Extreme Weather Events

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Extreme Weather Events

Extreme weather events became a more frequent and pronounced worldwide phenomenon in 2017.

Key Insight

An extreme weather event falls outside the norms of typical fluctuations in weather patterns. They became a more frequent and pronounced worldwide phenomenon in 2017, and we have been experiencing them since.

Why It Matters

2019 was one of the most disastrous years on record for extreme weather events, with floods, landslides, cyclones, tornados, and excessive heat that displaced more than 7 million people in the first half of the year alone. By year’s end, more than a billion animals had died due to Australia’s fires.

Examples

The past five years on Earth have been the hottest on record. Our globe’s surface air temperature increased by about 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) over the last 115 years, making it now the warmest it’s been in the history of modern civilization. We’ve seen a number of record-breaking climate-related weather extremes.

Starting in July 2019, the worst wildfires in decades ravaged Australia, devastating large swaths of the country, leading to at least 28 human deaths and 3,000 destroyed or damaged homes. By January 2020, the country’s capital city of Canberra declared a state of emergency, due to encroaching fires.

Forests continued to burn in Alaska, California, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia and Africa, while flooding wreaked havoc on Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri last year. The Greenland ice sheet melted significantly, while huge expanses of the Arctic had little to no ice for long periods of time. In 2018, the Mendicino Complex Fire became the largest in California state history and gave birth to a new term: “firenado,” or a whirling column of flames that destroys everything in its path. One such fire vortex topped out at 17,000 feet above the earth.

Researchers at NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information found that storms are moving more slowly than they did forty years ago, and that means they’re sticking around longer and causing more damage. In 2019, dangerous, slow-moving superstorms including Hurricane Barry, Hurricane Dorian, Tropical Storm Imelda, and Tropical Storm Fernand caused more than $7 billion worth of damage.

A 2019 report by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) confirmed the link between the earth’s rising temperature and extreme weather events. BAMS relied on a team of 120 scientists from 10 different countries and used historical observations and model simulations to produce the 17 peer-reviewed analyses collected in the special report.

What’s Next

Extreme weather is our new normal. Researchers from the Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research at Switzerland’s University of Bern reconstructed a global picture of temperatures for the past 2,000 years. Using six different statistical models, they found that while there have been short periods of cooler temperatures, overall the Earth is warming faster now than during any other time in the past two millennia. Global warming is a serious concern.

The United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change issued a dire report, with scientific models showing that at our current rate, the atmosphere will warm as much as 1.5 degrees Celsius, leading to a dystopian future of food shortages, wildfires, extreme winters, a mass die-off of coral reefs, and more––as soon as 2040. That’s just 20 years from now. Large natural disasters can slow regional economic growth for decades, impact corporate and industrial productivity, and lead to post-traumatic stress among survivors.

Extreme weather can also shift infectious disease patterns and compromise food security, safe drinking water supplies, and clean air. Economists estimate that bad weather has an impact of $3.8 trillion a year in the United States alone. It can drive up construction costs and cause flight cancellations. The rise of unpredictable, extreme weather will continue to force insurance companies to recalculate damage, building new models to better estimate the risk and repercussions.

Insurer Aviva has increased its Canadian home-insurance premiums by 6% since 2016, due partly to research into catastrophic risks. Extreme weather will also impact a wide range of sectors, from auto repair shops and home improvement stores to makers of sandbags and portable generators.

Impact

New R&D initiatives, emerging green technologies, new climate-focused investment strategies and global coalitions could help mitigate extreme weather. Businesses can do right by their investors and also do good for the planet by curtailing their contributions to climate change.

Watchlist

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, European Geosciences Union, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, National Center for Atmospheric Research.