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Under The Weather

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

Tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, droughts, earthquakes – are these devastating modern weather phenomena some apocalyptic anomaly, or have these weird weather patterns been around as long as time?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hurricane Irene, busy wreaking havoc in the northeastern US, is just the latest in a slew of weird weather events that leave people scratching their heads in wonder: is the weather really getting weirder?

Monster tornadoes, historic floods, massive wildfires, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and widespread drought have delivered a wallop of weather-related destruction and misery to regions across the globe since the beginning of the year. And it may all be related. While green activists prefer to categorize everything in terms of global warming, weather forecasters searching for some unifying factor point to the La Niña climate pattern, a phenomenon born far out in the Pacific Ocean that shapes weather across the globe, in combination with other atmospheric anomalies that have altered the jet stream flow of air across North America. La Niña is defined as cooler-than-normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, which affect weather patterns around the world, according to the Climate Prediction Center in Camp Springs, Md.

Hurricane Irene is the US’s ninth billion-dollar weather event of the year, and the damage is still accruing. But isn’t weather supposed to be something predictable, even boring? Looking back over the last year alone, extreme weather events seem to have taken on a life of their own: the April 2010 eruption of the volcano Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, which spread so much black dust in the skies that air travel in northern Europe was brought to a standstill for days; the devastating 6.4 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February this year, following just six months after a 7.1 earthquake hit the same area; the outbreak of tornadoes in the US in April this year, known as the 2011 Super Outbreak, when a total of 336 tornadoes swept through thirty three states from Texas to New York, causing widespread damage and an estimated 246 deaths; and again this April, the devastating tsunami in Japan which left over 16,000 dead and caused an unprecedented nuclear alert as three reactors exploded. 

Advocates of the global warming theory point to the recent extreme weather events — along with cyclones in Burma, chills in Nepal, and blizzards in Britain — as a consequence of increasing carbon dioxide emissions. The World Meteorological Organization and the US Environmental Protection Agency have also linked seemingly increasing extreme weather events to global warming, yet there doesn’t appear to be any concrete evidence of this. More cautious scientists warn that a string of single events does not prove a pattern, but rather that the statistical evidence needed to prove or disprove such a contention needs to be accumulated over decades, at least. That involves setting the recent extreme weather against historical records to ascertain if it really is so extreme by comparison.

The Twentieth Century Reanalysis Project is an attempt to do just that. Using specialized computer programs, the project has generated a database of global atmospheric circulation from 1871 to present day. The project’s initial findings, published earlier this year, found no solid evidence of an increasingly extreme weather trend — it seems weird weather has always been around. 


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