Scientists try to predict next natural disaster

The world’s leading
climate scientists hope to hammer out plans to set up an early warning system
that would predict future meteorological disasters caused by global warming.

Scientists fear that
storms, hurricanes, droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events now
threaten to trigger widespread devastation in coming decades. A series of
meteorological catastrophes have dominated headlines in recent weeks, while
scientists have warned that figures so far for this year suggest 2010 will be
the hottest on record.

Recent events include
a record-breaking heatwave that has seen Moscow blanketed with smog from
burning peat lands, the splintering of a giant island of ice from the Greenland
ice cap, and floods in Pakistan that have claimed the lives of at least 1,600
people and left 20 million homeless.

Scientists say events
like these will become more severe and more frequent over the rest of the
century as rising greenhouse gas emissions trap the sun’s heat in the lower
atmosphere and bring change to Earth’s climate and weather systems. However,
their ability to pinpoint exactly where and when the worst devastation will
occur is still limited. The aim is to develop more precise predictive
techniques to help pinpoint the location and severity of droughts, floods, and
heat waves before they happen and so save thousands of lives.

“The events in Moscow
and Pakistan are going to focus our minds very carefully,” said Peter Stott,
head of climate monitoring at the UK Met Office. “On both sides of the Atlantic
we have been monitoring what has been going on with the aim of understanding
their precise causes so that we can provide better warnings of future
disasters.”

The meeting in
Boulder is the first full session of Ace, the Attribution of Climate-related
Events, which has been set up by scientists from the world’s three leading
meteorological organisations: the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research
(NCAR), the UK Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA).

The aim, said Stott,
would be to develop a modelling package that would allow scientists to forecast
the kind of events that the world has been witnessing over the past few weeks –
before they struck. The fact that the Foreign Office has been closely involved
in setting up Ace reveals how seriously the issue is taken by politicians.

Meteorologists have
developed remarkably effective techniques for predicting global climate changes
caused by greenhouse gases. One paper, by Stott and Myles Allen of Oxford
University, predicted in 1999, using temperature data from 1946 to 1996, that
by 2010 global temperatures would rise by 0.8C from their second world war
level. This is precisely what has happened.

But although
meteorologists have developed powerful techniques for forecasting general
climatic trends – which indicate that weather patterns will be warmer and
wetter in many areas – their ability to predict specific outcomes remains
limited. It is this problem that needs to 
be tackled, as a matter of urgency.

An example of the
complexity that faces meteorologists is provided by the weather system that
scorched Moscow, said Stott. “Moscow has a stable high pressure system over it,
much like the one that brought a heatwave to Europe in 2003. However, for a
while the land around the city acted as a natural air conditioner, keeping the
air cool through evaporation of moisture from the ground. But the land
eventually dried out and there was no more cooling. Hence the soaring
temperatures.”

To forecast an event
like that, scientists need to be able to quantify all the variables involved
and also develop a very precise model of the land surface, added Stott.

“These are the sorts
of things we need to understand. We need to be able to forecast events weeks or
months ahead of their occurrence so people can mitigate their worst impacts. We
also need to consider the longer-term context and see if we need to build
better sea defences at a particular location and assess how high dykes or walls
need to be. Certainly, one thing is clear: there is no time to waste. The
effects of global warming are already upon us.”

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