Extreme weather prompts unprecedented global warming alert

From the UK's Independent - 03 July 2003

In an astonishing announcement on global warming and extreme weather, the World Meteorological Organisation signalled last night that the world's weather is going haywire.

In a startling report, the WMO, which normally produces detailed scientific reports and staid statistics at the year's end, highlighted record extremes in weather and climate occurring all over the world in recent weeks, from Switzerland's hottest-ever June to a record month for tornadoes in the United States - and linked them to climate change.

The unprecedented warning takes its force and significance from the fact that it is not coming from Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, but from an impeccably respected UN organisation that is not given to hyperbole (though environmentalists will seize on it to claim that the direst warnings of climate change are being borne out).

The Geneva-based body, to which the weather services of 185 countries contribute, takes the view that events this year in Europe, America and Asia are so remarkable that the world needs to be made aware of it immediately.

The extreme weather it documents, such as record high and low temperatures, record rainfall and record storms in different parts of the world, is consistent with predictions of global warming. Supercomputer models show that, as the atmosphere warms, the climate not only becomes hotter but much more unstable. "Recent scientific assessments indicate that, as the global temperatures continue to warm due to climate change, the number and intensity of extreme events might increase," the WMO said, giving a striking series of examples.

In southern France, record temperatures were recorded in June, rising above 40C in places - temperatures of 5C to 7C above the average.

In Switzerland, it was the hottest June in at least 250 years, environmental historians said. In Geneva, since 29 May, daytime temperatures have not fallen below 25C, making it the hottest June recorded.

In the United States, there were 562 May tornadoes, which caused 41 deaths. This set a record for any month. The previous record was 399 in June 1992.

In India, this year's pre-monsoon heatwave brought peak temperatures of 45C - 2C to 5C above the norm. At least 1,400 people died in India due to the hot weather. In Sri Lanka, heavy rainfall from Tropical Cyclone 01B exacerbated wet conditions, resulting in flooding and landslides and killing at least 300 people. The infrastructure and economy of south-west Sri Lanka was heavily damaged. A reduction of 20-30 per cent is expected in the output of low-grown tea in the next three months.

Last month was also the hottest in England and Wales since 1976, with average temperatures of 16C. The WMO said: "These record extreme events (high temperatures, low temperatures and high rainfall amounts and droughts) all go into calculating the monthly and annual averages, which, for temperatures, have been gradually increasing over the past 100 years.

"New record extreme events occur every year somewhere in the globe, but in recent years the number of such extremes have been increasing.

"According to recent climate-change scientific assessment reports of the joint WMO/United Nations Environmental Programme Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global average surface temperature has increased since 1861. Over the 20th century the increase has been around 0.6C.

"New analyses of proxy data for the northern hemisphere indicate that the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest in any century during the past 1,000 years."

While the trend towards warmer temperatures has been uneven over the past century, the trend since 1976 is roughly three times that for the whole period.

Global average land and sea surface temperatures in May 2003 were the second highest since records began in 1880. Considering land temperatures only, last May was the warmest on record.

It is possible that 2003 will be the hottest year ever recorded. The 10 hottest years in the 143-year-old global temperature record have now all been since 1990, with the three hottest being 1998, 2002 and 2001.

The unstable world of climate change has long been a prediction. Now, the WMO says, it is a reality.

The great rainforest tragedy
By Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor

From the UK's Independent - 28 June 2003

Of all the world's great environmental tragedies it is the most compelling, and yesterday the deforestation of the Amazon was shown to be taking a huge turn for the worse.

After falling or staying steady for the past eight years, the rate at which Brazil's rainforest is disappearing has leapt by 40 per cent in a single year - and Europe's intensive farming may be a contributory cause.

Vast new tracts of virgin forest in the states of Mato Grosso and Para are being put to the chainsaw, according to figures from the Brazilian government, and turned into farmland - much of it used for growing soya beans, which end up as industrial cattle feed in Europe.

What is being destroyed is the most species-rich habitat on Earth. It provides much of the world's oxygen. It has been the subject of more green protests, and had more voices raised in its defence, than any other piece of ground on the planet. They seem to have availed it nothing.

Data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, based on satellite observations, reveal that in the year to August 2002 the amount of rainforest cut down was 25,500 square kilometres, or 10,190 square miles - an area about the size of Belgium. This has leapt from the previous year, when the area cut down had been 18,170 sq km (7,266 sq miles), an area about the size of Wales.

The more recent total was the second highest in the whole 30-year saga of Amazonian deforestation, exceeded only by the exceptional year to August 1995, when 29,059 sq km (12,200 sq miles) were destroyed. Since then the figure has dropped and remained steady at about 18,000 sq km - giving people some hope that the situation was not as hopelessly out of control as once it seemed to be.

But now the sudden increase in the deforestation rate has appalled even hardened Amazon-watchers. "This is shocking," said Mario Monzoni, a project co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth in Brazil. "The rate of deforestation should be falling; instead the opposite is happening."

Brazil's Environment Minister, Marina Silva, herself a former rubber tapper from the Amazon who also worked as a maid by day, said there would be "emergency action to deal with this highly worrying rise in deforestation". Promising an announcement next week, she said the government was considering real-time monitoring of deforestation and, for the first time in Brazil, to force all ministries to consider the environment when enacting policies.

All those who care for the Amazon will warmly welcome her comments, but not hold out excessive hope. The social and economic forces behind deforestation are stupendous, and for three decades have been far beyond the ability of bureaucrats in Brasilia or Sao Paulo to control them. In a huge country with a burgeoning population and oppressive poverty there is insatiable hunger for land, and the Amazon provides a ready answer.

It can take a lot of punishment - its rainforest covers 60 per cent of the territory of Brazil and extends for 1.6 million sq miles, an area as big as western Europe. But already about 16 per cent of it has been destroyed for development, logging and most of all farming.

There now seems to be a new and even more intense agricultural advance into the treeline, especially from large-scale growers of soya beans. Brazil is expected to overtake US soya production in a few years, making it the world's leading producer of a crop that offers its farmers large profits and gives a sizeable boost to its national trade accounts.

David Cleary, director of the Amazon programme at the Brazilian office of the Nature Conservancy, the US green charity, said that last year's deforestation figures were at least 30 or 40 per cent higher than historical trends. "It's clear that the soya boom is an important element of this in the southern Amazon, and if ways are not found to minimise the impact it is difficult to see these figures falling in coming years," he said.

We may have a role in this ourselves. Much of the soya bean crop is exported to Europe as part of the 55 million tonnes of cattle feed the EU imports annually, attracting strong criticism from environmentalists, who say it is promoting industrial factory farming as well as helping to subsidise rainforest destruction.

That destruction seems even worse if you clothe the new raw data with a little imagination. At the new rate, about 28 sq miles of forest is being obliterated every day. How many trees in 28 square miles, an area seven miles long by four miles wide? A thousand? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand, more? Doesn't matter. They'll all be down by the end of today.

And what a forest it is, containing about 30 per cent of all the world's known plant and animal species, besides the uncatalogued insects, which may run into many millions. There are about 80,000 species of trees and flowering plants; in a single hectare of forest there may be as many as 300 tree species, more than 10 times that in the most diverse North American forest. There are more than 2,000 species of birds, almost a quarter of the world's total; there are 2,000 species of freshwater fish and more than 3,000 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, ranging from the jaguar to the poison-arrow frog.

And now the chainsaws are slicing it down at a rate that could only be described as frenzied. It is the great green lung of the world, the Amazon rainforest, and the shadow on it is advancing unstoppably.