Firestorms and Deep Freeze: Climate Change May Bring Both
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Last week, the heaviest snowfall since the '90s blanketed the U.K., disrupting bus, rail and air transportation and costing areas like London a cool billion in lost revenue.
Meanwhile, in Australia, a punishing, record drought was worsened by the nation's worst heat wave and worst wildfires, wherein over 400 conflagrations killed over 200 people (and counting), torched a thousand homes and renewed calls for a country with its environmental head up its ass to finally launch its still-hibernating national warning system.
Those who would argue that these are isolated events do so at their own peril. The more time passes, the more both examples of extreme weather resemble two sides of the same fearsome coin known as catastrophic climate change.
And depending on how the science plays out, it could get much worse indeed, and fast.
Deniers of catastrophic climate change have been clinging to extreme rainstorms and snowstorms, such as those recently witnessed in the U.K. or American East Coast, like life rafts off the Titanic.
They still argue that such record-breaking deep freezes disprove global warming. But they're desperately seeking semantics, while the rest of the world is waking up to reality. Which is this: Catastrophic climate change will feature as much ice as fire. It probably already has.
"Scientifically, it would not be correct to make the statement that the current weather in Australia, the U.K. and U.S. are examples of climate change," explains Jian Liu, chief of the Division of Environment Policy Implementation's climate change adaptation unit at the United Nations Environmental Program. "Rather, these are extreme climate events; whereas climate change is something that can only be observed by looking at the average conditions over long periods of time. But while the general average trend is one of a warming climate, this does not mean that extreme cold events or snowstorms will not take place.
"In fact, as you rightly point out, climate change may even contribute to an increasing intensity of snowstorms, as moisture levels in the atmosphere rise."
Liu's point is a good one: It's only climate change, scientifically speaking, once you've had hundreds, or hundreds of thousands, of years to chart the differences and gradations in weather, extreme and otherwise. But we don't have hundreds of thousands of years to wait for that data to come through, which is probably why few scientists ever run for public office, where life-and-death decisions are made in advance of the data, often to influence it.
But disciplinary differences aside, this much is certain: Extreme weather has taken hold of our planet, the only one in our known universe capable of sustaining lives and habitats like ours, and we don't have hundreds of thousands of years to get our act together to forestall even worse events, ones that are exponentially taking many lethal forms.
"Numerous long-term changes in the climate have been observed, including extreme weather such as droughts, heavy precipitation, floods, heat waves and increasing intensity of tropical cyclones," Liu says. "Trends towards more powerful storms and hotter, longer dry periods have been observed. As a result of reduced precipitation and increased evaporation, water-security problems are projected to intensify by 2030 in some regions, and significant loss of biodiversity is projected to occur by 2020 in some ecologically rich sites.
"As to your question on winter storms and cold events, those pointing at intense winter storms or extreme cold events as evidence that global warning is not happening are confusing weather and climate."
That arguably deliberate confusion has slowed our response to a danger that is snowballing by the day, but may disappear if some of climate change's more unlikely, but terrifying, possibilities come to pass.