It’s hot, hot, hot

Blame Ivan on global warming.

The year 2004, punctuated by four powerful hurricanes in the Caribbean and deadly typhoons in Asia, was the fourth-hottest year on record, extending a trend that has seen the 10 warmest years beginning in the 1990s, a UN weather agency said Wednesday.

The World Meteorological Organization said it expects Earth’s surface temperature to rise 0.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the normal 57 degrees Fahrenheit, adding 2004 to a recent warming trend that saw the hottest year registered in 1998 and the top three hottest since then.

The increased warmth is being blamed for a blustery hurricane season in the Caribbean region where Category 5 Hurricane Ivan took its toll on Grand Cayman in September, leaving 90 percent of the island’s property damaged

The month of October also registered as the warmest October ever since accurate readings were first started in 1861, said the agency, responsible for assembling data from meteorologists and climatologists worldwide.

“This was a very warm year,” said Michel Jarraud, the WMO secretary-general. He noted that it was also marked by an unusual number of hurricanes and tropical storms that hit the Caribbean, the United States and Asia.

The report’s release comes as environmental ministers from some 80 countries gathered in Buenos Aires for a UN conference on climate change, looking at ways to cut down on greenhouse gases that some have blamed for Earth’s warming.

This summer, heat waves in southern Europe pushed temperatures to near-record highs in southern Spain, Portugal and Romania, where thermostats peaked at104 degrees Fahrenheit while the rest of Europe sweltered through above average temperatures.

Jarraud said the warming and increased storm activity could not be attributed to any particular cause, but was part of a global warming trend that was likely to continue.

Scientists have reported that global temperatures rose an average of 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century with the rate of change since 1976 at roughly three times that over the past 100 years.

This year, the hurricane season in the Caribbean spawned four hurricanes that reached Category 4 or 5 strength – capable of causing extreme and catastrophic damage. It was only the fourth time in recent history that so many strong storms were recorded. They caused more than US$43 billion in damages.

The stormy season in the Caribbean inflicted the most damage on Haiti, killing as many as 1,900 people from flooding and mudslides caused by Tropical Storm Jeanne in September.

Japan and the Philippines also saw increased extreme tropical weather, with deadly typhoons hitting both islands. Japan registered a record number of typhoons making landfall this year with 10, while back-to-back storms in the Philippines killed at least 740 people in what was the wettest year since 2000, the UN agency said.

UN environmental officials released new findings that 2004 also was the most expensive year for the insurance industry as a result of hurricanes, typhoons and other weather-related natural disasters.

Statistics released at the climate change conference showed that natural disasters in the first 10 months of the year cost the insurance industry just over US$35 billion, up from US$16 billion in 2003.

Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest insurance companies, said the United States tallied the highest losses at more than US$26 billion, while small developing nations such as the Caribbean islands of Grenada and Grand Cayman also were hit hard.

Other parts of the world also saw extreme weather, with droughts hitting the western United States, parts of Africa, Afghanistan, Australia and India. Jarraud, of the U.N. weather agency, said the droughts were part of what appears to be a surge over the last decade.

The prolonged rising temperatures and deadly storms were also matched by harsh winters in other regions.

Peru, Chile, and southern Argentina all were experienced severe cold and snow in June and July.

Still, Jarraud said the high temperatures like those seen in parts of Europe this year were expected to inch up in the coming years.

Citing recent studies by European climatologists, Jarraud said heat waves in Europe “could over the next 50 years become four or five times as frequent as they are now.”

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