Get used to the weather …

These extremes of drought and flood are the new normal, says latest SA climate data

extreme weather

It’s official: the weather is getting weirder. South Africa’s top scientists, however, say it is too soon to confirm that global warming is behind the increasing number of droughts and floods – including countrywide floods that have now claimed at least 88 lives in the past six weeks.

Floods in eight provinces have caused death and destruction, costing an estimated R2.3-billion, according to the latest report from the Department of Co-operative Governance.

Heavy rains continued across much of the country on Friday.

Vuyelwa Qinga from the department said damaged infrastructure included schools, roads, water treatment plants, water drainage systems, bridges, electricity poles, telephone lines and churches.

By the end of the week, KwaZulu-Natal had reported 47 deaths, said Qinga.

New data compiled by the South African Weather Service and released this week to the Sunday Times suggests the regional climate has already changed, becoming warmer and more extreme since detailed temperature and rainfall monitoring began in 1960.

Recent findings include:

  • An overall decrease in the number of frost nights over most of South Africa;
  • An average 0.5ºC increase in temperature anomalies between 1961 and 2006 for 28 national climate stations; and
  • A marked increase in the number of extreme rainfall seasons – both wet and dry.

Scientists and government officials this week warned of dire consequences if South Africans did not fast adapt to “increasing variable” (or unpredictable) weather.

Among the chief concerns are the rising number of human settlements, both up-market developments and townships, built on river flood plains and therefore vulnerable to flash floods.

Mounting concern about weather conditions reached parliament this week where the National Disaster Management Centre warned of more extreme weather to come and appealed for help to deal with the consequences.

Themba Dube, senior manager of climate services at the South African Weather Service, said while the overall trend pointed towards long-term changes, it was too soon to say whether the latest floods were the direct result of human-induced climate change.

Peter Lukey, chief director of air quality management in the Department of Environmental Affairs, said although climate change was a possible cause of the extreme weather, “it is not possible to link specific extreme weather events to climate change directly”.

Herman Keuris, scientific manager: information programme management at the Department of Water Affairs, said the government urgently needed to stop people building houses in river flood plains.

He said the recent unavoidable release of 2200m³ per second of water from the Vaal Dam which flooded many riverside properties had highlighted the problem of “inappropriate development” – and the flooding could have been worse had the maximum 3000m³ per second been released.

Officials had to release water to safeguard the country’s dams, which could become too full, Keuris said.

“Development close to and virtually on the river bank is something we obviously have to look at. We can’t allow this to go on unchecked. Water is heavy. When it starts adhering to the laws of gravity, it is quite an incredible force. It can drag huge trees and lift concrete, the forces are just unbelievable.”

Willem Landman, principal researcher of climate studies & modelling at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said the government urgently needed to improve its disaster management systems, given the probability of further weather extremes.

He said: “Seasonal forecasters said as early as August that there was a likelihood of it being extremely wet (in December/ January). If we can’t deal with climate variability, then how will we be able to deal with climate change? It irks me that so much attention is given to long-term climate change while people are drowning now because of climate variability. We should be looking at more imminent time-scales. The future is now.”

Source: Times Live

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