Tue, Nov 19, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Is climate change to blame for Typhoon Haiyan?

The Philippines has been hit by 24 typhoons in the past year but the power of Haiyan was off the scale, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless. Is there even worse devastation to come?

By John Vidal and Damian Carrington  /  The Guardian

A 2013 study by MIT’s Prof Kerry Emmanuel found that the most intense cyclones — category 3 to 5 — will increase with climate change and also found that “increases in tropical cyclones are most prominent in the western North Pacific”, ie where typhoon Haiyan struck.

Ordinary people have less trouble untangling climate change from natural events. Talk to farmers in the Philippines, Nepal, south east Asia, Latin America, much of Africa and Latin America, and most will say that they are seeing more extreme storms, unseasonal rains, and more droughts and heatwaves. Their observations are not “peer-reviewed” by scientists, but their memory is usually good, and invariably supports national records.

Stronger storms

Moreover, the Philippine government’s raw statistics suggest the region’s typhoons are getting stronger. From 1947 to 1960, the strongest to hit the country was Amy in December 1951, with a highest wind speed recorded at 240kph in Cebu. From 1961 to 1980, the highest wind speed recorded was 275kph in October 1970. In the past 13 years, the highest wind speed has soared to 320kph, recorded by Reming in November to December 2006. “Menacingly, the Philippine typhoons are getting stronger and stronger. If this is due to climate change, we’d better be prepared for even stronger ones in the future,” says Romulo Virola, head of the government’s national statistics board.

What is certain is that extreme weather events are on the rise globally and that greenhouse gas emissions are rising inexorably. The US alone has experienced 25 extreme weather events since 2011 that each caused more than US$1 billion in damages. A new report by the Norwegian met office shows that precipitation in Europe has become more severe and more frequent, that winter rainfall has decreased over southern Europe and the Middle East and that there are more and longer heatwaves and fewer extremely cold days and nights.

The evidence is overwhelming that climate change is happening in developing countries, says Oxfam, which works in most of the world’s most vulnerable nations. “In 2012 the drought in Russia cut the grain harvest by nearly 25 percent, in Pakistan the devastating 2010 flood destroyed over 570,000 hectares of crop land and affected more than 20m people. The 2011 drought in East Africa affected over 13 million people and led to a famine in Somalia,” says a recent Oxfam report.

According to NOAA, July 2013 marked the 341st consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th-century average. Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s climate office said: “We believe there is an important human component explaining these record-breaking temperatures, and that’s the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”

Extreme weather killed 530,000 people between 1993 and 2012 and caused more than US$2.5 trillion of damage, according to an annual risk report published on Tuesday by Germanwatch, a thinktank partly funded by the German government. The Philippines was rated second most affected country after Haiti, which lost 9.5 percent of its economy, just above Pakistan, which was hit by immense floods.

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