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Science Begins to Prepare for Climate Change's Freak Weather

Climate change will bring more droughts, heat waves, and floods. But we're starting to prepare for them.

Last month, a climatologist and a geophysicist published a paper that linked a specific weather event—last summer's Russian heat wave—to climate change. Climate scientists have predicted for years that climate change will stir up more extreme weather events, but you can't chalk every freak snowstorm up to climate change, either. What Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou showed was that there is an 80 percent chance that climate change did cause the heat wave.

Next month, the International Panel on Climate Change will meet in Uganda, then release its latest massive, authoritative report on the findings of current climate science. The Associated Press and Agence-France Press both obtained a draft summary of the report and found that it focuses less on steadily rising global temperatures than on the certainty that extreme events like the Russian heat will occur. The draft report says there is a two-thirds chance that climate change has already made weather events more extreme than they’d be otherwise and concludes that heat waves, heavy rain, and droughts will likely intensify in the future.

In the climate activism community (and even in the Obama administration), much of the focus has shifted from preventing changes like these to responding to them. The word that’s most often used is “adaptation.” And although it’s terrible to consider that events like the Texas drought or the flooding in Thailand will become old hand, techniques and technologies to deal with these extremes are emerging already.

White roofs, although not perfect, do help mitigate heat in cities and could help keep down the number of heat-related deaths. In areas where flooding is more common, building water management technology into urban landscapes can also lessen the impacts. A study in Mumbai, for instance, found that a good drainage system could reduce losses in an extreme flood by as much as 70 percent. Desalinization technology can produce more water in a drought; water-efficient taps, showers, toilets and irrigation systems make more water available for people, animals, and plants to drink. Crops genetically altered to resist heat and drought conditions could thrive.

The same technologies that can help stop climate change—renewable sources of energy like solar panels—are also improving responders’ ability to help people in the worst situations. As smaller sites, like homes and businesses, take over more responsibility for power generation from centralized utilities, there’s a greater chance that extreme events like floods won’t knock out communities’ electricity entirely. Solar generators don’t require trucked-in gas to keep the lights on. This solar-powered blimp can deliver supplies to areas where gas stations and roads have been knocked out. Future FEMA trailers could provide their own power and water.

But technology alone can’t address the problems we’ve created for ourselves. A European Union report on drought response, for instance, lists “developing water-efficient technologies and practices" as just one of seven areas needed for adaptation. And a United Nations project in Bangladesh that’s field-testing agricultural adaptation options is working not just on introducing drought-resistant crops, but also on teaching farmers techniques like composting, transplanting seedlings at deeper depths, and weed control to give crops a better chance of thriving. They’re also working with communities to create ponds, canals, and wells to store water.

Using these tools to help communities will take a lot of work: even if they’re available, people have to know about them and know to use them. But the people developing them know that these extreme events are going to happen. And it’s better to be prepared than not.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user bark

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