Climate at record extremes
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Climate at record extremes
Dec. 6, 2005. 04:18 AM
MONTREAL�This is shaping up as the year the battered earth hit back,
wreaking havoc with record weather extremes that almost certainly
spring from global climate change.
Scientists at the U.N. conference on climate change here will make
public today this unprecedented litany for 2005:
The hottest year, with the global average temperature already
slightly warmer than 1998, the current record year.
The most Arctic melting, with satellite photos showing the smallest
area ever remaining covered by perennial sea ice at the end of summer.
The worst Atlantic hurricane season, with the most named tropical
storms (26), most hurricanes (14), most top-category hurricanes (5)
and most expensive hurricane damage.
The warmest Caribbean waters, with weeks-long high temperatures
causing extensive bleaching of coral reefs.
The driest year for many decades in the Amazon, where a continuing
drought may surpass anything in the past century. The western United
States is also suffering from prolonged drought.
As well, climate researchers from a dozen countries will soon report
that it's been getting warmer at night over two-thirds of the earth's
land mass since 1950.
"We are seeing the fingerprints of climate change on the physical
world," said Lara Hansen, chief climate change scientist for the
international arm of WWF, formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund.
Hansen said the five record extremes were even more striking because
they happened in widely separated parts of the world and involved
different physical forces.
"This isn't a domino effect, with the warm Caribbean causing Arctic
ice to melt. We have a lot of these things going on simultaneously
and they've all been predicted as consequences of climate change,"
she said in an interview.
Hansen and colleagues compiled the list of extreme weather records
from official sources, including U.S. government agencies and the
World Meteorological Organization.
Their sombre interpretation is widely shared among climate
researchers and even by the global insurance industry.
"This doesn't prove in a mathematical sense that these were caused by
climate change triggered by human activities. But it's exceedingly
unlikely that all these things are happening by chance," said Gordon
McBean, organizer of a Canadian climate science session here last
"All this is what climate scientists have been warning would happen,"
said McBean, a former head of the Meteorological Service of Canada
and chair of the federal agency that funds university climate
Most climate scientists say the rising global temperatures of the
past 50 years are directly linked to increasing atmospheric levels of
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by human
activities, such as burning fossil fuels. This global warming is
triggering widespread climate change.
The global mean temperature so far this year is six-one-hundredths of
a degree Celsius higher than the 1998 level, the current record. To
make the calculation in October, climatologists with NASA's Goddard
Institute for Space Studies combined readings from 7,200 weather
stations around the world.
The global average temperatures are ranked relative to the long-term
average temperature between 1950 and 1980 so there are no absolute
The record could still elude 2005 but only if a major volcanic
eruption blanketed the globe with sun-blocking ash before the end of
the month, causing world temperatures to plunge.
Unlike the whisker-thin temperature margin, the intense Atlantic
hurricane season demolished previous records. The 26 tropical storms
exhausted all the names from the regular alphabet. Officials switched
to the Greek alphabet and are now tracking Hurricane Epsilon, about
800 kilometres southwest of the Azores.
Epsilon continued to defy forecasters' expectations yesterday,
refusing to die as it moved over increasingly colder water in the
In the Arctic, perennial sea ice, the thicker slabs that normally
don't disappear in the summer, covered 1.3 million square kilometres
less in September than the 20-year historical average � leaving a
Peru-sized area as additional open water.
In addition to the WWF list, a team of two dozen international
climate researchers have produced the first global picture of changes
over the past 50 years in minimum and maximum daily temperatures,
called temperature extremes.
The Canadian member of the team, federal research scientist Xuebin
Zhang, said temperature extremes "are what cause the problems in our
"When we see increases in maximum temperatures we automatically think
that heat waves are more likely," Zhang said in an interview from
Downsview, headquarters for federal climate research.
The exhaustive study gathered historical records from more than 2,200
temperature stations and nearly 6,000 precipitation stations around
the world for the period 1951 to 2003. The research paper will appear
in the Journal of Geophysical Research (Atmospheres).
The insurance industry is also taking a keen interest in extreme
weather and climate change. Weather-related insurance losses around
the world so far this year total $200 billion (U.S.), according to an
industry report issued on the weekend.
The amount is three times higher than any previous year, said Peter
Hoeppe of Munich Re, a company based in Germany that backs up the
policies of other insurers.
Some of the increase is due to higher populations and wealth, but "if
you look at the number of weather events, independent of increasing
wealth, they go up � a signal to us of being caused by climate
change," Hoeppe said.
Also at the climate conference yesterday, the American National
Wildlife Federation warned the U.S. government must get serious about
climate change, citing disasters like Hurricane Katrina in August.
President George W. Bush is increasingly out of step with Americans
who are experiencing impacts on their jobs, homes and recreation,
With files from Peter Gorrie