One of the effects of a warming world that has long been predicted, and has caused some confusion, is the way in which higher temperatures will mean more droughts and more floods. The basic mechanics of it are pretty straightforward, if you learn to think like a sponge.
Wrong kind of sponge, sorry.
Basically, hot air is like a dry sponge that’s being expanded. It sucks up any water with which it comes in contact. When it cools, it’s like squeezing out that sponge. So in a hotter world water in soil, rivers, lakes, and oceans will be absorbed rapidly by the air, and dumped out in other parts of the world when that air cools down. Because of how air moves around, that can mean that one location will both get bigger rainstorms, and be in a near-permanent state of drought compared to what we’re used to. That means all the harmful effects of heavy rainstorms, but also the harmful effects of water shortages. As with so much else in this field, this is entirely predictable based on things we’ve known for a very long time, despite what the Doubt Industry might do to confuse things, so it’s no surprise that, with the planet warming fast, the likelihood of intense rainstorms is increasing:
“The longer you have the warming, the stronger the signal gets, and the more you can separate it from random natural variability,” said co-author Megan Kirchmeier-Young, a climate scientist with Environment Canada.
Previous research showed that global warming increases the frequency of extreme rainstorms across the Northern Hemisphere, and the new study was able to find that fingerprint for extreme rain in North America.
“We’re finding that extreme precipitation has increased over North America, and we’re finding that’s consistent with what the models are showing about the influence of human-caused warming,” she said. “We have very high confidence of extreme precipitation in the future.”
At the current level of warming caused by greenhouse gases—about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the pre-industrial average—extreme rainstorms that in the past happened once every 20 years will occur every five years, according to the study. If the current rate of warming continues, Earth will heat up 5.4 degrees by 2100. Then, 20, 50 and 100-year extreme rainstorms could happen every 1.5 to 2.5 years, the researchers concluded.
“The changes in the return periods really stood out,” she said. “That is a key contributor to flash flooding events and it will mean that flash flooding is going to be an increasing concern as well.”
More often than not, when there’s a so-called “natural disaster”, the actual disaster is the result of human malfeasance or error. An event, like a storm, or an earthquake, or a drought, may be natural in origin, but the scale of disaster it causes is often a matter of how well the affected human population is prepared to deal with an event of that nature. Areas accustomed to dry weather aren’t bothered by what amounts to a catastrophic drought in other parts of the world. One of the bigger threats we face from climate change is that we are, increasingly, going to be seeing “the wrong weather” for what we’re used to in any given part of the world. This is something for which we can prepare, because we have enough understanding of how the temperature change is going to affect things.
The droughts could be significantly mitigated by a coordinated effort to capture, clean, and safely store rain water during the big rainfall events. Likewise, infrastructure could be designed to be able to handle a more monsoon-like annual rainfall pattern, while capturing the water needed. Doing all of this is not likely to be profitable, but it would dramatically decrease the need for drought-stricken areas to import water to deal with fairly predictable problems.
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