Is Our Climate Becoming More Extreme?
Is our climate becoming more extreme?
There has been much discussion recently about “Climate Disruption” or “Global Weirding”. John Holdren has talked about “increases in floods, wildfires, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes” while Rajendra Pachauri says “Based on observation, we know that there will be more floods, more drought, more heat waves and more extreme precipitation events. These things are happening”.
Al Gore of course is quick to blame any extreme weather event on climate change. Even reputable climate scientists such as Katharine Hayhoe talk about Global Weirding:-
“Heavy rains, deep snowfalls, monster floods and killing droughts are signs of a new normal of extreme U.S. weather events fueled by climate change” scientists and government planners said on Wednesday.
“It’s a new normal and I really do think that global weirding is the best way to describe what we’re seeing,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University told reporters.”
But are we really seeing more extreme weather nowadays?
Our memory of events from years ago tends to blur into the mists of time. Furthermore the global nature of today’s news media often brings to our attention stories which we would not have even known about if they had happened decades ago. I have therefore put together the following record of extreme weather events from 1971, which I hope will provide a certain amount of perspective when looking at what is happening today. Why 1971? Quite simply it is 40 years ago, a nice round number, and of course, before the gradual rise in global temperatures began a few years later.
In the US there were several notable droughts in 1971:-
* Florida – The worst drought on record resulted in 400,000 acres of the Everglades burned by fires. (1)
* Texas – Worst drought since the 1950’s. (2)
* Maryland – The 1958-71 drought produced the largest recorded annual departures from average stream discharge. (3)
* California – The summer of 1971 was “extra hot and long. Rainfall did not completely wet the (tree) root zones the winter of 1971-72 (sic)”. The same report in 1978 stated “the rate of development (of dieback of tree limbs) has been accentuated in recent years”. (4)
* Hawaii – The drought on Maui was described as the worst in 22 years. (5)
* North Carolina – The Air Force Bombing Range Fire destroyed 29300 acres of forest. (6)
* Minnesota – The Little Sioux Fire destroyed 14000 acres following “a period of abnormally dry weather”. (7)
* In total there were 108398 wildfires in the US in 1971 affecting 4.2 million acres. ( Figures for 2010 were 71971 fires and 3.4 million acres). (7a)
In the rest of the world there many more:-
* Australia – In Victoria what was described as a severe drought began that would last to 1973. (8)
* Ethiopia – 1971 saw the start of a 2 year drought that would claim 300,000 lives. (9)
* Kenya – 150,000 people were affected in what was described in 2006 as even worse than the 2005 drought, itself one of the worst on record. (10)
* Sahel – Mali, Chad, Nigeria and Burkina were in the middle of a drought that lasted from 1967-88 and which was described in Nigeria as the worst since 1913. (11)
* Okinawa – Experienced the worst drought in history. (12)
* China – Much of Northern China was in the grip of what in Beijing was on record as the worst drought ever (before or since). (13)
* Afghanistan – This was the worst in the country’s history. (14)
* Iraq – This severe drought led to the mercury poisoning tragedy. Iran was also affected. No drought there has been as bad since. (15)
* India – The 1971-72 drought affected many states and ranked as the 5th worst since records began in 1876. (16)
* Argentina – The 1971 drought was worse than anything since. (17)
* North Vietnam – The Red River flood was an absolutely terrible disaster leaving 100,000 dead. It was listed by NOAA as one of the century’s top weather events and described as a 250 year event. (18)
* India – Orissa was hit by a cyclone which left 10,800 dead. (19). Also, in Central India the Bundelkhand district was hit by floods (which were followed in 1972 by droughts). (20)
* Malaysia – 32 people were killed and 180,000 affected in the Kuala Lumpur floods in the worst floods since 1926. (21)
* Australia – In January the Canberra flood claimed 7 lives followed a month later by floods in Victoria which were called a 100 year event. In Queensland every month from January to May saw major floods and significant flooding returned in December. (22) (23) (24)
* New Zealand – The New Plymouth area was hit by their worst ever flood after 11.4 inches of rain fell in 24 hours.(25)
* Brazil – 130 dead in Rio de Janeiro floods. (26)
* Quebec – Heavy rainfall caused a massive landslide at the village of Saint-Jean-Vianney, leaving 31 dead. (27)
* Spain – 19 died in floods in Barcelona after 308mm of rain in 24 hours. (28)
* USA – Alaska suffered a major flood, only exceeded by the 1986 flood in the last 50 years. (29)
* USA – In February significant flooding occurred in Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.(30)
* USA – In March Southeastern States were affected with Georgia recording record levels in some areas. (30)
* USA – May and June brought significant flooding to Utah, Idaho, Nebraska and Wyoming. The discharge from the Bear River in Utah was considered a 75 year event. (30)
* USA – Significant flooding hit Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia in June and July. (30)
* USA – In August Baltimore was struck by one of the most damaging thunderstorms in 50 years and 14 died from the resulting floods. (30)
* USA – Widespread flooding followed Tropical Storm Doria up the coast from North Carolina to Maine in August. Some streams in New Jersey and Pennsylvania registered record floods. (30)
* USA - Extended flooding occurred in September and October affecting Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. (30)
* USA – More significant flooding hits Oklahoma and Arkansas in December. (30)
HURRICANES, TORNADOES ETC.
* The Atlantic hurricane season was a “fairly active” one with several notable storms.(31)
* The strongest was Edith, a Category 5, which killed dozens in Nicaragua before turning north and hitting Louisiana. (31)
* Ginger is on record as the longest lasting Atlantic hurricane ever, or at least until the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane was retroactively discovered to be longer. (31)
* An unnamed storm in August attained hurricane status further north than any other North Atlantic tropical cyclone. (31)
* Canada was unusually on the receiving end of the tail ends of 2 hurricanes, Beth and Doria which both caused huge amounts of damage from flooding. Both were listed by Natural Resources Canada among the 18 major hurricanes of the 20thC. (32)
* In the Pacific the hurricane season was above average with 18 named storms, 6 of which made landfall. This latter number is still the record for a season. (33)
* The typhoon season was also a busy one with 24 typhoons of which 6 were super typhoons. This compares to 7 typhoons including 2 super typhoons in 2010. The season had an extremely active start with a record number of storms before August. (34)
* Typhoon Rose left 130 dead in Hong Kong plus many more at sea. It was described by the Hong Kong Observatory as “one of the most intense and violent” to have affected Hong Kong. (34)
* Cyclone Althea hit Queensland as a Category 4 cyclone in December. Damage was extensive but would have been worse if it had not arrived at low tide. (35)
* The tornado season in the USA was also above average with 58 F3+ tornadoes ( compared to 39 in 2010). (36)
* The worst tornado outbreak occurred in the Mississippi Valley during 2 days in February. 19 tornadoes were spawned claiming 123 lives across 3 states. (37)
* The highest ever UK January temperature was recorded in Gwynedd at 65F. (38)
* In Canada the snowfall record for one season was set on Mount Copeland in British Columbia in the winter of 1971/72. (39)
* In the same winter Mount Baker in Washington broke the US record when 1122 inches fell. (40)
* Montreal’s “snowstorm of the century” left 17 dead with 70mph winds producing second storey drifts. (41)
* Texas and Oklahoma were hit by a giant blizzard which set the state record snow depth in Oklahoma of 36 inches. The National Weather Service in Amarillo lists this blizzard as one of the top 20 weather events in the Panhandle. (42) (43)
* Columbia suffered its worst winter in years resulting in economic losses of $150 million. To make matters worse heavy rains caused the two biggest rivers, the Magdalena and Cuca, to flood vast regions in the Central and Western parts of the country. (44)
* Most of the USA was colder than normal. 1971 nationally was the 36th coldest in the 20thC. (45)
Which year saw the more extreme weather, 1971 or 2010? Who can say. How can anyone compare the severity of, say, a hurricane with that of a drought? Or a flood with blizzard? Katharine Hayhoe complains that our weather is becoming unpredictable but surely it has ever been so. Perhaps we should really start worrying when we stop getting extreme weather events.