Winter is traditionally followed by Spring but not here, and not in the era of climate change. Last week was Winter; this week is the Fire Season.
Perhaps that is a little melodramatic, but it’s justified by the conditions we have experienced recently. The fire season is already well under way, as it usually is by this time of year, and we have had several very smoky days in town but today was exceptional. Late this morning I could hardly see Mount Stuart from the Rising Sun intersection on Charters Towers Rd, so I visited Castle Hill with my camera to see what I could see from there. It wasn’t pretty.
As you may know, Hurricane Matthew, a category 4 storm, made landfall in Les Anglais [Haiti] at the beginning of October .* In the run up to the storm, our staff members told the community that they should charge their electronics soon as they would have to turn off the grid. They then secured the generation site with sandbags and found safe spaces for staff.
After the storm hit, the community was devastated. As most of the houses in Les Anglais are made with straw or sheet metal, virtually all of those houses lost their roofs. About 30% of the community completely lost their homes and some have left the area to stay with family elsewhere. Even worse, about 90 people in the entire commune of about 30,000 people lost their lives.
Within a few days of the hurricane, humanitarian relief was able to arrive by barge and a week later the roads were opened up to allow relief by trucks. People are slowly starting to rebuild. Aside from re-building homes, much work will have to be done to restore agriculture in the area as many crops have been destroyed.
The microgrid fared comparatively well. About 40% of the panels were lost, but the battery bank, inverters and generator were left unscathed. The worst damage was to the distribution system and home installations. When roofs were torn off due to the winds, most of the wires, light sockets and outlets that comprised the home installations were blown away as well.
The community is eager for the grid to be up and running again and we are putting in place a plan to rebuild as the community is able to rebuild their homes. We anticipate this taking about 6-9 months to finish.
Kiva, if you don’t know it, is an international microfinance charity lending to small borrowers in (mostly) developing nations. They do good work – read more here – but my interest in this bulletin was how the solar power facility fared in the hurricane. The short answer: not too badly at all. In fact, it sounds like it could have been operational again, albeit with fewer panels and a severely limited distribution network, a couple of days after the storm passed.
That kind of resilience will be needed everywhere, and especially in developing nations, to cope with extreme weather events increasing because of climate change.
None of the above is necessarily due to global warming but it is all entirely consistent with global warming, and we can expect that weather like this will become normal as global warming progresses. Bearing in mind that this year represents, as the BoM says, temperatures [only] 1.2 C* above the baseline and medium-term predictions are in the range of 2 – 6 C above the baseline, I think we should be more worried than most of us are; but I will deal with those issues on their own in another post as soon as I can find time.
*That 1.2 C was Australia’s land surface temperature deviation. We out-did ourselves last year and in doing so we out-did the rest of the world, which is why the global average deviation (see below) is only half as large.
Now seems to be the time to look at those looming problems, while extreme weather around the world is dominating our evening news:
James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, told us a few years ago that global warming was “loading the climate dice”, making extreme weather events much more common (quick introduction / technical introduction), and this is what we are seeing now. The bad news is that people are suffering the effects of climate change earlier than they would have done if this amplification of extreme weather had not occurred; its silver lining is that the extreme events are encouraging their victims to sit up and take notice and (hopefully) take action on the underlying problem earlier than they would otherwise have done.
I’m not the only person to have noticed this, of course. Al Gore’s recent comments on the subject, for instance, have been widely shared. The Guardian (rapidly becoming one of my more-trusted news sources, by the way) reported him thus:
Extreme weather events including typhoon Haiyan and superstorm Sandy are proving a “gamechanger” for public awareness of the threat posed by climate change, Al Gore said on Friday.
The former US vice-president, speaking to delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said: “I think that these extreme weather events which are now a hundred times more common than 30 years ago are really waking people’s awareness all over the world [on climate change], and I think that is a gamechanger. It comes about, of course, because we continue to put 90 million tonnes of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, as if it’s an open sewer.”
But he said the falling price of solar and wind power gave hope for efforts to tackle climate change.
“There’s a second gamechanger, that is that the cost down-curve for photovoltaic electricity and, to a lesser extent, wind. In 13 countries, the price of solar is cheaper than or equal to the [electricity] grid average price.” He claimed that within a decade most people would live in regions where that was true, and said of the falling costs of the technologies: “It is very impressive and it is opening up great opportunities for the world to solve climate change.”
There are, I think, two take-home messages from all of the above (1) we must all be prepared for wild weather from here into the foreseeable future and (2) if this weather is what we get from an average global temperature just 0.6 – 0.7 C above the twentieth-century average, a 2C rise is not going to be “safe enough” by any reasonable interpretation.
Summer has officially ended and many Aussies are really, really glad that it has. Various groups have presented comment or analysis on it and I have collected some of the best information and graphics here.
The Bureau of Meteorology produces seasonal and annual summaries which are totally accurate and reliable but quite impersonal. Here, for instance, is the overview from their Australia in summer 2012–13:
In terms of both maximum and mean temperatures, summer 2012–13 was the warmest on record for Australia. Minimum temperatures were also significantly above average for the season, placing as the sixth warmest in 103 years of record. All mainland States and Territories recorded maxima in the top 10 records for summer; only a strip of the east coast and part of Western Australia recorded near-average maxima, associated with above-average rainfall. Minima were also generally above to very much above average, with scattered areas across the tropics and part of South Australia recording near-average minima.
Summer rainfall was below average for most of Australia, except for most of Western Australia and a strip extending along the east coast and adjacent hinterland from Mackay to southern New South Wales. Across this part of eastern Australia rainfall was above average, and generally in the highest decile closer to the coast. Rainfall was also above average in western and northern Western Australia, excluding the far north. The remainder of Western Australia and the central Northern Territory recorded near-average summer rainfall.
Okay, we don’t want the BoM to get wildly emotional and lose the plot, but the psychological distance between their report and our experience is nearly as extreme as the weather itself. (Actually, it’s reminding me of an ought-to-be-classic youtube clip – click here if you haven’t seen Weather Girl Goes Rogue.)
Get-up knew what we were feeling and produced an arresting poster:
Clicking on the above will, as usual, get you a bigger image but there is also a poster-size version (3 MB) here in case you want to print it.
In response to the disasters, various people went online. Townsville Storms is a Facebook page set up for “Weather & Community Info, Photos & Social Page for Gladstone to Cooktown, west to Mt Isa” by “Shane, Narelle, Trish, Allan and Shaun.” NQ Flood Update is similar but covers Sarina to Cape York and was an offshoot of a “CQ Flood Update” page. It’s great to see people getting out there and sharing information!
At the height of the Queensland floods, a Canadian astronaut captured images of the Queensland floods from a unique angle: Commander Chris Hadfield took photos while passing over central Queensland in the International Space Station on Tuesday 29 January, sharing them with the world via Twitter.
The Angry Summer is a report by Professor Will Steffen of the Climate Commission. Its “key facts” begin with, “Extreme weather events dominated the 2012/2013 Australian summer, including record-breaking heat, severe bushfires, extreme rainfall and damaging flooding. Extreme heatwaves and catastrophic bushfire conditions during the Angry Summer were made worse by climate change,” and a dozen pages detail the events and sketch the science which links them firmly to our changing climate. Again, there are some great graphics – print them out and post them on a notice board!
For a while now the climate scientists have been warning that global warming isn’t simply a matter of the weather getting a little warmer everywhere. Rather, the warming will vary from place to place and be accompanied by changes of weather patterns, especially rainfall. That is already happening. I have mentioned extreme weather events here before over the last year or so, and in fact the last few months have seen a cluster of extreme events which are causing great suffering across the Northern hemisphere.
We know that none of these can be ascribed to climate change with any certainty but there is a growing body of knowledge (e.g. IPCC, Climate Communication) which shows that we can confidently give the odds that a particular event would have happened without global warming, and the experts are quoting high odds against any of these happening under our old weather patterns. The combined odds against all of them happening by chance are infinitesimal.
The silver lining to this litany of disaster is that ordinary people are beginning to see for themselves that weird things are happening to their weather and are more willing to acknowledge that climate change is indeed here already, that it is looking scarier every year, and that we really should try harder to avert it.
Smile: In what seems like poetic environmental justice, a brown coal mine in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley has also been flooded after unusually heavy rain.
Don’t smile too broadly: James Hansen, one of the world’s pre-eminent climatologists, has warned that the future he predicted is here here already and it is worse than he expected, sooner than he expected – almost entirely because of extreme weather events:
In a new analysis of the past six decades of global temperatures, which will be published Monday, my colleagues and I have revealed a stunning increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers, with deeply troubling ramifications for not only our future but also for our present.
This is not a climate model or a prediction but actual observations of weather events and temperatures that have happened. Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.
The rest of his Washington Post article is here and if you want the whole scientific paper you can get it – free – here.