By TIM RADFORDGreenhouse effect leads to disasters
Saturday 29 April 2000
Floods are events of the moment. Droughts are disasters on a slow fuse. Both happen with or without global warming.
But the drought and famine in Ethiopia, the desiccation of Rajasthan, the arid corn land of the United States west, and the towns in Mozambique and Venezuela swept by storms and floods are beginning to look like pieces in the same ominous jigsaw.
"You can't ever say that a hurricane or a flood or a drought is because of global warming," said one disaster expert. "What you can say is that global warming makes any of these or all of them more likely."
One of the first predicted results of the greenhouse effect was that a warmer world would be accompanied by a greater frequency of "extreme" events. This is because more heat should mean more evaporation and more wind energy, and therefore more violence.
So far events have matched predictions with an eerie precision. Islands usually hit by a cyclone once in a century have been pounded four times in a decade. Rivers that used to dry up once every few decades are now failing to reach the sea on 100 or more days a year. Seven of the hottest years ever recorded were in the 1990s and the three next hottest were in the 1980s - and during the past decade the cost of natural disasters added up to four times the bill of the 1980s.
The hottest year of the decade was 1998. It was also, according to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, one of the most expensive, with a total of 80 separate natural catastrophes attributed to the influence of El Nino, a cyclic blister of heat in the Pacific that periodically tips climate patterns upside down, sparking fires in tropical rainforests and floods on barren lands.
That year was marked by terrible floods in China, calamitous ice storms in the US, and a huge pall of smoke and flames over Indonesia. It also saw some of the most destructive hurricanes ever to hit central America, demolishing hillsides and sweeping away villages and crop land.
And Red Cross experts pointed out that the following year, 1999 - the fifth-hottest recorded for the planet - was almost as bad, with floods and wind storms battering communities that were only just beginning to recover from the last wave.
Storms are reported by governments and the news media as single and separate events, but they are not. When winds die down and floodwater ebb, life does not return to normal. Victims will have lost their homes, their livestock and their savings, and they will face malnutrition and water-borne diseases.
And a year or two later, when the land is green again, they could also face plagues of locusts. For most of the time, locusts dwell in little groups in arid regions. But every few years, after rain has multiplied the vegetation, they suddenly swarm.
Scientists working together have helped limit locust plagues around the Mediterranean, and meteorologists warn governments and each other about wind storms and floods, but drought is another matter.