November 19, 2010

Worse Weather On The Horizon?

Record-breaking temperatures, extreme drought, stronger hurricanes and record rainfall are among the latest signs of climate change, scientists are warning.

Weather patterns could become worse in the future if the world continues on its fossil-fuel consuming course, the scientists told AFP during a conference call Wednesday to discuss the year in global warming.

Michael Mann, one of the leading scientists on the conference call, said he had just returned from a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, a Canadian shore town where sea ice that polar bears depend on for hunting seals has yet to form because of warmer-than-usual temperatures.

"When you go up there you see the bears all along the coast on the tundra awaiting the sea ice to form and it hasn't formed yet," said Mann. "The Arctic is in many respects a harbinger of things to come on our planet."

Mann pointed to other research being presented by climate scientist Jerry Meehl of National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which shows the number of record-breaking hot days is twice as high as the record cold days.

"Heat records are outpacing cold records at a factor of two to one now. That number is expected to increase to 20 to 1 by late this century if we continue on the course that we are on with fossil fuel burning," Mann told AFP.

Some events, like this year's record heat wave in Moscow would be very unlikely to occur "in the absence of climate change," he added.

Hurricane expert Greg Holland said the most extreme storms are already becoming more frequent, and even more powerful hurricanes are on the menu.

"If you just look at the Atlantic in the last 10 years, we have experienced three times as many Category 5 hurricanes as have occurred in previous history on a relative basis," said Holland.

"We now have consensus statements coming out from the scientists and indeed a lot of regional research is pointing all in the same direction. There is nothing going in the other direction," he said. "And that is the very intense hurricanes, the very intense (Category) fours and fives are going to increase and they could be doubling or tripling."

Holland also predicts more rain and drought in the years ahead.

"As the earth warms up the atmosphere can hold more water, if there is more water available there will be more rain. Paradoxically of course there is as a result of that more drought because the land dries out quicker," he said.

Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center said the reduction of sea ice in the Arctic will have a worldwide effect on temperatures.

"What we have seen is a rather pronounced reduction in the extent of sea ice. At the end of summer now we have 40 percent less sea ice than we had say during the 1970s," said Serreze. "We are losing that insulator so what we are seeing now are big fluxes in heat from the ocean to the atmosphere."

"Since everything is connected together in the climate system what happens up there can influence what happens down here and I am talking about in the middle latitudes," he added. 

Scientists said another thing that is changing, besides climate, is how they deal with skeptics who question the reality of climate change and the extent of the role that humans play in the cause of it.

"There are still many of us who like to sit in our office or go into the field and just do our science and not enter into the fray, but I think that is changing," said Serreze.

"We have to become better communicators. Scientists are not always good communicators of the issues but this is part of a learning curve and we have got to face that," he said.

"One lesson is that if you're a climate scientist and you are willing to play a prominent role in the public discourse on climate change then you'd better have a thick skin," added Mann.


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