Living in a warmer world

This year really has started with a bang. An unusual concatenation of weather extremes — Britain’s stormy and wet winter – the wettest since records began, 250 years ago – the warm winter in Russia and Alaska, drought in California and Australian heatwaves — has caused many people to consider the role that climate change might have played in driving those weather events. For once, public debate has moved away from the tired old is it/isn’t it happening frame and into concern about what living in a warming world might actually mean for us all. This makes Jim Salinger’s latest book, Living In A Warmer World – How a changing climate will affect our lives (Bateman NZ, 2013) especially welcome.

Salinger has drawn on all the relationships he has built up over a 40 year career as a climate scientist, including a spell as president of the WMO Commission for Agricultural Meteorology, to bring together some of the world’s leading experts on climate impacts. Each is given a chapter to look at what might be coming down the road, and it makes for essential, if sobering reading.

Chapters cover the signals from the biosphere, the likely impacts on water resources, the implications for food supplies and human health, and an especially interesting section on the decisions we need to make now. It’s far too diverse a selection of material to look at in great detail, but it will come as no surprise to Hot Topic regulars to know that I found Salinger’s own chapter, written with NZ ice maven Trevor Chinn, covering the loss of glacial ice in NZ and around the world to be one of the most fascinating. The section on the wine industry’s future in a warming world by Greg Jones is also well worth the price of admission, and makes me glad that in my small vineyard I have planted warm-climate syrah alongside cool-climate pinot noir.

But it is in the final section that some of the more immediately challenging material appears. VUW’s Jonathon Boston looks in detail at the moral and ethical challenges implicit in approaching and dealing with climate change, and a posthumous chapter on risk and uncertainty by Stephen Schneider, compiled from two articles he wrote in 2010, usefully articulates the frustration felt by those who knew we were facing a real and potentially devastating problem a long time ago.

Beyond a few degrees Celsius of warming — at least an even bet if we remain anywhere near our current course — it is likely that many ‘dangerous’ thresholds will be exceeded. Strong action is long overdue, even if there is a small chance that by luck climate sensitivity will be at the lower end of the uncertainty range and, at the same time, some fortunate, soon to be discovered low-cost, low carbon-emitting energy systems will materialise. For me, that is a high stakes gamble not remotely worth taking with our planetary life-support system. Despite the large uncertainties in many parts of the climate science and policy assessments to date, uncertainty is no longer a responsible justification for delay.

We are now deep into our high stakes gamble with our planet. We are certain to experience much more warming. We need more books like Salinger’s to begin to sketch out the roadmap that will allow us to cope with the changes that are now inevitable, and to make the changes that will limit future damage so that all humanity can thrive.

19 thoughts on “Living in a warmer world”

  1. New Zealand, having a maritime climate, will not be affected as badly as the large continental masses such as the USA, Europe and Asia but we can’t afford to be complacent. We have already had an increase in westerly winds which brings an increase in drought and this is devastating to our farmers and food production.
    Just observing two current extreme event in the Northern hemisphere, the drought in California and the floods in the UK you can see that food production is becoming difficult and with only a 0.8C temperature rise climate change has hardly started yet.
    We are responsible for a large number of Pacific islanders who we will have to accommodate as well as many from further North looking for a safer place for their families..
    We may be considered a lifeboat nation but its not so much fun when the lifeboat is overcrowded.

    1. NZ as a lifeboat is more or less certain to happen, in my view, but I’m beginning to suspect that the ride will be rougher than we currently expect. Yes, the southern ocean should mean that we warm slightly more slowly than the rest of the world, but we will not be immune to more weather extremes and the weather “whiplash” as flip from one extreme to the next.

      From where I’m sitting, after a record wind storm in September, a wet early summer, dry February, a tornado down the road last week and another nasty storm blowing through at the moment, weather whiplash is alive and well and bothering me and my neighbours.

      1. Just a few days ago a friend and I were deliberating on the possibility of sigificant storm surge events on NZs east coasts, in particular Christchurch and lo it happens though there was no easterly wind component as far as I know.

        And here in Auckland my new weather station has recorded a mere 5.7 mm of rain over the last fortnight.

        1. 75.8mm so far down here, and cold – 12ºC. Only drizzling now, but the river’s up and can foresee a lot more time sitting on a mower…

          1. One is definitely up in the world sitting on a mower 🙂

            I should have checked – right now there is a quite definite SE airstream on NZ at all levels from the jet stream down – Mainly on the Wairapa coast this evening according to the earth wind map – ideal for storm surge on southern east coasts.

            After reading about Airlander and looking at the earth wind map I wondered how your aviator in a hybrid airship would deal with world spanning jaunts in the future absence of weather information – particularly of jetstreams?

            1. The airship AI runs her own models, using what data she can glean from the remnants of the international satellite network…

        2. There might be a distinct lack of rain next summer Noel. A moderately strong El Nino looks almost assured to emerge this year, and there’s a growing possibility of a monster El Nino like 1997/1998.

          There are a number of similar features between 1997/1998 and what’s recently evolving in the ocean. Interesting times as they say.

          1. In following up your comment I read that another westerly push from a cyclone might guarantee an el niño – since then I’ve noted that Cyclone Lusi generated just such a push.

  2. NZ has already experienced increasing rainfall over the last few decades. This has been documented by NIWA. Of course its all in places that dont really need it like fiordland and is likely to present more in flood events than even precipitation.

    I also get the sense we are getting more tornadoes, but this is just my own anecdotal observation.

    We also dont really understand the implications, beyond predictions of the major trends. I cant recall anyone picking that the jet stream could be affected. We are better to slow this thing down than find out the hard way.

    1. The speed of the jet stream and its constant reliability is driven by an extreme of temperature difference between the poles and the lower latitudes. In the North the Poles are warming so the difference is smaller so the jet stream is slower and wandering.
      Our case is completely different we have an Antarctic continent which is slowly warming but is kept colder by the loss of ozone. On balance, it may not be normal, but their is no change.
      Jennifer Francis does an excellent presentation on it.

  3. Won’t we also face an increased risk from tropical cyclones?

    As the ocean surface warms tropical storms are likely to maintain their strength further from the equator than they do at present. I imagine there will be more storm force events passing over Northland and East Cape in the coming decades.

    1. This question has always interested me in that tropical storms breed in windless tropical conditions with very high atmospheric water vapour content to fuel them, then spin off towards the poles fading as water vapour decreases. I’ve read previously a forecast of fewer cyclones with warming but a greater proportion of extremes. I would like to resolve the apparent contradictions in this – fewer cyclones but more warming therefore more water vapour but less thermal gradient and currently stronger trade winds..

      As an aside I once knew a sailor who built a catamaran motor cruiser on the theory that motor cruisers do best in calm seas which prevail in the tropics during the hurricane season. Therefore, with speed, good weather information, lighter fuel load because of the advantages of the catamaran configuration (and I hope some air conditioning though I don’t recall anything on this point) he should get about rather well during the hurricane season – which he did.

  4. A possible indication of the speed at which climate change is hitting: how quickly blog comments like those above about whether NZ will be impacted soon or is already being impacted appear prescient in light of events that follow shortly afterwards ie Christchurch floods.

  5. One of the important factors for cyclone formation is that the sea surface temperature must be 28deg Celsius or higher to sustain a tropical revolving storm. As you point out, higher surface temps also lead to higher evaporation rates and levels of water vapour contributing to the storm’s strength.

    Interestingly, hurricanes rarely if ever occur in the South Atlantic since that ocean basin is kept below 28C all year round by the influence of the cold Agulhas current. However, even that current will not be able to keep the sea cool in the face of rising ocean temperatures world-wide and I’m afraid Northern Brazil is in for some unpleasant weather related surprises in due course.

  6. Living in Northland we have to watch out for storms from the North. There are a lot of them but most miss us and pass 200Klm to the East or West. We had two 200mm rains last year but they are not a problem. We had a 350mm about ten years ago and that flooded us and we had lots of landslips. It would need 400 mm to 500 mm before houses get washed away.
    The really costly events are droughts, which is what the climate models predict, as they have a disastrous effect on farming and food production. Have you tried feeding 250 cows when there is no grass in the county? They eat a lot every day.

    1. Yes the weather this year has been rather fickle to say the least. The Hauraki plains are drying out – there has been more rain than last year but the persistent winds have sucked most of that out, and the hills are almost as brown as they were this time last year in the worst ever recorded drought. As Jim says in his book ( I actually haven’t been able to get my hands on it – my daughter has snaffled it 🙂 ) but in discussion last year at the ECO conference we talked of it – ground water once lost in a drought takes a lot of rain to replenish, so while the grass may green up after a shower or two, the actual water content may take a lot of replenishment.
      Meanwhile over the hill at Waihi to Whangamata…. just a 20 minute drive away… it’s like another country! No shortage of feed there. It seems the edge of the cyclones slipped down one side of the Coromandel delivering good rain on the east and left the west and the plains dry.
      I mowed my lawns at the Whiritoa bach after 6 weeks away and was thinking I could have fed half the dairy herds on the plains!

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