Has there been a rise in freak weather events across the globe?

The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest near California U.S. Forest Service photo.

By Tegan Evans

Weather and particularly freak weather events have hit headlines like a storm in recent years. From raging wildfires in Australia and California to perilous floods and storms in Britain and France, it seems that the world is in weather-induced chaos. Tragic losses of life and damages to livelihoods across the globe have shown the impact of extreme weather, which many believe to have been caused by anthropogenic climate change. There have been increased calls to question what may be influencing extreme weather and if parts of the world could become too dangerous to inhabit.

Down under, Australian bushfires have been raging in Queensland and New South Wales, causing the Australian government to temporarily elevate the national threat level to ‘catastrophic’ for the first time since 2009; it has since been downgraded again. It is thought that tinder-box conditions, caused by an unusually warm and dry winter, have caused these bushfires which now span 970,000 hectares.

The two Australian states have declared a state of emergency in a move described as “unprecedented”, and fires have even begun to break out in some suburbs of Sydney. The bushfires have ultimately seen thousands being evacuated and it remains uncertain when and if they will be able to return home. At least three people have died and hundreds of homes have been affected.

Moreover, weather conditions are also anticipated to worsen in Australia as they head towards summer, with Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt stating that the fires are caused by climate change, suggesting that a lack of inaction by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has worsened climate change’s effects on the country.

At the time of writing, the Australian Government has officially refused to comment on whether they believe climate change has caused or contributed to the fires, but have offered their thoughts and prayers to families impacted.

Powys, Wales, 2007.
Source: Alan Bowring (via geograph)

The US has also suffered wildfires recently in California, with the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that there are “intensified fears that parts of California [have] become almost too dangerous to inhabit”. This came in light of recent fires across the Hollywood Hills.

At the end of October, thousands of residents in Los Angeles evacuated their homes and California’s governor declared a state-wide emergency. 

Northern California has also been facing wildfires with hundreds of thousands being ordered to evacuate just north of San Francisco. What’s more, the fires have left a million across California without electricity.

Closer to home, severe floods in parts of Yorkshire and the East Midlands have left English communities vulnerable and angry after what they are calling “government inaction” to effectively warn and prepare people.

Riverside, Cardiff, 2018. Source: Jeremy Segrott (via Flickr)

At the time of writing, over 400 homes were flooded in waters up to three metres deep, with a total of 43 active flood warnings and 103 flood alerts issued in total across the country. Severe torrential rain – which some have described as “Biblical” – caused the River Don and Derwent to flood local communities.

Residents of Fishlake in Doncaster are continuing to be rescued by fire service boats as homes and businesses remain flooded, and communities remain worried as the deluge is forecast to continue, with flood-risk warnings persisting over parts of England and Wales. It is thought that Fishlake residents could be homeless for “weeks”.

Perceived inaction of local councils has left communities and local authorities to fend for themselves, some are saying, with Stainforth Town Councillor, Phil Bedford remarking, “This is a response from the people not the authorities.” Damage is currently estimated to have cost £400m in the Lower Don Valley alone.

At a national level, Jeremy Corbyn has condemned alleged inaction by Boris Johnson in light of the UK’s extreme weather in the north, stating, “If this had happened in Surrey, not Yorkshire or the East Midlands, it seems far more likely that a national emergency would have been declared.”

Toowoomba, Australia, 2011. Source: Kingbob86 (via Flickr)

Johnson previously said that the flooding was “not looking like something we need to escalate to the level of a national emergency”. However, the PM then chaired a Cobra committee meeting to discuss a response to the flooding.

Understanding the causes of these cases of extreme weather is vital in understanding how best to plan and mitigate in the future, some are arguing, and it is believed that the increasing global temperature is partly to blame for the intensity and ferocity of more recent storms, such as Storm Amelie which recently battered the French coastline and left an estimated 55,000 without electricity.

It is thought that increasing temperatures force the jet stream to act erratically and unpredictably. The jet stream is a high-altitude fast wind that shapes and influences weather and causes some of the most extreme weather events by causing areas of high pressure and low pressure to persist in one location.

This increased atmospheric temperature is also thought to lead to increased water retention in the atmosphere, so also contributes to a greater number of, and more intense, torrential downpours, as seen in northern England recently.

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