Article17 August 2004

'Extreme weather? It's the norm'
From hurricanes in Florida to flash floods in Cornwall, has the weather gone mad? In fact, says expert Mark Saunders, there's always something 'freakish' happening somewhere.

by Brendan O'Neill

What's up with the weather?

Hurricane Charley lashed the coast of Florida over the weekend, causing at least 19 deaths and billions of dollars of damage. The biggest swarm of locusts in a decade is currently devouring crops in West Africa. News reports show us dramatic photos of the village of Boscastle in Cornwall, England, looking like a town swept into the sea after yesterday's floods. The rest of the UK has tropical storm Bonnie, which killed three people in America, to look forward to (though by the time it reaches us it will only be 'high winds and rain'). And there have been 'extreme weather conditions' in Australia, China and Utah over the past week, too.

Bad weather stories have dominated the headlines. Some claim the strange weather systems are a spin-off of global warming, proof, according to one commentator, 'that our overheating planet is going to have ever more "extreme weather" episodes' (1). Others warn of worse to come. According to John Powell, deputy executive director of the World Food Programme, tens of millions of the world's poorest people are threatened by 'an unprecedented wave of freak and extreme weather' (2). Has Mother Nature lost the plot?

Dr Mark Saunders, a weather expert at University College London (UCL), says we need to cool down. 'I don't think the weather we have seen is particularly unusual, to be honest. Somewhere in the world you will always get extreme weather events - whether it's a storm, a flood, or a drought. There are always people being affected by extreme weather. There is no study to my knowledge which shows that more people are being affected now, or that more people will be affected by freak weather this year than in previous years.'

Indeed, says Saunders, when it comes to the most violent form of extreme weather - hurricanes - there has been a downward shift in recent years. Hurricanes are Saunders' main area of expertise. He is Lead Scientist at the Tropical Storm Risk Centre in the Department of Space and Climate Physics at UCL, a leading authority on predicting and tracking storms. Hurricane Charley may have been one of the most destructive in recent years, killing 19 and leaving 800,000 homes and businesses without electricity - but Charley cannot be seen as evidence of a rise in extreme weather episodes, says Saunders. 'The past four years have been unusually quiet for hurricanes.'

'We knew this would be an "active" year, we predicted that. Around eight hurricanes are predicted to strike America this year. But we have to remember that Charley is really the first main hurricane event for several years. Overall, the losses from hurricanes have been running at about 80 per cent below average since 2000. Certainly with regard to hurricane storms, there is no evidence over the past hundred years of any significant change in the number or intensity of such events.... If anything there is a slight downward trend in tropical storms over the past 50 years. It's not a significant downward trend, but it is downward rather than upward.'

For Saunders and other scientists, the baffling thing about Charley was its sudden and violent swerve to the right over the weekend. At speeds of 258km per hour the hurricane turned towards the Florida coast 70 miles earlier than expected, devastating the town of Punta Gorda, where some of the deaths and injuries occurred. 'It suddenly intensified and veered off track', says Saunders. 'We are trying to work out why that happened.'

Saunders has little time for those who argue that today's extreme weather is caused by global warming - a claim which has been made, not only by green-minded columnists, but in news reports, in passing, as if it were established fact. 'Global warming is definitely a real thing. But I disagree with the claims that global warming is all going to be doom and gloom, and in particular that extreme weather events are going to become more common.' He points out that in 2002, 'severe floods were attributed to global warming; then in 2003 hot and dry summer weather, the opposite of 2002, was attributed to global warming; now torrential rain, the opposite of 2003, is attributed to global warming. It seems that any anomalous weather can be blamed on global warming'.

For Saunders, the extreme weather conditions of the past two weeks are, in many ways 'the norm'. 'I take the view that it's a record if you don't get a record somewhere with regards to the weather. Extreme weather, even record weather, is actually quite common.' What's happened over the past week is that different weather events have been linked together as evidence of something more sinister. 'We are treating weather systems that aren't particularly unusual as if they were highly unusual.'

Stories about the weather often make it on to front pages during the 'silly season', when there is little of substance to report. In the obsession with extreme weather episodes, we seem to have 'silly season meets the culture of fear'.

The weather has been transformed into a harbinger of doom, and every flood, storm or rainstorm as a warning sign of future catastrophe. So the flash floods in Cornwall have dominated today's news, and have even been covered in leading American newspapers, as further evidence of strange and dangerous weather systems bearing down upon us - even though the Cornish town in question, situated close to the sea and next to two large rivers, is no stranger to flooding. It looks like we may have to weather the scare stories for the rest of the summer.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering

(1) George Bush and the Temple of Doom, Tom Engelhardt, Progressive Trail, 17 August 2004

(2) Extreme weather threatens to trigger aid crisis, Observer, 15 August 2004



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