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Issue #1631      March 19, 2014

Our changing climate

For those still doubting our climate is changing and the frequency of extreme weather events increasing, 2013 was the hottest year on record in Australia, according to the Bureau of Meteorology (January3, 2014). In that record-breaking summer of 2012–13, Australia registered the hottest September to March period on record, the hottest summer on record, the hottest month on record and the hottest day on record and the longest national-scale heatwave. It was also the hottest summer on record for Australian sea-surface temperatures.

And 2013 was the forth warmest year on record for the planet since records began and saw some of the longest heatwaves and the most chaotic weather experienced in decades. In 2013 heat extremes dominated the year, with record heat waves, floods, rainstorms and cyclones. The last four months of 2012 were abnormally hot in Australia, but January 2013 was the hottest month ever measured on the continent, with record temperatures set in every state and territory. And the highest recorded maximum of 49.6°C at Moomba in South Australia. Temperatures were regularly above 48°C and the Bureau of Meteorology reported that Sydney experienced its hottest night on record when it was still 34°C at midnight on January 10.

During the latest summer period the hot conditions extended well into 2014 in the south-eastern states, with Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra all setting summer heatwave records. For instance between January 14 and 17, 2014 Melbourne recorded four consecutive days of temperatures exceeding 41 degrees, two of which the temperature exceeded 43 degrees.

As climate change proceeds, some extreme events are likely to increase in frequency, intensity and duration, while others are likely to decline. Across Australia we can expect increases in extremely high temperatures, extreme rainfall, extreme fire weather, large hail on the east coast, tropical cyclone intensity and extreme sea level events. We can also expect decreases in the frequency of extremely low temperatures, in addition to increased cyclone frequency, extreme wind, and large hail across southern Australia. According to the CSIRO there will be more hot days and less cold days. The last 20 years have produced many more severe weather events than any other.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth Assessment Report (2013), which is considered the consensus of world scientists, was unequivocal that climate change is happening fast. In September, it stated that each of the last three decades had been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than at any preceding decade since measurements started in 1850. The period 1983-2012 was probably the warmest in the past 1,400 years, it said, and both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets were losing mass, along with most glaciers worldwide.

“The scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change has strengthened year by year, leaving fewer uncertainties about the serious consequences of inaction, despite the fact that there remain knowledge gaps and uncertainties in some areas of climate science,” said Qin Dahe, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group I.

In Australia, trends in observed temperature extremes have slowly emerged. In particular, the rate and number of weather stations recording highest on record minimum temperatures has increased since the mid-1970s while the rate of record maximum temperatures has increased over the past two decades. Climate model simulations indicate that the rate of global warming depends on the rate of change in greenhouse gases and aerosols.

For a low emission scenario, the warming is 1.1-2.9 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, while for a high scenario; the warming is 2.4-6.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. While these changes appear small, the impacts on extreme weather are likely to be significant.

Projected changes in the frequency of extreme temperatures have been estimated by the CSIRO for 2030 and 2070. These projections show there are significant increases in the number of hot days and decreases in the number of cold days (For reference “CSIRO Climate Change Technical Report 2007”).

According to the (now disbanded) Australian Climate Commission, Australians should get used to it: not only are heatwaves getting longer, hotter and more frequent, the number of record hot days is expected to quadruple in Sydney by the end of the century.

The message is very clear: the world is indeed warming and if temperatures go on rising, the price of our inaction is to expect more extreme weather events and severe heat over the next 100 years.

We must therefore redouble our efforts to take action to urgently tackle climate change.

Next article – Fears for families

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