Commentary: How summer 2021 has changed our understanding of extreme weather
Scientists tend to study heatwaves and floods as discrete events – but this overlooks the crucial connections between them, says a climate researcher.
GLASGOW: A succession of record-breaking natural disasters have swept the globe in recent weeks.
There have been serious floods in China and western Europe, heatwaves and drought in North America and wildfires in the sub-Arctic.
An annual report on the UK’s weather indicates extreme events are becoming commonplace in the country’s once mild climate.
August 2020 saw temperatures hit 34 degrees Celsius on six consecutive days across southern England, including five sticky nights where the mercury stayed above 20 degrees Celsius.
In the future, British summers are likely to see temperatures greater than 40 degrees Celsius regularly, even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The Canadian national temperature record was shattered in June meanwhile, with 49.6 degrees Celsius recorded in Lytton, British Columbia – a town that was all but destroyed by wildfires a few days later.
Many of these events have shocked climate scientists. The Lytton temperature record, for example, was head-and-shoulders above those set during previous heatwaves in the region.
Some scientists are beginning to worry they might have underestimated how quickly the climate will change. Or have we just misunderstood extreme weather events and how our warming climate will influence them?
EXTREME WEATHER EVENTS ARE CONNECTED
Floods and wildfires are not discrete events: They are the result of numerous interconnections and feedback loops in the climate system. Take the mid-July flash floods in London.
These were caused by summer rainstorms, which were in turn driven by warm air rising from the Earth’s surface that built up during the preceding heatwave, stacking the deck for the downpours that were to follow.
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