The story of three blind men describing an elephant illustrates the shortcomings of trying to understand global climate change by regarding only local weather. One man wraps his arms around a leg and decides that an elephant is like a tree. Another is feeling the contours of its trunk and deduces that an elephant is like a snake. The third is touching an ear and concludes that an elephant is like heavy canvas. A little more perspective would lead them to a more accurate description.
Just as we are inclined to construe the personal as universal, individual experience inclines us to believe that the local is global. So for people who lived in the southwest corner of British Columbia during spring and early summer of 2011, the protracted bout of unseasonably cool and wet weather might be erroneously construed as the weather occurring elsewhere.
The six-state region of the US southwest - Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee - had months of "exceptional" drought. By September, Texas was enduring its worst dry spell since measurements began in 1895. A "disaster declaration" has been announced for every month of 2011. To date, wildfires have burned 40,000 hectares and engulfed more than 1,000 homes. Meanwhile, the nearby Missouri and Mississippi Rivers have offered some of "the greatest floods in US history" (Guardian Weekly, June 24/11).
For America's Atlantic coast, 2011 was the stormiest year on record - these intense weather systems brought heavy rains but winds must exceed 119 km/hr for hurricane classification. Even though September's "Irene" was downgraded to a storm, it still ravaged much the East Coast, deluging 11 states in torrential rains, killing 38 people and causing an estimated $20 billion in flood damage.
Elsewhere in the US, a record number of tornadoes twisted through the southern states - 600 alone in the month of April. Wind, heat and drought in Arizona created some of the largest wildfires that state has ever known (Ibid.). Oklahoma set yearly records for cold (-35C) and 24-hour snowfall (68.5 cm). Record weather damage is now noted as a factor in America's economic woes.
Mexico suffered the hottest temperatures (48.8C) on the planet in April. "Nearly half the country is now affected by drought. There have already been 9,000 wildfires, and the biggest farm union says that more than 3.5 million farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy because they cannot feed cattle or grow crops" (Ibid..).
After one of the coldest winters in 300 years, drought zones were declared in much of England and Wales in June when rain failed to arrive, making it the hottest and driest spring in 100 years. Kent was receiving as much rain in May as Timbuktu, Manchester was getting more sunshine than Spain's Costa del Sol, and soils in southern England were drier than those in Egypt (Ibid.). Meanwhile, "Scotland registered its wettest-ever May" (Ibid.). British meteorologists were describing their weather as "remarkable", "unprecedented" and "shocking" (Ibid.).
Although hot conditions still prevail in the agricultural regions of eastern Europe and Russia in 2011, last year was extraordinary. The hottest summer in at least 500 years scorched 2 million square kilometres of crops, contributed to the death of 50,000 people, caused hundreds of giant wildfires, and created crop failures that initiated worldwide grain shortages when Russia curtailed all exports. Summer drought and heat are causing even more fires in Northern Russia for 2011 than 2010.
As the Guardian Weekly pointed out, western Europe had its turn of extreme weather this year. Record hot weather stressed 16 countries in March, April and May. Rainfall was half of normal. Then the heat and dryness ended with "massive storms and flash floods [that] left the streets of Germany and France running like rivers" (Ibid.).
Australia ended a 10 year drought of unprecedented magnitude last year with record Queensland floods in January of 2011. Australians deemed this event their "worst natural disaster", with economic costs expected to be about $32 billion.
2011 brought another once-in-a-century drought to China, scorching the southern and central regions, drying up rivers and reservoirs, shrivelling crops and fomenting political unrest. In an effort to quell the turmoil, the Chinese seeded the sky with various rain-inducing chemicals. By design or coincidence, the drought ended with torrential rains - in some places, as much as 30 cm in 24 hours - that caused floods, mudslides, thousands of wrecked homes and 94 deaths.
A worldwide tracking of local weather in 2010 identified 17 countries that measured record high temperatures, including Colombia, Peru, Cuba, Kenya, Somalia and the Amazon Basin. While Rajasthan in India registered 49.6C, Kuwait reached temperatures above 50C.
Climate statistics confirming more freak and extreme weather are corroborated by insurance companies. Worldwide claims from natural disasters have risen from $25 billion per year in the 1980s to $130 billion in 2010. Canada's freaky weather has been confirmed by the Insurance Bureau of Canada which notes that the severity and frequency of tropical storms has caused "water damage" to replace "fire and theft" as half of all its claims.
Although climate scientists cannot attribute any specific weather event to global climate change, a trend is clearly discernable. Extreme weather has now become the "new normal", according to officials at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Vancouver Sun, Aug. 26/11). Whether this trend is meaningful, of course, is quite another matter. But it should remind coastal British Columbians that a little cooler and wetter than normal may be better than the alternatives.