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Updated: July 13, 2013 13:27 IST

Living in an extreme world

    T. R. Ramachandran
    T.R. Shankar Raman
Comment (17)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

There is compelling evidence to show that many weather-related disasters are not chance occurrences but are a result of human activities that have altered our atmosphere

The recent flood-related disaster in Uttarakhand was labelled a Himalayan tsunami, recalling the deaths, damage, and destruction that followed the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. Yet, this is a misleading metaphor, because there is little evidence that real tsunamis are linked to human activities that impact our oceans or sea-floors. In contrast, there is compelling evidence that climate change and the occurrence of extreme meteorological events, such as the one in Uttarakhand are related to human activities that have altered our atmosphere through greenhouse gas emissions. In today’s world, many weather-related disasters are not merely chance occurrences.

Record high temperatures

Extreme weather and related disasters are becoming more common. In an analysis published in 2012, Munich Re, global insurance giant, reported that disasters tied to extreme weather events have more than doubled worldwide since 1980. So far in 2013, many examples stand out — record high temperatures in Australia and the United States (including the highest June temperature — 54.0°C — in Earth’s recorded history at Death Valley, California), heavy rainfall and catastrophic floods in northern India, the U.S., Canada, Central Europe, and Argentina. Parts of the central U.S. also experienced record snowfall as late as May. Simultaneously, other parts of the U.S., such as southern Texas, are in the midst of record drought.

Extreme temperature swings are also increasingly common. Having endured a “bone-chilling” cold wave in January, parts of India were in the grip of a massive heat wave in May, and the risk of such heat waves is predicted to increase. Such swings are not uncommon in the U.S. either. For instance, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the city of Lincoln in the State of Nebraska registered a record low of 0.5°C on May 12, rising to a record high of 37.7°C within two days!

What’s behind these extremes? Is global warming responsible? After all, NOAA reported that the global average temperature for May 2013 tied with 1998 and 2005 as the third warmest May in 134 years of record-keeping. However, any single extreme weather event or natural disaster cannot be attributed solely to global warming, because day-to-day temperatures and long-term climate are also influenced by natural variability in local weather, larger-scale atmospheric and oceanic oscillations, and other factors such as solar cycles, volcanoes, and atmospheric pollution. Moreover, how could global warming be linked to both extreme heat and cold, or cause both record droughts and rainfall, snowfall, or floods?

Global warming refers to an increase in the worldwide average temperature, as has been observed in the last few decades. With an average trending higher, both record heat and cold events can and do occur, but more heat records are observed than cold as the overall distribution of temperatures shifts higher. In the U.S., for example, the ratio of record high-to-low temperatures has been increasing since the 1970s, and is projected to increase even more dramatically in the future. Justin Grieser of the Washington Post reported that in Washington, D.C., “daily heat records have outnumbered cold records … by a 7 to 1 ratio since … 2000 and by nearly 16 to 1 in the past 3.5 years.” According to a just-released report from the World Meteorological Organization titled The Global Climate 2001–2010: A Decade of Climate Extremes, a qualitatively similar trend is also evident worldwide in the last two decades.

Another way to view this shift is through the results of scientist James Hansen’s team at NASA, which showed that as average temperatures rise, the overall temperature distribution shifts higher, and heat extremes that would have had a very low probability of being observed 30 years ago are observed much more frequently today. The evidence is strong that global warming is the culprit: in a new paper in the journal Climate Change, climate scientist Dim Coumou and colleagues note that “… worldwide, the number of local record-breaking monthly temperature extremes is now on average five times larger than expected in a climate with no long-term warming.”

Unusual cold temperature records are also accruing, especially in the northern hemisphere. Strangely enough, a key reason for this is believed to be the extreme warming of the Arctic at twice the rate of the rest of the northern hemisphere (Arctic Amplification). As scientists Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus have shown, drastic Arctic summer sea ice melt since the 1980s (equivalent to ~40% of the contiguous U.S. land area, almost equal to land area of India) and concomitant heat transfer to the Arctic Ocean could cause significant anomalies in atmospheric weather patterns, particularly in the north polar jet stream air current. As the anomalous jet stream meanders and lingers over parts of North America and Eurasia, it results in prolonged, extreme heat or cold events. Thus, increased temperature extremes are not just chance occurrences but partly due to global warming.

What about droughts and floods? The 2007 IPCC report observed that with global warming most climate models predict increased summer dryness and winter wetness in the northern hemisphere. Extended periods of high surface temperatures without adequate moisture and with a higher atmospheric capacity to hold water vapour can lead to drier soils and drought. There is growing evidence that global warming is partly the cause of the significant increase in aridity across the globe since the 1970s and associated record forest fires. At the same time, the vast majority of the warming in the last few decades has occurred in the world’s oceans. Greater evaporation of water into a warmer atmosphere capable of holding more water vapour has led to an increase in atmospheric water content by about 4 per cent since the 1970s. With such moisture-laden air delivered over land by storms, the likelihood of more extreme rainfall or snowfall and ensuing floods in some regions is increasing, as observed in the U.S. and India. As scientist Kevin Trenberth remarked, “… all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be.”

What can we do about these disturbing trends? First, let us recognise the key cause of warming. There is now clear, overwhelming, scientific consensus among 97 per cent of climate scientists that current warming is largely man-made, fuelled by emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) from fossil fuels and human activities. In May 2013, the CO2 concentration in our atmosphere crossed 400 parts per million (ppm), up from about 280 ppm in the late 1700s. The last time the CO2 level was as high as 400 ppm was around 3-5 million years ago, when sea levels were much higher and regional climates were very different. Where we are today is unprecedented since the advent of modern human civilisation.

Second, we need to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and do so collectively across the world. Extreme weather events are not partial to developed or emerging economies. A global climate risk index indicates that warming is affecting most of the globe, especially Asia. The economic impact of climate change is also significant and growing. We must therefore accelerate a shift worldwide — away from fossil fuels and heavily carbon-intensive activities, towards new economic growth engines based on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and carbon sequestration.

Poor adaptation

Finally, human management of land and forests, rivers, and industrial livestock also impact emissions and can significantly influence the aftermath of extreme weather events. The Uttarakhand floods illustrated what could happen when an extreme weather event intersects poor mitigation and adaptation practices, ranging from unrestricted logging and construction on landslide-prone slopes to poor disaster management. Environmental mismanagement, too, can accentuate disasters. When natural forests and grasslands of mixed native species are destroyed, degraded, or converted to monoculture plantations of alien species it alters soils, reducing soil moisture retention and infiltration. This can make soils more prone to erosion and contribute to the twin travails of destructive floods and drying watersheds. A study from near Nainital in the Kumaon Himalayas by P.K. Rawat showed that between 1985-1990 and 2005-2010, the decline in natural oak forest cover and increase in barren land and mixed forest was accompanied by a 62 per cent increase in soil erosion rate, 15 per cent increase in flood runoff, and greater density of landslides in the watershed.

Still, this scenario can be turned around: conserving natural forests and grasslands helps avoid increased emissions, minimise soil erosion and surface runoff, increase water retention and sustain flows longer into the dry season, and buffer the impact of high rainfall events. Uttarakhand and other recent disasters are warnings to us highlighting the need to look beyond just near-term expediency and incorporate greater sensitivity to environment and climate concerns in our best practices across all sectors. Meanwhile, the climate clock is ticking.

(T.R. Ramachandran is a Vice President at LSI Corporation in California, and T.R. Shankar Raman is a Senior Scientist with Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organisations)

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If we are to believe these scientists, everything will be hunky-dory with the world ,if
we allow all the rivers to waste into the sea without using their water for
irrigation,without extracting the energy available from their downward journey. Let
all the coal, minerals lie waste in the forests . But, what will happen to the human
beings whose population is exploding year after year? That seems to be none of
their concern.

from:  T. V SIVAKUMARAN
Posted on: Jul 15, 2013 at 10:28 IST

There should be a balance between development and environment protection. Human civilization will be in peril if we ignore either of the two. Its high time for the world leaders to rethink the strategies to combat menace for the future generation.

from:  Anil Kumar Sahu
Posted on: Jul 14, 2013 at 13:49 IST

Climatic changes are common phenomena. We should think of a policy which concentrate on both development and environment.

from:  Muthu
Posted on: Jul 14, 2013 at 12:54 IST

Absolutely valid and important article. I sincerely hope that people with power and financial muscle show more character while writing / re-writing the laws of the land to ensure that we slow down the destruction of our dear lanet.

from:  Bharathan Prahalad
Posted on: Jul 14, 2013 at 08:41 IST

Very insightful and holistic analysis of the affect of environmental degradation . Kudos to writer in showing what happened in uttarakhand need to be looked from wider prespective. 1-2 months back hindu had reported news of carbon dioxide level reaching to benchmark which could have serious repurcurssion on earth climate. Then we had monsoon reaching almost 20 days earlier in uttarakhand and giving 130 percent more rain. However I was amazed the way many so called enviromentslist failed to see fron large perspective. Climate change is global phenomena and need to be tackled both locally and globally. Locally need for awarness among people and globslly consensus among govts to enforce proper measure to reduce pollution and green house gases

from:  Pawan
Posted on: Jul 14, 2013 at 07:09 IST

Everyone knows the reason but no one knows how to act..the act of change is needed but the initiative must be taken by an organization or government body so that people maintain a decorum.

from:  Siddharth
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 23:35 IST

This op-ed, while well intentioned, suffers from some of the same flaws that arguments other climate change proponents espouse - that of selective use of data. Climate change is an inadequately understood phenomenon. Yes, it must be researched more thoroughly. And yes, we humans, being as we are at the top of the food chain, do have a responsibility to leave the planet in at least as good a shape when we pass on as when we arrived on it. However, going about blaming human action for what could very likely be completely misunderstood natural phenomena strikes me as a case of needless fear mongering.

from:  Jason Jones
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 20:33 IST

It has become fashionable for the West to complain of “global warming” as a new stick to be held against the third (developing) world. Industrialization is the cause of extreme exploitation of the earth’s resources. In order to satisfy the hunger for industrial goods, the West has pillaged the entire world. Not satisfied with the mineral exploitation or perhaps to assist in developing that plunder, the West has also enslaved the Africans directly and the rest of the world indirectly.
The colonizing West patronizes every aspect of everyone else’s life. Just colonial masters monopolized the terms “democracy” and “human rights,” so also the plunderers are in the forefront of the campaign to monopolize the fight for “environment.” What is their solution? That the developing countries (who might become competitors) slow down. Progressive thinkers have always worried about environmental degradation, but the West took it up only when China and India started industrializing.

from:  venkat raghavan
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 20:23 IST

Development is going on at an alarming rate. The avarice of humans is eating up nature. But nature will take its course and attack. So we should think about nature and go for sustainable development.

from:  Vibha Karnail
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 20:22 IST

Investing in research of efficient ways to harness renewal energy is the need of the hour. Climate change is more threathing issue than terrorism or economic turmoil. It is time to realize that we have to be proactive rather than reactive in tackling this grave threat.

from:  Amit Sharma
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 20:21 IST

People on Earth must care surrounding Nature and limit our-self to all-round REAL development of mankind on Earth...Otherwise Uttarakhand instances will repeat in near future...As nothing is free in this world,for every action there is always equal and opposite reaction.So,we must care for Environment by adopting life style in tune with natural surrounding and stopping wrongly directed so called DEVELOPMENT at the Cost of Environment.In short, we must adopt"SHARE AND CARE NATURE-mantra/policy WORLDWIDE"

from:  R V KAKADE
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 19:31 IST

Govt shows more interest on satelite projects.why the governments r not bothered about environment protection projects?

from:  Vikram
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 18:51 IST

The known base fact of natural disasters currently happening all over
the world and the recent one in India are all human triggered is well
stressed. In the name of development and advancement we exploit nature
mindlessly be it cutting of trees,encroaching river banks,lakes,ponds
etc. None including the government and the citizens never worry in
restoring the lost green cover or rebuild atleast a portion of it. In
the name of promoting tourism in hillocks,well grown trees are erazed
down and damaging the serenity,villas and resorts come up.In the name
of enhancing hydel power,mindless construction of check dams and mini
reservoirs in the fragile hilly regions negating its long term
impacts.Uttarakhand incident be an eye opener to the planners and
environmentalists. It is time to have tourism holiday for all hilly
regions and Himalayan ranges in particular to allow the nature to
recoup the lost green pastures. If humankind fails to learn even now,
nature will take its due on its own.

from:  BASKARAN R V
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 17:54 IST

Article explains the cause and effect of destruction of Natural
Habitat, still wondering whether there is any concrete steps taken by
the Sustainable summits which happen every year at the global level.
Every yearly meet will pass out, with either few countries agreeing or
others opposing to the plans to curb green house gases, provide
sustainable solutions to the rapidly evolving geological problems.When
we are struck by these disasters, we cannot blame anyone, such is the
cause.
When there is lack of will to implement the schemes no disaster can
awaken the minds of people, only time fades without providing the
justice for the people who may have not been directly related to the
cause of such disasters.

from:  Harry
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 16:44 IST

Recent catastrophic events such as Himalayan tsunami in Northern India
or unprecedented heat waves in States is just the Trailer of the movie
whose script depends on how we behave with Mother Earth, Some one has
correctly Said that "every consequence has two innings ", here the
first innings had been played by Human civilization and capitalist
mindset and now its nature's term .
Though international agreements to cut
down carbon emission viz. Kyoto protocol has still not achieved that
amount of agreement which is expected from civilized society towards
our responsibility in protecting the flora and fauna of our
surroundings and the time gap after which such meetings take place is
also very long , which in turn leading to the exponential increase in
environment related problems.

from:  Pratiyush Kumar Rai
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 16:12 IST

We reap what we sow. Lets resolve to be part of the nature and not party to its exploitation. Every effort to restore and rejuvenate our resources has to be our carried out.

from:  Kiran
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 11:05 IST

The authors have little knowledge on the subject. Climate change is a vast subject. It consists of natural variations and man induced variations. Natural variations consist of systematic or cyclic variations and irregular variations or extremes. Man-induced variations consists of ecological changes – land use & land cover changes such as deforestation, urbanization, highways development, mining, etc – and global warming. Ecological changes impact local or regional weather. In India, summer and winter extreme temperatures follow the Western Disturbances. In rainfall, droughts and floods follow the systematic pattern. Recent Himalayan disaster is associated with destruction of nature that amplified the intensity of rain fury. However, it is common to receive heavy rainfall – July & August averages crossed 700 mm with extremes doubling this amount.

from:  Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy
Posted on: Jul 13, 2013 at 07:37 IST
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