Global weather extremes underline climate threat, say experts

El Nino, record heat and natural variability combine to highlight growing threats in a warming world

(Pic: Montgomery County Planning Commission/Flickr)

(Pic: Montgomery County Planning Commission/Flickr)

By Ed King

Record breaking temperatures, flooding and bare ski slopes have propelled climate change back into the headlines, weeks after a UN pact was agreed in Paris to tackle global warming.

The combination of the hottest December on record, natural climate variability and the warming of the tropical Pacific Oceans – known as El Nino – has sparked a string of curious weather events this month.

“If you add the background global warming to natural weather phenomena, there’s a tendency to break records left and right,” Herve Le Treut, a climate scientist and director of the Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute told AFP.

“This naturally occurring El Nino and human-induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways which we have never before experienced,” said Michel Jarraud, head of the World Meteorological Organisation.

An estimated 150,000 have been evacuated in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay after some of the worst flooding in 50 years.

Heavy rains usually occur in this region due to the naturally-occurring El Nino phenomenon, but newly elected Argentine president Mauricio Macri said climate change was partly to blame.

Severe flooding in the north of England left some major cities submerged, with the army drafted in to help repair breached defences.

“We do seem to face more of these extreme weather events and problems of floods,” UK prime minister David Cameron told the BBC.

“People are told that things that are one in 50, or one in 100, or one in 200 years, they seem to be happening more often.”

According to consultants at KPMG the damage from flooding in Yorkshire, Cumbria and Lancashire in the past month could hit £5 billion.

“I think we will need to have that complete rethink and I think we will need to move from not just providing better defences… but also looking at increasing resilience,” said David Rooke from the UK Environment Agency.

Weather events were moving from “known extremes” to “unknown extremes” he added. According to the Met Office seven of the UK’s 10 wettest years have occurred since 1998.

Meanwhile parts of the Alps have experienced their worst snow falls on record, with low-altitude slopes in Austria, France, Switzerland and Germany most affected.

The mayor of a region covering the exclusive resorts of Courchevel, Méribel, and Val Thorens has asked locals to leave what snow there is to tourists.

“We have lots of customers who come from far away and we want to make their satisfaction a priority,” said André Plaisance, the mayor of Saint-Martin-de-Belleville.

The Met Office has predicted 2016 will be the hottest year on record, due in part to El Nino but also to rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions trapping heat from the sun.

“This forecast suggests that by the end of 2016 we will have seen three record, or near-record, years in a row for global temperatures,” said professor Adam Scaife, head of long range prediction at the Met Office.

Global average temperatures have already passed 1C above pre industrial levels, say scientists, and are on course to pass 1.5C in the next 20-30 years.

Over 190 governments agreed to try and limit warming to this level at the recent Paris talks, although current policies indicate warming of up to 3C by 2100 is more likely.

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