Extreme weather, disasters show need for immediate global action, experts say
The big freeze in the United States, heavy snowfall in Southern Europe and the Middle East, melting glaciers in the Himalayas and melting polar caps, as well as deaths from extreme weather, have made the ravages of climate change all the more alarming.
"These disasters represent a clear and present danger, they are here, they are now, and they take lives and livelihood. They should flag the urgency in acting now," said Vinod Thomas, a visiting professor at National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
While scientists have long warned about the growing impact of global warming, Will Steffen, a spokesman for the Climate Council in Australia and an expert on climate change, said it seems "counterintuitive when we talk about a warming planet, then we have these abnormal cold conditions".
The unusual winter snowstorms and freezing temperatures that have cut a crippling swath across large parts of the US have led to at least 70 deaths and left millions of people without electricity and drinking water. US President Joe Biden declared a major disaster in Texas on Saturday, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was shipping relief supplies to affected areas. Much of the state had warmer weather on Sunday.
"What we are seeing in the United States is a rush of cold air sweeping down from the Arctic," Steffen said.
Normally that cold air is held in check by the jet stream, which runs around the Arctic at a latitude roughly from mid-Canada through Siberia due to a strong temperature gradient between the hot equator and the cold Arctic.
But now, "the gradient between the equator and the North Pole is weakening, and cold air breaks through. When that happens, it drags warm air up."
The freeze has therefore spread far. In Europe and the Middle East, the heavy snowfall has blanketed the Acropolis and other ancient monuments in Athens and halted many services in Libya, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Nonetheless, Steffen said, there can be no argument about climate change. "The planet is getting warmer. While much of the planet is getting warmer, the Arctic is warming at twice the global average," he said
Thomas noted that white sea ice reflects heat from the sun back into space. As the Arctic heats, there is less ice, and less reflective protection. Large areas of open dark water absorb more heat, aggravating global warming.
In Siberia, the melting of permafrost is starting to alarm scientists. Steffen said the melting has resulted in an explosion of insects.
"The forests in Siberia and Canada are now being attacked by bark beetles, which weaken the trees and in hot conditions the trees burn, releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere," he said.
What is happening this winter in many parts of the United States "is consistent with research that has connected what's happening in the Arctic with extreme weather patterns in the mid-latitudes", according to Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center in the US state of Massachusetts.
"The polar vortex can elongate, stretch into different shapes and even split. We have seen a very big disruption this year," Francis said.
A report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on oceans and the cryosphere-those parts of the Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including ice caps and glaciers-showed that climate change has altered the frequency and magnitude of natural hazards, said Anjal Prakash, the 2018 report's coordinating lead author.
The impact of global warming on glacial retreat is well documented, and high-elevation regions are warming more rapidly than the global average, he told China Daily.
If global temperature increase can be kept at less than 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, this would still translate in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region to a rise of at least 1.8 C, and in some places, above 2.2 C, said Prakash, who is research director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy of the Indian School of Business.
On Feb 7, a Himalayan glacier burst, causing a major flash flood in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, smashing two dam projects and forcing authorities to evacuate hundreds of villages.
So far, more than 65 bodies have been recovered from the debris of the Tapovan dam, according to India TV, and over 140 people were missing.
"Himalayan regions are also the least monitored, and this event shows how vulnerable we could be," Prakash added.
The causes of India's glacier burst could be varied and complicated, said Li Dewen, a professor at the National Institute of Natural Hazards of China's Ministry of Emergency Management.
Li said the impacts of global warming can be more readily seen in some areas, where it could be double what it is elsewhere, and dynamic monitoring with sensor technologies in sensitive areas can help.
Thomas, the Singaporean visiting professor, said that from the epic wildfires across Australia and the US last year, to the record heat of Siberia, climate change caused havoc across the globe in 2020. Parts of Siberia, which is not known for warm weather, saw temperatures rise to above 38 C last year.
"This year will probably be no different," Thomas said. "The one good purpose this extreme weather can serve is to help policymakers and the public to connect the dots and act."
On Friday, meanwhile, the US officially returned to the Paris Agreement on climate change.