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Climate Scientists in Race to Predict Where Natural Disaster Will Strike Next

Conference in Boulder will step up world's efforts to establish an early warning system for extreme weather events

Robin McKie

A woman grieves near her relative's body after dozens of people were killed in landslides in China's Gansu province last week. (Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters)

The world's leading climate scientists will gather this week in the
United States to hammer out plans to set up an early warning system that
would predict future meteorological disasters caused by global warming.

The meeting, in Boulder, Colorado, has been arranged at diplomatic level amid fears 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

Recent events include a record-breaking heatwave that has
seen Moscow blanketed with smog from burning peatlands, 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 of the Colorado meeting is to develop
more precise predictive techniques to help pinpoint the location and
severity of droughts, floods, and heatwaves before they happen and so
save thousands of lives.

"The events in Moscow and Pakistan are going to focus our minds very carefully when we meet in Colorado," 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 will be 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).


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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.

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 will be tackled, as a
matter of urgency, at the Ace meeting in Boulder.

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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