Why Scientists Are Worried About the Weather Getting Worse
Do you ever stop to think how much of what you do is determined by what the weather’s like? Checking the forecast is a daily ritual for millions around the world, with conditions affecting everything from what you wear that day… to whether you can (or can’t) make it into work or school. And one thing’s for sure, whenever the weather behaves in any way that’s unpredictable, then it can really cause us problems. The thing is… more and more research suggests that we should prepare for increasing uncertainty in the years to come.
This is Unveiled, and today we’re exploring the extraordinary reasons why scientists are worried about the weather getting worse.
Bad weather is rarely a good thing. Events get called off, buildings get snowed in, and public transport links can struggle. Of course, there are often more severe problems at hand, as well, including that road accidents increase whenever driving conditions take a turn for the worse, and that homes and buildings can suffer serious structural damage whenever a strong enough storm sets in. And then there are natural disasters to consider, too. The very worst that mother nature can throw at us, and often without any prior warning.
In recent times we’ve unfortunately seen many massive and devastating natural disasters take hold. Hurricanes across North America, fires in Australasia, typhoons across Asia, extreme heat in Africa, and blizzards hitting Europe. In some cases, while their impact has been no less catastrophic, these events have at least fallen within expected “seasons”… but not always. And science is now trying to work out whether the weather on Earth is changing for good. And what that could mean for our future.
In February 2022, news spread of a fresh United Nations climate report that was widely described as “an atlas of human suffering”. The report, which was compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, detailed how in the near future, if human-induced global warming isn’t halted, planet Earth could suffer in a multitude of ways… with many of them billed as potentially irreversible. Among the takeaways were that efforts to cut carbon emissions haven’t yet gone far enough, while efforts to build protection against the disasters to come should be stepped up, as well. For example, coastal communities will likely require much improved flood defenses, and quickly. While, in some cases, whole communities might need to move elsewhere, to escape the worst of worsening weather conditions.
The report refers to the looming 1.5-degree Celsius climate threshold - first laid out by the Paris Agreement in 2015 - which it’s now thought could be breached within just twenty years. And, while there’s a belief that, even at that point, we will inevitably see increasingly unpredictable climate events… if the Earth were to warm by more than 1.5 degrees, that’s when we’ll begin to see changes that we may never be able to come back from. The report gives mention to ice melt, for example, and we’ve seen in recent videos some of the areas that are of particular concern… including Greenland in the north and the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, in the south.
But the problems reach further than just rising sea levels, and the first-hand damage that higher waters can (and will) inflict on certain parts of the world. Because with rising sea levels comes the potential for super-strong storms, whipped up over more water than ever before. Such storms could have longer to form as well, as we’re beginning to see how rising water levels are slowing down long-established ocean current systems. This means that storm seasons all around the world could soon be lasting for far longer, and be delivering far more powerful weather, to boot.
Finally, the UN’s 2022 report highlighted at various points just how much of a global issue this is, calling on all countries to help all others. There are predictions that while everyone will continue to feel the effects of climate change, the poorest people will suffer most severely. Poorer communities may face tougher situations when a crop fails, for example, or it might take longer to rebuild following storm damage. It’s expected that millions of people will be displaced over the coming years, as a direct result of worsening weather brought on by climate change. And then there’s the growing toll on mental health all across the planet, with higher levels of anxiety, for example, variously being linked to the threat of global warming. Researchers and psychologists warn that the growing uncertainty has led (and will lead) to more and more people wondering how next the changing conditions on Earth might inflict damage. How next might the changes to our environment unfold, and will we survive?
So, we can clearly see how a simple weather forecast has taken on new meaning in the modern world. While technology means that many of us perhaps don’t tune in for weather announcements as we once did, preferring instead to just get the information from the internet at any time, the general focus on the weather has arguably never been higher. It’s changing out there, and we all want to know more about it. Was that freak storm that struck your community a few weeks back really a “freak”, or are there more to come? Does it just feel as though there are more natural disasters than ever before, or is that truly what’s happening?
In terms of sheer numbers, the consensus is that natural disasters have increased in recent decades, and dramatically. A 2020 report compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace, for example, says that “globally, the number of natural disasters has increased tenfold since 1960”. Somewhat mercifully, it would seem as though ten times the number of disasters hasn’t yet resulted in a similar increase in the number of deaths caused by natural disasters… with statistics published by “Our World in Data” suggesting that the number of deaths has actually decreased to around a third of what we saw in the ‘60s. This would further suggest that we’ve already made some progress in combating (and lessening) the effects of natural disasters… although they are still responsible for an average of around 50,000 deaths worldwide, every year.
It's hugely unclear how long the trend of increasing disaster events can continue, however. The rate of homelessness caused by the weather fluctuates but is, in general, far higher today than it was fifty years ago. Meanwhile, the 2020 IEP report cites that “the cost due to natural disasters has also risen from fifty billion US dollars in the 1980s to two hundred billion US dollars per year in the last decade”. Whenever news of climate change and global warming reaches us, we so often hear about tipping points… but from a general society point-of-view there are concerns of a looming breaking point, where the natural world overcomes our more recent efforts to lessen the damage it can cause.
Finally, the IEP report listed “flooding” as the most common disaster event to take hold since 1990, followed by “different types of storms including cyclones, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and dust storms”. The report also calculated the United States to be the country most affected by climatic disasters between 1990 and 2019, followed by China, India, and the Philippines… again highlighting how the changes to the climate and weather are truly a global concern.
In the past there may have been massive resistance to reports and theories surrounding climate change, but documents such as those published by the United Nations in 2022 and the IEP in 2020 are now only adding to the ever-increasing literature that’s available. And, unfortunately, the numbers continue to throw light on a troubling situation. Weather patterns are changing fast, natural disasters are increasing by the decade, and the costs involved are rising, too. With the global population now nearing eight billion people, these are circumstances that are directly affecting more and more of us.
And so, an adverse weather forecast is of greater interest - and potentially of greater concern - than perhaps ever before. Unseasonal snowfall is a pleasant surprise if it means an unexpected ‘work from home” day and an impromptu snowball fight, but what happens if the same thing occurs every year? A heatwave is welcome if it means a few extra days at the beach, but what happens if it lasts for too long? If the warnings laid out by the United Nations and others do soon come to pass, then the whole of human society - from water supplies to energy needs to the impact on physical and mental health - is going to be tested. In some cases, it’s already happening… and the struggle is mounting. And that’s why scientists are worried about the weather getting worse.