Asia on the global warming boil By Nick Cumming-Bruce
GENEVA - For anyone interested in the weather, the good news is that 2008 was
cooler than the previous year. The bad news is that the world is still getting
hotter and that greater variability in weather brought on by climate change
resulted in or contributed to extreme weather that killed hundreds of people in
Southeast Asia in 2008 and affected the lives of millions across the region.
At least so says the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United
Nation's Geneva-based climate monitoring agency, working with other leading
agencies in the United Kingdom and
the United States. It's not a view, of course, that finds universal acceptance.
The heavy snowfalls now experienced across much of the US and Canada - the
heaviest in 30 years for Las Vegas - have been seized by global warming
skeptics with ammunition for the reverse case. Indeed, "2008 was the year
man-made global warming was disproved", a recent UK newspaper headline
proclaimed. "Global temperatures have dropped sharply enough to cancel out much
of their net rise in the 20th century," the article claimed.
That's not what emerged from WMO data. The average global temperature in 2008
was lower than in the previous years of this century, it agrees, as the result
of a La Nina event - a cooling of sea temperatures - in the latter half of
2007, according to the WMO.
However, 2008 was still the tenth-warmest year in 150 years since temperature
records were kept and all the years that were hotter than 2008 occurred in the
last 12 years, the WMO reported. "The trend for warming is still very much
there," WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud commented.
The WMO estimated the average 2008 temperature at 14.31 degrees Celsius and
57.76 degrees Fahrenheit, a level that was lower than in 2007, but still
0.31and 0.56 degrees above the average for 1961 to 1990. "Human influence,
particularly emission of greenhouse gases, has greatly increased the chance of
having such warm years," Peter Stott of the UK's Meteorological Office said in
a statement in December.
So what does this portend for 2009? For all the time, money and expertise
invested into improving forecasting, the answer for the layman remains
The WMO confidently predicts the first few months will be "neutral", with no
sign of La Nina, or its converse El Nino, creating cooling or warming effects,
but in the same breath says that's no indicator of what may follow in the rest
of the year. For the full 2009 outlook, WMO officials say, it's necessary to
wait until around March when the La Nina/El Nino effects start to emerge.
But climatic extremes were recorded in many parts of the globe, including
devastating floods, severe and persistent droughts, snow storms, heat and cold
waves, the WMO said, drawing on data from Britain's Met Office, the Climatic
Research Unit of Britain's University of East Anglia and the US Department of
Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Among the effects of this warming, the extent of ice in the Arctic Sea in the
melting season dropped to the second lowest level since records started to be
kept in 1979 and the volume of ice - its thickness - was the lowest yet.
Although Scandinavia's winter was unusually mild, the winter for Asia,
stretching from Turkey to China was remarkably cold, causing hundreds of
casualties in Afghanistan and China. Some 1.3 million square kilometers
covering 15 provinces of southern China were covered by snow and suffered
persistent low temperatures and ice that resulted in disruptions to
transportation, energy supplies and agriculture.
The year also produced a particularly devastating Atlantic and Caribbean
hurricane season, which for the first time on record sent six consecutive
tropical cyclones slamming into the United States and a record three major
hurricanes into Cuba.
In the Pacific, on the other hand, Japan escaped unscathed by any named
cyclones for the first time since 2001, thanks to the cooler ocean temperatures
created by the La Nina effect of 2007, and the 22 tropical cyclones recorded in
the northwest Pacific were lower than the long-term annual average of 27.
Over in the Bay of Bengal, however, 2008 produced Nargis, the deadliest cyclone
in Asia in 17 years, which smashed into Myanmar killing nearly 78,000 people.
Nargis was "really exceptional", according to Jarraud. Most cyclones in the
area follow a west-east trajectory before curving north, but Nargis moved in
the opposite direction. That wasn't the only unusual event: Southern Iran and
Oman were also hit by tropical cyclones. Elsewhere in Asia, heavier-than-usual
monsoon rainfall in India, Pakistan and Vietnam killed more than 2,600 people
and displaced more than 10 million, according to the WMO.
There seems to be a pattern of strange behavior in the trajectory of tropical
cyclones, observes the WMO's Omar Baddour. Whether and how the pattern of
cyclones and monsoons is linked to climate change are questions which
scientists are still searching to answer.
Still, droughts are "very likely to increase" in areas affected by water
stress, including the Mediterranean and large parts of Central Asia, Jarraud
said, and heavier rainfall at higher latitudes creates a higher risk of floods.
Moreover, Nargis tragically underlined one of the key lessons the WMO and other
UN agencies will be seeking to ram home in 2009. "Warnings were issued,"
Jarraud pointed out.
While climate monitoring agencies are seeking to improve long-range forecasting
and early warning capabilities, Jarraud noted considerable work needs to be
done to integrate forecasting with disaster prevention strategies.
Relief agencies have commented that the failure of Myanmar's authorities to
respond to the warnings they received or to make any preparation for Nargis
contributed substantially to the loss of life in the storm and its immediate
In the meantime, Asian and Pacific communities must learn to cope with rising
sea levels that scientists attribute directly to global warming. The average
rise in sea levels is 3 centimeters a year, says WMO's Baddour, noting that a
rise of just a few centimeters can be devastating.
Papua New Guinea declared a national disaster in early December after heavy sea
swells forced tens of thousands of people - close to half the population of its
northern Manus province - from their homes. Elsewhere in the Pacific, islands
states are seeking to buy land in other countries for the permanent relocation
of communities forced out by intrusion of the sea.
"It's another consequence of global warming," says Baddour. "The problem is
really there, it's really there now."
Nick Cumming-Bruce is a Geneva-based journalist with decades of
experience reporting from Southeast Asia.