New Danger of Runaway Global Warming

Mark Jones markjones011 at tiscali.co.uk
Sun Jan 5 03:10:09 MST 2003


Whatever's happened to the weather?

Europe is increasingly prone to floods but scientists cannot agree on why
our weather is wetter and warmer, reports Mark Townsend

Sunday January 5, 2003
The Observer

Stuart Brindley could barely contain himself. It was the day before New
Year's Eve and Brindley, a pub landlord, was preparing the biggest fancy
dress party seen in the village. The theme was The Titanic. At East
Peckham's Rose and Crown pub, Brindley had fixed lifejackets to the walls
and organised Kate Winslet costumes for the barmaids. Everything, it seemed,
had been arranged, apart from the water. Then the rains came.
At first a streak of muddy rainwater slid innocuously across the surrounding
streets. Soon after the River Medway burst its banks. Thousands of gallons
of rainwater cascaded into the Kent pub. East Peckham's Titanic night was
sunk in moments.

'There were no warnings, nothing. It could happen again, anytime,' said
Brindley last night.

His despair was mirrored across much of Britain last week. Traditional
grumbles about the weather gave way to genuine concern. Yet although the
ferocity of the downpours stunned thousands of homeowners, they offered no
surprise to scientists. For them the sodden start to the year has merely
marked the latest watershed in the rising volatility of Britain's weather.

The Rose and Crown has been seriously flooded twice in the two years since
Brindley took over. The previous flood was 1968. And it will get worse. Last
week's weather will eventually become the norm.

According to the latest UK Climate Impacts Programme report, British winters
will become five times wetter over the next 100 years with the season marked
by a string of ferocious storms.

Evidence that Europe is entering a new climatic age characterised by
unforgiving downpours and flooding has become compelling. Last year the
Continent buckled under its worst storms for 2,000 years. Two of central
Europe's architectural gems - Prague and Dresden - suffered massive flood
damage in the summer after the entire rainfall of a typical August fell in
36 hours. Last Tuesday Belgium declared it had endured the wettest year on
record for 150 years.

Britain too has endured a far wetter than average rainfall marked by a
series of violent downpours. Last August, North East England recorded its
highest daily rainfall - 61mm.

Scotland suffered its soggiest summer for 64 years and its wettest October
on record.

Forecasters in Ireland announced last Thursday that last year was the
wettest since records began 110 years ago. Irish weather has become so
miserable it rained almost half the time during 2002.

In London, concerns that the weather was becoming increasingly erratic
surfaced in August after more than an inch of rain fell in half an hour,
paralysing transport systems. Its ferocity moved Environment Minister
Michael Meacher to warn Britain was poised 'at the beginning of a rising
curve'.

This curve sweeps towards a much wetter, warmer - and flood-prone weather
system. All current UK climate models point unequivocally towards such a
scenario.

Nigel Bolton, national forecaster for the Met Office, says the relationship
between a warmer climate and higher rainfall is straightforward. Higher
temperatures and warmer air can hold more moisture; in fact the air
suspended above the Sahara is wetter than that above a Canadian city during
a blizzard.

Naturally, this future climate will also mean less snow. Future generations
are unlikely to witness a white Christmas, particularly in the South East of
England.

It is not just in Britain. In Austria this weekend ski resorts were
continuing to ration ski passes as they struggled to cope with an influx of
visitors and no snow.

It is the cause of this dramatic climatic shift - rather than the fact it is
occurring - that is fuelling the current debate. Some climatologists
maintain weather patterns are cyclical, pointing to fundamental changes in
climate throughout history. A lack of detailed data from before 1650,
however, makes this impossible to substantiate, according to Bolton.

It is also worth noting that the UK was warmer as little as 1,000 years ago.
Evidence suggests grapes were grown in the lowlands of Scotland, a feat that
is impossible today.

'And don't forget that 200-300 years ago the River Thames was freezing with
ice thick enough to bear an elephant,' says Bolton.

Yet despite such dramatic changes in Britain's climate, the consensus is
that mankind is partly to blame for last week's floods. Massive quantities
of carbon dioxide are spewed into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels
like oil and from the emissions of millions of vehicles.

These emissions act as a giant insulation blanket suspended above the
earth's surface. Warmth, in effect, cannot escape, heating up the atmosphere
through the so-called 'greenhouse effect' and increasing its
moisture-carrying capability.

Geoff Jenkins of the Met Office's Hadley Centre, which makes predictions of
future climate change, believes such 'human activity' is instrumental in
shaping Britain's long-term weather. Bolton, however, believes: 'There is no
way to prove or disprove that man is to blame for this latest wet weather,
all we can say is that it is warmer.'

What is of mounting concern to many is that the chain of events that
triggered last week's flooding may already be impossible to reverse.

Scientists from the Hadley Centre warn the damage already done to the
environment by greenhouse gas emissions will affect us for the next 1,000
years.

On top of that, there are concerns that Britain's weather is at the mercy of
massive meteorological global changes.

Fears are surfacing that another El Niño is on the way, five years after the
last one caused havoc across the globe. The phenomenon can reverse Pacific
currents, bringing drought to the Far East and deluge to the west coast of
America.

Rising sea temperatures could trigger an even more nightmarish scenario.
Warmer oceans might release massive amounts of methane stored beneath the
sea bed, dramatically amplifying the greenhouse effect and causing runaway
global warming.

Another area of uncertainty concerns the Gulf Stream, the current of warm
water that keeps Britain and north-west Europe warmer than one would expect.
Recent models indicate the stream weakening, although a cooling of the UK
climate as a result remains unlikely because of the existing trends.

Whatever the possible permutations ahead, it is certain that the floods of
last week will appear with increasing frequency. Rising sea levels - partly
caused by the melting of the polar icesheets - will only exacerbate the
problem, according to a Government task force report.

Scientists are working with the Government to ensure the economical threats
posed by climate change are taken seriously.

The changing climate was responsible for £35 billion of damage worldwide
last year - up by half, according to reinsurer Munich Re. Last week Britain
received another wake-up call. Brindley is among thousands of property
owners who hope the signs are not ignored.


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