Natural hazards heat up as climate changes

By / 7th of November, 2016
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NATURAL hazards such as heatwaves, forest fires and coastal extremities are projected to increase in frequency over the next century.

Research led by the University of Adelaide in South Australia has found that more climate change initiatives need to be implemented to battle the effects of warmer temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions.

The study compiled the historical trend of the seven major classes of natural hazards in Australia since 1900, including heatwaves, extreme fires, droughts, floods, storms, coastal extremes and frost.

The collaboration between 47 scientists across 14 research institutes demonstrated that these extreme weather patterns were not only becoming more frequent, they were increasing in severity as well.

Lead researcher and University of Adelaide Associate Professor Sam Westra said although the study focused on natural weather hazards in Australia, the findings had global implications.

“Most people would know that the (global) temperature is increasing but they don’t care too much if it’s only a degree or so – that degree causes heat waves to lengthen and become more severe,” he said.

“The important thing to take away from this is we need to begin to prepare for these increased risks by reducing emissions and pulling people away from vulnerable areas.

“The biggest risk from climate change is if we continue to plan as though there will be no change.”

The research looked at information from tree rings, sediment and coral records, some of which span back more than 1000 years.

It found that although there would be increasing heatwaves and extreme forest fires as this century progressed, there was still uncertainty about the future of storms and rainfall.

Associate Professor Westra said the study also demonstrated how much all the hazards were interconnected.

“For example, drought leads to drying out of the land surface, which in turn leads to increased risk of heat waves and bushfires, while also potentially leading to a decreased risk of flooding,” he said.

The Paris Agreement to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels came to effect this month and this week world leaders are meeting at the Marrakesh Climate Change Conference for the twenty-second session of the Conference of the Parties.

Last week the National Geographic Channel released a documentary starring United Nations Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio, to illustrate the effects of climate change and highlight the need to develop prevention methods.

Before the Flood centres on DiCaprio as he travels the world documenting the impact of rising temperatures such as dying coral reefs and sinking cities, and has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube.

Associate Professor Westra said although the issue of climate change was not new, the focus on its direct humanistic effect still required additional research.

“We need robust decision-making that considers the whole range of future scenarios and how our environment may evolve,” he said.

“Our emphasis as humans, needs to be reducing our emissions quite rapidly and I think the media around the ratification of the Copenhagen Agreement is that people are recognising its importance.”

The comprehensive study titled Historical and Projected Climatic Changes to Australian Natural Hazards was published today in a special issue of the international journal Climatic Change.

It was a collaboration between the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Bureau of Meteorology, Australian National University, Curtin University, Monash University, University of Melbourne, University of Western Australia, University of Adelaide, University of Newcastle, University of New South Wales, University of Tasmania, University of Western Australia and University of Wollongong.

South Australia’s capital Adelaide has three long-standing public universities, Flinders UniversityUniversity of South Australia and the University of Adelaide, each of which are consistently rated highly in the international higher education rankings.

Key contacts

Sam Westra Associate Professor University of Adelaide
Sam.westra@adelaide.edu.au