Extreme storms – Are they due to climate change?

This winter, the UK has so far been hit by no less than 11 named storms, including the highly destructive storms, Desmond, Eva, Imogen and Katie. 2015 was a record breaking year in terms of high-impact weather; Is this a sign of things to come?

Storm Desmond landed in Cumbria in early December, Eva battered northern England just before Christmas, and Imogen devastated the South West in February. More recently, Storm Katie brought gusts of more than 70mph to areas of Western England, and amber weather warnings were issued for most of the South East.

In fact, over recent years, the UK has been hit with some devastating storms; In 2000 severe storms brought with them floods affecting huge swathes of Wales and England, and the storms of winter 2013 carried with them 100mph gusts.

And who could forget weather presenter Michael Fish telling viewers there would be no hurricane the evening prior to the ‘Great Storm’ of 1987?

Are the world’s storms getting stronger and what should we expect in the future? The Nature Conservancy forecasts that climate change will cause storms, hurricanes, and tropical storms to become more intense over the coming years, causing more damage to coastal ecosystems and communities.

Scientists predict that higher ocean temperatures are the main culprit for the increased intensity. This is because storms derive their energy from warm water; as sea surface temperatures rise, storm intensities increase, too.

Other factors including disappearing wetlands and increased coastal development also threaten to intensify the damage caused by hurricanes and tropical storms.

However, as the Greenpeace Energy Desk points out, it’s still too early to say for sure whether climate change is causing the severe weather:

“In general, attributing the contribution of global warming to individual extreme precipitation events remains inexact, although general trends are clearer, and new modelling is staring to give indicative numbers.”

There is also evidence to suggest that El Niño – the intermittent warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean – could have caused the strong storms this season.

With that being said, according to a study in Nature Climate Change, up to 40% of moderate daily precipitation extremes over land could be attributable to manmade global warming, if warming reached 2 degrees.

Although we don’t know for certain whether climate change is affecting the intensity of our storms – and we probably won’t know for many years – it is entirely plausible.

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