Weather turns extreme

It was lucky the Olympics opening ceremony was not washed out by rain, because floods, heat waves and droughts are on the rise this year.

FRIDAY night’s opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London was widely acclaimed for its spectacular display. But besides the brilliant design and smooth implementation, another factor played an important role – luck.

It was lucky that the ceremony was not ruined by rain. Just a few weeks ago, much of Britain was deluged by floods caused by a lengthy spell of rain.

TV screens and newspapers were filled with images of cars being washed down streets that had turned into rivers.

Even now, the Olympic Games organisers, athletes and spectators alike must be keeping their fingers crossed that there is no major downpour in the days ahead.

The unusually intense rainfall and floods have reached historically worst levels in Britain. In January, a government report said that flooding caused by heavier rainfall will be Britain’s worst effect from climate change in the coming decades, costing damage valued at billions of pounds a year.

Extreme weather events are of course not confined to Britain. They are taking place all over the world at an increasing rate and with damaging intensity.

Only last week, at least 77 people died and thousands were displaced in the worst flooding to hit Beijing in more than 60 years. This was due to a long downpour on July 21.

It was the heaviest rain in Beijing since records began in 1951, causing rivers to burst their banks and flood major highways, submerging cars with people trapped inside, and sweeping houses and people away.

Meanwhile, the United States is facing a severe heat wave and drought. This has caused significant falls in farm output, with serious effects on global food supply and prices.

The dry weather in the United States is partly attributed to La Nina, which has a cooling effect on the Pacific Ocean, bringing warmer and dryer weather to the south of the country, including Texas whose agriculture has been devastated in the past year.

But many climate scientists are also linking the drought to climate change. According to Peter Stott of the British government’s Met Office Hadley Centre, La Nina is only part of the story.

Stott co-authored a recent study which links climate change with the Texas drought and other extreme weather events. Interviewed by the Voice of America, he said his study found “clear evidence for human influence on the Texas heat wave and also in the very unusual temperatures we had in the United Kingdom in 2011”.

According to the study, the 2011 Texas drought was 20 times more likely to occur than in the 1960s as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. The heat wave last November in England was 62 times more likely to have occurred than 50 years ago.

by Martin Khor.

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