is valued in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), between 2001 and 2006 low income countries lost about 0.3 per cent due to these freak events. Developed nations lost only about 0.1 per cent of their GDP. But the worst hit were countries with rapidly expanding asset base, like India and China, which lost about one per cent of their GDP.

Asia seems to have borne the maximum brunt of intensified weather events between 2000 and 2008, the report notes.

Future tense

By the middle of this century, annual daily temperatures could gradually increase by 3°C, peaking at 5°C towards the century’s end.

The frequency of cyclones may remain the same, the report says, but their intensity and maximum wind speeds are likely to increase. This will increase the number of people who get affected by it. In 1970s, the number of people exposed to tropical cyclones was about 73 million. With increased intensity, the number may double by 2030. East Asia, including China, Japan, the Koreas and Russia, is most vulnerable, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the hits (see map).

The same holds true for floods. The IPCC sounds a red alert on inundations due to high rainfall events like the one in Mumbai in 2005. The Maximum City received half of the season’s rainfall within a day (see ‘Megacities in danger’). Such events occur once every 20 years. By the end of the century, these may become as frequent as once every five years. About 86 million people are likely to get exposed to floods by 2030, about two-and-a-half times more than in 1970s.

The report issues yet another warning. This is for people living in mountainous regions. Heat waves, glacial retreats and permafrost degradation may lead to hazards like glacial lake outburst floods and landslides.

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Megacities in danger

The 2005 floods in Mumbai were unprecedented. Within 24 hours the city received 94 cm of rainfall. About 1,000 people, most living in slums, died. Business was severely hit with communication, electricity and transportation completely paralysed for days. This forced IPCC to name Mumbai as the city with the highest population exposed to coastal flooding. At present, about 2.8 million people and about US $46 billion worth assets are exposed to coastal flooding. By 2070, the exposed population will increase to 11 million people and exposed assets to about US $1.6 trillion.

Mumbai epitomises the dangers megacities on coasts face. In this case, adaptation is difficult because most of the infrastructure development has taken place in the past 150 years, and not planned to tackle climate change induced weather changes. This makes slum-dwellers extremely vulnerable as even a 50 cm rise in sea level could wipe out settlements. Other cities that the IPCC report names are Kolkata, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Bangkok, Rangoon, Hai Phong and Miami. All except Miami are in developing countries. About 1.3 to 1.4 billion urban poor lay exposed to sea level rise and they are overwhelmingly in developing countries.

 

AddThis

Climate Panel (IPCC) Charts Extreme Weather in a Warming World: Now the truth has come out in open that is some climate experts for the past more than a decade have intentionally exaggerated future risks and intentionally pushed very extreme doomsday views by relating extreme weather to global warming. The language was toned down in this report and they are cautious in putting the statements. This is exactly what I was advocating for the past few decades; however IPCC & Al Gore-trained PR groups relentlessly talking and pushing hard at government level other way. Let us see some of those reported view points: The IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore in 2007 for its efforts on climate change, but later became a focus of controversy related to factual errors, with disastrous repercussions on the economy of national government. The findings were released at a conference in Kampala, Uganda, by the Inter-government Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], a high-profile United Nations body assigned to review and report periodically on developments in climate research. They come at a time of unusual weather disasters around the globe, from catastrophic flooding in Asia and Australia to blizzards, floods, heat waves, droughts, wildfires and windstorms in the United States that have cost billions of dollars. It appears that IPCC has tightened its procedures in the hope of preventing future errors in terms of language it used. The new report on extreme weather, one of a string of reports that the panel is issuing on relatively narrow issues, did not break much ground scientifically, essentially refining findings that have been emerging in climate science papers in recent years. Indeed, the delegates of IPCC meeting in Kampala, Uganda adopted scientifically cautious positions in some areas. For instance, some researchers have presented evidence suggesting that hurricanes are growing more intense because of climate change, but the report sided with a group of experts who say that such a claim is premature. Nonetheless, the report predicted that certain types of weather extremes will grow more numerous and more intense as human-induced global warming worsens in coming decades. “It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century on the global scale,” the report said. “It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe.” By the end of the century, if greenhouse emissions continue unabated, the type of heat wave that now occurs once every 20 years will be occurring every couple of years across large areas of the planet, the report predicted. It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the 21st century over many regions. It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur throughout the 21st century on a global scale. It is very likely--90 per cent to 100 per cent probability—that heat waves will increase in length, frequency and/or intensity over most land areas. It is likely that the average maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones (also known as typhoons or hurricanes) will increase throughout the coming century, although possibly not in every ocean basin. However it is also likely—in other words there is a 66 per cent to 100 per cent probability — that overall there will be either a decrease or essentially no change in the number of tropical cyclones. There is evidence, providing a basis for medium confidence, that droughts will intensify over the coming century in southern Europe and the Mediterranean region, central Europe, central North America, Central America and Mexico, northeast Brazil, and southern Africa. Confidence is limited because of definitional issues regarding how to classify and measure a drought, a lack of observational data and the inability of models to include all the factors that influence droughts. It is very likely that average sea level rise will contribute to upward trends in extreme sea levels in extreme coastal high water levels. Projected precipitation and temperature changes imply changes in floods, although overall there is low confidence at the global scale regarding climate-driven changes in magnitude or frequency of river-related flooding, due to limited evidence and because the causes of regional changes are complex. Some influences are fairly robust, the panel says, particularly a warming of extreme daily maximum (and minimum) temperatures. But the report finds only “medium confidence” (a 50/50 chance) in a link between human activities and intensification of extreme rainfall on a global scale. (A big issue, of course, is the lack of long-term data outside developed countries.) And the odds go down from there on attributing other recent shifts in weather-related disasters to global warming. At least some of the weather extremes being seen around the world are consequences of human-induced climate change and can be expected to worsen in coming decades. It is likely that greenhouse gas emissions related to human activity have already led to more record-high temperatures and fewer record lows, as well as to greater coastal flooding and possibly to more extremes of precipitation, the report said. Whether inland flooding is getting worse because of greenhouse gases is murkier, the report said. Nor, it found, can any firm conclusion be drawn at this point about a human influence on hurricanes, typhoons, hail storms or tornadoes. Even as such extremes are projected to increase, human vulnerability to them is growing as well, the report said. Rising populations and flawed decisions about land use, like permitting unchecked coastal development, are putting more and more people in harm’s way, the report said. “Rapid urbanization and the growth of megacities, especially in the developing countries, have led to the emergence of highly vulnerable urban communities, particularly through informal settlements (slums) and inadequate land management,” the report said. Increases in population density and in the value of property at risk, rather than changes in the climate, are the likeliest explanation for rising disaster losses in many countries, the report said. It called on governments to do a better job of protecting people and heading off catastrophes before they strike. The summary contains a sobering message for those eager to point to current patterns of extreme weather as the manifestation of greenhouse-driven warming. Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios generally do not strongly diverge in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability over this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain. The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change, and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences. While the summary warns of enormously increasing risks from drought and flooding in decades to come, it is bound to disappoint climate campaigners. The section on disaster losses correctly reflects the uncertainty injected in such analysis by confounding factors, including rapidly shifting human populations and the paucity of solid data over long periods. The report summary notes how wealth and development powerfully shield countries from human losses in disasters while amplifying the financial costs of such events. The section on managing risks is particularly valuable, describing strategies that have a host of benefits no matter which scenario for emissions and climate change plays out. Here’s one important point: Many measures, when implemented effectively, make sense under a range of future climates (medium evidence, high agreement). These “low regrets” measures include systems that warn people of impending disasters; changes in land use planning; sustainable land management; ecosystem management; improvements in health surveillance, water supplies, and drainage systems; development and enforcement of building codes; and better education and awareness.

My observations: Weather and climate are highly location specific and thus as a result present different patterns with changing environment like ecological changes to meet the needs of ever increasing population pressure under new technological lifestyles. Over this superposed the natural variations created more confusion as our lifespan is short to understand the underlying physics. Let me give an example of All-India Southwest Monsoon Rainfall pattern. India has wealth of meteorological data, more particularly rainfall data (the above report states lack of data in developing countries, is false statement – I studied the data of several countries in developing countries). The precipitation data series of all-India Southwest Monsoon started in 1871. This data series present a cyclic pattern of 60-years following the Indian Astrological cycle. The data series showed two cycles completed and third cycle started in 1987 to end by 2046. A cycle is a Sine curve in which 30 years up and 30 years down the Mean. In the up part average is more than mean with more frequent wet spells – floods including river floods; in the down part average is less than mean with more frequent dry spells – droughts inclusive of fewer floods in rivers. When we study a part of such data series we may come up with increasing trend or decreasing trend based on the selected period in the cycles. Similarly the intensive rainfall spells increase or decrease. This flawed analysis. This was the case with report of INCCA submitted to MoEF – Krishna Kumar of IITM presentation to MoEF and MoEF interpretation of river floods and Minister’s report to parliament. The same is seen in IPCC summary report and thus they were cautious and put it 50:50 chances. Let the government start working on analyzing the full data series at local, regional and national level. Let IMD or IITM complete the data series left at 1994 to 2011 so that scientists can come up with better interpretations. In the case of temperature, it not only presents a trend but also superposed on it the cyclic pattern. The extremes reflect this pattern. Also, the temperature patterns all over the globe presented different patterns including India. The change is more in winter compared to summer. Why? Is it associated with urban heat island effect? It does not mean we should not help in reducing greenhouse gases. Instead depending upon fossil fuels, the government must look in to other direct and indirect factors contributing to global warming. The global temperature data series analysis presentan increasing trend and by 2100 it reaches by 1.13 degrees Celsius and over this superposed - 0.3 to +0.3 degrees Celsius 60-year cyclic pattern. 

S Jeevananda Reddy

19 November 2011
Posted by
Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

Yes, this is very disturbing news. Where I live, we receive 740 mm in a year. I can get no one here interested is this. I have designed a RWH system here, but have not built it yet. Looks like I need to start! The local politicos prefer to be ignorant about this..

21 November 2011
Posted by
William

Though lot many signs of natural disasters arising from climate change are is evident, the required action is not being taken. Will boastful remarks made at climate change conventions serve any purpose save humanity? Isn't it the responsibility of each and every person to engage in genuine endeavours to tackle the problem of global warming? Though the Kyoto Protocol deadline about to expire, no consensus has been arrived at. Everybody is busy trying to get rid of their load of duties and burden others, claiming thay are responsible for global warming. Is it wise for the Annex 1 countries to spend large sums of money to carry out wars, research and development in arms and aircraft when they need to focus on climate change mitigation? Not only the developed world, even the developing countries do not seem to be serious about it, although it is evident that it these countries will be affected more severely. Merely producing data on paper for CDM projects will not help. It will be better if serious efforts are made by each one of us with measurable results. Our government should be more assertive and help the international community reach a consensus in the upcoming UNFCCC meet.

23 November 2011
Posted by
KHAN

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