Global Warnings

Feature Story - 2004-09-09
Hurricane devastation in the US, flash floods in Japan and a UK village washed into the sea. As climate change gathers pace, devastation caused by extreme weather is becoming more common. Take a visual tour of storm and flood destruction.

Local resident contemplates the roof of his home perched on a nearby tree after Hurricane Charley.

Every year the planet awes us with meteorological phenomena, like monsoons in Asia and hurricanes off the Americas. But however devastating these have been, there was at least some form of continuity and predictability in their seasonal appearances. Now it seems that predictability is a thing of the past, with cases of extreme weather on the increase.

This week Japan suffered from its third typhoon in three weeks. It is the fourth major storm to hit Japan since late August, and is reportedly the most powerful to hit Okinawa since 1972.

Poor harvests, caused by this summer's bad weather and flash floods, are having serious consequences for farmers in northern Europe. Entire fields have been left to rot due to the summer's heavy rainfall. Some countries have had their wettest summer months on record. In 2003, dry weather provided a bumper harvest, but the havoc caused by this year's torrential storms could also reach into 2005, thanks to seed and soil damage.

More and more scientists are indicating that climate change is to blame for these recent erratic weather patterns. The concentration of CO2 (the main greenhouse gas) in the lower atmosphere is now at its highest for at least 420,000 years - possibly even 20 million years - and stands 34 percent above its level before the Industrial Revolution. The rise has been accelerating since 1950.

In August, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report examing the impacts of Europe's changing climate. The report suggests that between 1975 and 2001, the annual number of flood events increased and that climate change is likely to increase the frequency of extreme floods.

The coming years will see Europe experiencing more frequent and economically costly storms, floods, droughts and other extreme weather. While there will be wetter conditions in northern Europe, the south will have drier weather, threatening agriculture in some areas. More frequent and more intense heat waves, pose a lethal threat to the elderly and frail, as occurred in the summer of 2003. Melting European glaciers are also an issue with EEA report estimating that three-quarters of those in the Swiss Alps are likely to disappear by 2050.

Hotting up

The 1990s were the warmest decade on record and the three hottest years recorded - 1998, 2002 and 2003 - have occurred in the last six years. The global warming rate is now almost 0.2 ºC per decade.

In August 2002, serious flooding in 11 countries killed around 80 people, affected more than 600,000 and caused economic losses of at least US$15 billion. In the summer 2003 heat wave, western and southern Europe recorded more than 20,000 excess deaths, particularly among elderly people. Crop harvests in many southern countries were down by as much as 30 percent. Melting reduced the mass of Alpine glaciers by one-tenth in 2003 alone. Who knows what the economic and social costs of summer 2004 will be?

Hurricanes too?

Even though there is currently no scientific research linking hurricanes to climate change, the recent activity off the Americas is raising questions. Hurricane Charley visited the Caribbean and the state of Florida in the USA in August, and was swiftly followed by Hurricane Frances. Both hurricanes caused millions of dollars of damage. As of early September, another hurricane is looming - Hurricane Ivan was making its way towards Florida.

In March 2004, a hurricane hit the Brazilian coast - the first ever recorded in the South Atlantic. This posed a challenge to climate science and efforts in understanding the full implications of climate change. Major scientific uncertainty in studies of climate change has centered on whether an enhanced greenhouse effect will increase the frequency or intensity of hurricanes.

Until further scientific work is done it is impossible to say whether or not the occurrence of a hurricane in Brazilian waters was a "freak" event or a sign of things to come.

What can you do about it?

While governments need to act you can also make a difference. Here are 2 things you can do now:


Calculate your global warming emissions and see if you can reduce your impact.

See if your country has green energy suppliers who sell renewable energy to households.