Extreme weather events have been ravaging the world. From Europe to Asia, North America and Africa, all have been hit by devastating extreme natural disasters. The number of these extreme incidences that have occurred this year has raised an alarm that the time has come to discuss about such extreme events. Adding to this, a recent report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis which is the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) is making headlines for its key observations. It has been described as “a code red for humanity” by the UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres.

By Heena Samant

The report gives an understanding of the current state of the climate and also shares the state of knowledge about possible climate futures. One of the key observations of the report states that “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence has strengthened since AR5.” To elaborate it further, it has been clearly stated in the report that hot extremes including heatwaves have become more frequent and intense while the cold extremes have become less severe and less frequent. Next, the question which arises is what exactly does one mean by an extreme weather event? The answer to this is that, an extreme weather is when a weather event is significantly different from the average and usual weather pattern. Weather related extreme events include heatwaves, freezes, heavy rainfall, tornadoes, tropical cyclones and floods.

To better understand as to why it is become necessary to talk about extreme weather events, an illustration is important, and one such example can be the Northwest Pacific heatwaves of June 2021. The region experienced one of the worst record-breaking temperature extremes along with heatwaves in the last week of June. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), heatwaves, or heat and hot weather that can last for several days, can have a significant impact on society, including rise in heat-related deaths.

In end of June, the Northwest Pacific region of United States and Canada, specifically the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and the province of British Columbia experienced record-breaking temperatures in many cities, not by one or two degrees but by several degrees Celsius. Cities such as Portland and Seattle recorded around 46.1 and 42.2 degrees Celsius respectively on 28th June. However, Lytton, a small town situated in the British Columbian province of Canada was hit the hardest as it recorded a temperature of 49.6 degrees Celsius on 29th of June.

There were serious consequences. To begin with these recorded high temperatures did have deadly impact on people’s health, for example, there was a huge spike in cases of sudden deaths and there was also an increase in the number of hospital visits due to heat related illnesses. Additionally, there were reports of power outages, schools and business being shut down, and the melting of power cables.

It has been argued that timely warnings were given by the concerned departments such as the National Weather Service, Climate Change and Environment Canada, and also by the local governments. Additionally, cooling centers were opened throughout these cities and electrolytes, food, and water were also distributed to the homeless.

However, three key factors can be identified that did make this incident extremely dangerous for the region:

  • The region is supposed to be one of the coldest places on earth.
  • The region also has very low access to air conditioning.
  • The built-in environment of these cities has been planned for what used to be their climate and not for what they are experiencing now.

This intense heat, has been argued to be caused due to a weather condition called ‘Heat Dome’, which traps in hot air and does not allow it to dissipate. However, according to the experts, this weather system seemed to be much stronger than usual. Additionally, serious concerns were being raised by the scientific community who described this particular incident as highly unusual, exceptional, and an unprecedented one. According to one of the leading scientists, it’s not like the region had not experienced heatwaves before but what seemed different is the intensity of it, nature of it, the character of it, and the statistics of it. Another important point is the timing of these extreme events. It has been argued that the heatwaves came much earlier than usual. One example is that Western Canada experiences its warmest temperature by end of July or beginning of August, but this year it encountered it in end of June. Hence, they concluded that heatwaves are coming earlier, they are longer, and stronger. Now, the question which arises is why is this happening? According to the scientists, climate change is making heatwaves and extreme temperatures more severe and frequent. This was further confirmed by a report published by the World Weather Attribution initiative in early July 2021. Two important points highlighted by the report are:

  • The occurrence of heatwave with maximum daily temperatures as observed in the area was ‘virtually impossible’ without human caused climate change.
  • This type of 1 in a 1000-year event would have been at least 150 times rarer without human induced climate change.
  • Apart from these points, the report alsopredicts that as warming of the planet continues, this type of event will become a lot less rare.

This is just one incident out of many which gives a picture of what the future holds for the world. Every rare weather phenomenon is going to become frequent, more severe, and longer hinting that the world should be ready for it. To be more specific this is what is going to be the ‘new normal’. In the Rapid Attribution Report, a lot of emphasis was given to the fact that stronger and more ambitious adaptation measures are required to prepare societies for a very different future. Educating the people and making them a part of the debate is become an absolute necessity. The question is are we doing it? And if yes, then are we doing enough?

As per the latest IPCC AR6 report, concentration of greenhouse gases has continued to increase in the atmosphere and unless there are deep reductions in the emissions of these gases, global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius will be exceeded during the 21st century. Bringing down emissions drastically is the key to tackle climate change. The problem lies with prioritizing. It is important for the world to understand that climate change is way more serious issue than anticipated. Planet earth has given and is giving enough signs to make this a priority. However, all eyes are now on COP26 which is scheduled to be held in the UK from end of October till the 12th of November 2021. The conference is a new hope towards protecting planet earth and its people as it will focus on accelerating actions towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, words such as frequency and severity will continue to dominate the climate change discourse.

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