Should We Expect More Extreme Weather Events As The Climate Changes?

About two weeks ago, I planted a gorgeous purple and white winter heather in a pot next to my front door. The daffodils in there had long died off, and my mother found a lovely plant for me that would last the winter.

I walked out my door the morning of storm Ali last week, rushing to get the bus when to my horror my heather was nowhere to be seen. The flowers were sucked out of the pot, leaving a big crater where its roots once were. Ali had actually eaten my plant.

Two people tragically died in Ireland due to storm Ali. We have seen a number of extreme weather events recently. The summer heatwave, the big snow, storm Ophelia… you may be wondering, is this the effects of climate change? Should we expect more in the future? And if so, how do we prepare? Is the state equipped to deal with such events?

Extreme weather events are indeed one of the impacts of climate change. Don’t be fooled, a string of unusual weather events is not proof itself of climate change. Unusual events happened often in history, but it’s the sea level rise (1.7cm since 1916), temperature increase (0.8℃ since 1900), rainfall patterns (5% increase compared to the period between 1961 and 1990) and unusual changes in wildlife behavior and ecosystems (bud burst in trees now occurs a week earlier in the year compared to the 70’s). It’s by analyzing averages of the weather and weather events over the long term that we know that something is changing.

So are we to expect more storms as the century goes on? The answer is we don’t know for sure. In the history of humanity, we’ve never experienced such a drastic change in climate. There may be many unforeseen challenges that societies will have to deal with as they come. However, there are some things that we can reasonably expect, and we have seen many of these climate impacts in Ireland already.

Dry spells

Summers are expected to become warmer and drier. It is highly likely that events such as heat waves will increase. A state of drought was declared this summer as our reservoirs dried up. Many of us may have enjoyed the hot spells and beach days, but there are many consequences to prolonged heat spells. Farmers suffer from reduced yields, homes and businesses must cope with water restrictions. Dublin’s water conservation order was only lifted this week.

The European heat wave of 2003 had a death toll of at least 70,000, according to a peer-reviewed study. This heat wave is often indicated as an event directly caused by climate change. Due to climate change, extreme heat waves that would occur twice a century are now expected to happen twice a decade, according to one study. Severe heat waves are predicted to be commonplace by 2040. Not only that but if we do not decrease our carbon emissions, the 2003 heat wave will be considered a cool summer by 2100.

Heavy Rains

We know that precipitation, i.e. rain and snow, will increase. Relentless periods of heavy rain will become (even more) commonplace. As the oceans become warmer, more water will evaporate into our atmosphere, and what goes up must come down. We can expect rainfall to be much heavier, and much more frequent, especially in winter and autumn. Current predictions estimate storms will happen less often in Ireland, but when they do happen they will be far more intense and cause much more damage. Rising sea levels mean that storm surges are a risk to coastal areas.

Additionally, we know for certain that climate change can make a tropical storm go from bad to worse. Take for example hurricane Florence, which just hit the southern United States, particularly North and South Carolina. Melting sheet ice from Greenland prevented warm water from the gulf stream flowing across the Atlantic, accumulating into a warm spot in the ocean. Warmer oceans provide more moisture and energy for a storm or hurricane, thereby intensifying it and making it stronger. Higher sea levels as a result from melting glaciers and land ice will make storm surges and storm waves higher and do more damage.

The U.K. government has recognised flooding to be the biggest risk of climate change. Flooding can damage infrastructure and displace a lot of people from their homes, costing the U.K. millions every year. Damages and costs due to flooding will increase unless measures are taken to protect vulnerable areas from flood damage.

Where we stand

Are we prepared for these changes in the weather? Water restrictions, countrywide power outages and the closing of schools and colleges during storms suggest we may not be. But in a strange turn of events, it seems, on paper, the government has a bit of a plan.

Ireland is one of the 21 EU member states to have a climate strategy, with policies on how to reduce greenhouse and an adaptation strategy. The National Adaptation Framework (NAF) was published in January 2018 and includes guidelines on how the country will adapt to climate change and how these guidelines will be implemented. Ireland is indicated as being one of the European countries to experience the most extreme effects of global warming. However, European Commission notes that “Much of the adaptation work undertaken to date can be summarised as awareness raising or preparing the ground for adaptation”. In other words, we’re doing a lot of talking about preparation, but not a lot of actual, you know, preparing for the challenges we will inevitably face.

The UCD VAPOR project is listed in the NAF as one of the key research projects informing us of how Ireland’s eco-system and agriculture will cope with our changing climate and extreme events.

This kind of research is extremely important as we cannot prepare for what we don’t know. Records up until now have shown that the weather trends we’ve experienced in the past two decades or so are unlike anything recorded in human history. However, this research is useless unless we act on the information we learn.

Can we tell if climate change is the sole cause of an event? Not yet, but it could be a possibility in the future. We do know that anthropogenic climate warming (i.e. humans ruining it for everyone else) increases the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Although we are not yet able to attribute a single event to climate change, using computer climate models we can confidently say whether or not human activity had a role to play in intensifying a storm or increasing the likelihood of a heatwave. Climate models are an important tool in climate research in predicting what both past and future climates looked like.

Extreme weather events are the most palpable effects of climate change. They are very dramatic, happen very quickly and can cause people to lose their homes, their livelihoods, and even their lives.

Unfortunately, we’ve reached the point where we cannot stop global warming from happening. I know, this all sounds very grim. But there’s a lot we can do to reduce greenhouse emissions, which will reduce the effects of climate change, including extreme weather events.

I believe a lot of responsibility falls to governments and corporations, but Ireland is a relatively wealthy country, and the best indicator of a person’s carbon emissions is their wealth. Individual efforts to be kinder to our planet can greatly reduce Ireland’s overall carbon emissions. One of the things I try to do is educate myself on Ireland’s agricultural practices, and plant a garden that is friendly to local wildlife. I will continue to try, even if my plants get eaten by the wind.

 

By Lahela Jones – Science Writer

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