The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog


The January weather extremes: A new normal?

By J. Jackson Ewing and Sally Trethewie.

January 2013 saw countries across the globe affected by environmental extremes, including unprecedented hot and cold temperatures, heavy rains and acute haze events. Do these events signal the arrival of a ‘new normal’?

The recent weather extremes have been distressing for many. Australia suffered its hottest average temperatures on record, approaching 50 degrees Celsius in some locations. These temperatures, combined with high winds, contributed to devastating fires in several states.

For areas of Australia’s eastern coastline, heatwaves were followed by heavy rains that led to the second ‘hundred year flood’ in two years. Jakarta also experienced flooding, from which even the presidential palace was not spared.

Meanwhile areas of North and South America continued to battle through some of the worst droughts of the past century, threatening the livelihoods of farmers as well as domestic and international food supply.

On the other end of the spectrum, China recorded its coldest temperatures in 28 years and temperatures in western Russia have been roughly 6 degrees Celsius below average. Abnormally cold conditions also hit South Asia, contributing to over 200 deaths in northern India and at least 80 in Bangladesh.

The usually dry and mild-wintered Middle East also had a difficult January, having to deal with an atypical spate of snowstorms and heavy precipitation that led to flooding.

Beyond weather events, industrial and human activities led to further extreme environmental conditions, most notably in China – where Beijing experienced haze so extreme as to be described as ‘beyond index’.

While these events occurred concurrently, it would be misleading to group them under a single umbrella. Each had unique local characteristics and drivers.

Nevertheless, global climatic changes are more measureable, and human activities having more of an impact on climate and weather than ever before. In the words of leading climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, ‘the answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be’.

Outside of climate change, human impacts on environmental systems are accelerating, with often laudable developments such as industrialisation and urbanisation fomenting disruptive environmental challenges.

The events of January overwhelmed many physical and social systems that support everyday human activities. However, different locales showed varying levels of resilience.

Fluidity proved essential. Cities and countries whose physical infrastructure had built-in redundancies, and were equipped to adapt to more variables, were more able to cope.

Social infrastructure also proved important, and tools that equipped communities to respond cohesively were invaluable. Communications technologies such as mobile phones and social media platforms made a difference. These avenues for connectivity helped communities, governments and other responding parties to work cooperatively, a fundamental step in successfully adapting to abrupt or unpredicted environmental changes.

Such social efforts must proceed in tandem with greater physical preparedness to effectively confront the formidable environmental conditions likely to define the ‘new normal’ of the coming decades.

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