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Extreme flooding on the banks of the river Ahr in the city of Dernau, Rhineland Palatinate, western Germany, on July 18, 2021, after devastating floods hit the area. After days of extreme downpours causing devastating floods in Germany and other parts of western Europe which have been described as a "catastrophe", a "war zone" and "unprecedented", more than 180 people are confirmed dead and dozens missing on July 18, 2021. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP via Getty Images)

Are We Prepared for Pandora's Box of Climate Catastrophes?

There is still time to avoid the catastrophe we have set in motion, but it is going to take drastic behavior change and huge grassroots pressure on governments to force them to act immediately.

Simon Whalley

Will this be the summer we all remember what we were doing? A monstrous landslide after record rainfall in Japan left fifteen dead and dozens missing. Biblical flooding in Germany has caused hundreds of deaths with many more unaccounted for. More than a million acres of the west coast of North America are on fire after temperatures soared to 122°F (49.9°C). Will this be the moment we woke up and demanded action? Or will it be the coolest summer of the rest of our lives?

With the planet only warming by just over a degree, natural-disaster loss events have more than tripled in the past forty years. Since 2004, the number of events has already doubled. What can we expect to happen if we continue on our current path?

Extreme storms around the world are anticipated to happen more frequently, and be more destructive, as the planet warms.

One thing keeping scientists awake at night is the sleep-inducingly named Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), or the Gulf Stream. This is the ocean current that begins in the warm Gulf of Mexico, carries warm water up the northeast coast of the United States, and across the Atlantic to Northern Europe. The Gulf Stream is often credited with stopping countries like the U.K. and Ireland from freezing over in winter. What has scientists concerned is that the current has been slowing down, and it is possible that it may ‘switch off’ completely. The slowing down is being caused by the increasing amount of freshwater melt coming off the Greenland ice sheets as a result of manmade warming. Between 1900 and 1970, 1,919 cubic miles (8,000 cubic kilometers) flowed into the seas surrounding Greenland, and that figure rose to 3,119 cubic miles (13,000 cubic kilometers) between 1970 and 2000. During the 20th century, the current slowed down between fifteen and twenty per cent. Scientists believe that Europe will still continue to get warmer due to climate change, unless the Gulf Stream turns off completely. They are unsure of this likelihood, although Western European winters are predicted to become colder as the stream slows down further.

Whilst Europe may avoid completely freezing over, the Gulf Stream, along with the North American Polar Jet Stream, are expected to drive extreme weather events. In research published in the journal Nature, scientists predict 'climate chaos' as water gushes from Greenland into the oceans. They expect the weather to be strongly impacted and temperatures on both sides of the Atlantic to vary more wildly from year to year. 

The jet stream is like the weather distribution manager for North America. It decides where to send high and low pressure, and how strong to make them. When the jet stream is managing the weather effectively, weather rushes along a torrent from west to east, bringing rain every three to five days. Unfortunately, as the Arctic warms, and the temperature difference between the equator and the North Pole narrows, the jet stream acts unpredictably. The flow is strongest when the temperature variance is highest, but as the Arctic is warming faster than the equator, the flow has slowed down. Recently, the weather is not really rushing, it’s more like a child dragging their feet, hanging around in areas for long periods. The June 2019 fires in Alberta, Canada, were caused by a high-pressure ridge hanging out and causing drought and fire. Then further out east, low-pressure ridges cause rain and flooding which festers (33). Likewise, the jet stream was meandering slowly in an Omega pattern (Ω) in July 2021 and this helped cause the record heat and resulting wildfires in Canada and the western US. Whatever weather pattern emerges, be it a drought, heavy rainfall or heatwave; that pattern basically persists for longer and amplifies the associated risks. 

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The Polar Jet Stream. Credit: NASA

It’s not only floods and wildfires that are being blamed on the lingering jet stream. The abnormally high number of tornados that hit America in May 2019, was also thought to be the work of the slower, wavering jet stream. It’s particularly difficult for scientists to pin the blame on climate change for this increase in tornados due to their rareness and the difficulty in observing their changes, but scientists believe a warming climate will help to produce the storms that manufacture tornados

The harsh reality is, that even if cities can afford to pay for flood prevention and storm damage, they will be completely at the mercy of diminished food supplies which will be obliterated by the monsters about to be unleashed on our unsuspecting global population.

Extreme storms around the world are anticipated to happen more frequently, and be more destructive, as the planet warms. From typhoons in the Pacific to cyclones in the Indian Ocean, and hurricanes in the Atlantic, the storms we have seen in the past few years will become the new norm, until they too are overtaken by larger, more destructive storms.  Already, storms worldwide drop between 5-10% more rain than previously.

In Asia, there is evidence that typhoons are not only increasing in frequency, but they are getting stronger. They are beginning to threaten the region’s megacities. Over the past thirty-seven years, typhoons to strike east and southeast Asia have intensified by 12-15%. The number of the larger category four and five storms has doubled in that period, and in some areas, they have tripled in number. Their destructive power has also increased by 50%. Climate experts are warning cities from Tokyo to Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Jakarta to prepare for future super-strength typhoons. Even smaller storms are thought to pose a risk to these metropolises as infrastructure losses are expected to rise from $3 trillion in 2005 to $35 trillion in 2070

Asia is home to ninety-nine of the hundred most vulnerable cities on Earth, and the loss to life could be enormous in the coming decades as the tides surge, the winds rush, and the rains lash at both cityscapes and rural areas straddling the coast. The poorest will be hit hardest, and even at just half a degree of increased warming, 1.5 billion will be at high or extreme risk, according to a risk assessment carried out in May 2021. 

The world’s second-largest ocean has also witnessed hurricanes that produce 10% more rain in recent years. If our politicians fail to act, and the temperature is allowed to increase by 37°F-39°F (3-4°C), then rainfall from hurricanes could increase by 1/3 and wind speeds will be 29 miles (46 km) per hour faster. In a 37°F (3°C) warmer world, Hurricane Katrina, which killed almost 2,000 people in 2005, would drop 25% more water

Cyclone Gafilo, which barrelled into Madagascar in 2004, and left 250 people dead and 300,000 homeless, would drop twice as much rain in a 3°C warmer world, while Cyclone Yasi which struck Australia in 2011, would carry around a third more water. Australia is a rich developed country and may be able to ride out these storms, but low-lying countries like Bangladesh, and low-lying islands won’t be so fortunate. Storm surges will wash away land, and leave millions without homes, food and water. 

The African continent will be hammered by devastating floods and storms leading to considerable disruption to farming. The population on the African continent is the fastest growing with annual rates of 2.5%, more than double that of any other landmass. As more and more people are added to the population, intense storms and flooding will damage vital food crops. Western and Central Africa will be the worst hit with Niger, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo among the most vulnerable to flooding. Scientists predict that the severe rainfall witnessed today will become seven or eight times more frequent by 2100.

Globally, one in four cities do not have money available to protect them from the impacts of the climate crisis. In a survey of over 800 cities, it was found that 43% of them, home to 400 million people, did not even have a plan in place to adapt to the looming crisis. 

The harsh reality is, that even if cities can afford to pay for flood prevention and storm damage, they will be completely at the mercy of diminished food supplies which will be obliterated by the monsters about to be unleashed on our unsuspecting global population.

There is still time to avoid the catastrophe we have set in motion, but it is going to take drastic behavior change and huge grassroots pressure on governments to force them to act immediately. Without this, none of us are prepared for Pandora and her box. We never could be.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley

Simon Whalley is an educator in Japan, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Japan and the author of the upcoming book, Dear Indy: A Heartfelt Plea From a Climate Anxious Father.

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