Weather extremes worldwide, such as droughts, floods, and heat waves, are on the rise over the past 50 years. What’s more, they’re linked to climate change. That’s according to a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in March 2012 and authored by 220 scientists and experts from 62 countries. EarthSky spoke with ecologist and lead author Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University. He said:
We know from looking at thousands of scientific papers that climate extremes are increasing, some important extremes. And that includes extremes of high temperature, extremes in the length and severity of droughts, extremes in the amount of precipitation that’s falling in the heaviest events, and extremes that are associated with high sea level.
Economic losses from extreme weather events have also risen, mainly because people have put more stuff, buildings and roads, in harms way such as floods and hurricanes, said Field.
Loss of life from weather extremes can be avoided by knowing the risk and taking precautions. He gave the example of two different cyclones. One hit Bangladesh in 2007 and killed about 3,000 people. Another cyclone hit Myanmar in 2008 and killed over 100,000.
The big differences between the hundred thousand lives lost in Myanmar and the 3,000 lives lost in Bangladesh was that Bangladesh had made a series of smart, low-cost investments. Some of those were simply raised plots of ground where people could bring livestock and property to get it above the storm surge. Some of them were structures, where people could go in order to be protected from the storm.
And some of the most effective investments that Bangladesh made were simply making sure that word got out when there was a storm predicted. People knew about it and they could go to higher ground. Or that, when a storm was on the way, people knew that they should be checking on friends and neighbors and relatives, and there were neighborhood organizations that got the word out and got people to safety. That kind of step makes a big difference and it doesn’t necessarily cost very much.
Field said that the climate-related risk of extreme weather is worldwide. He said:
When we looked at the scientific literature on climate extremes and disasters, one of the things that jumps out most prominently is that essentially, every part of the world is subject to some kind of climate-related risk.
In some areas, the big risks are associated with a lack of water, droughts. In other areas, they’re associated with too much water, with risks that generate floods. And in other areas, the primary concerns are temperatures that are too high.
The really striking thing is that there’s the potential for climate extremes to occur everywhere. And there’s the potential for disasters to occur everywhere.
Listen to the 8-minute and 90-second EarthSky interviews with Chris Field on the IPCC report linking weather extremes to climate change, at the top of the page.