Sport, weather, climate and our children!

In the UK in 2012 there was a parallel evolution of Olympic sport and the weather: Switzerland was rather different!

For the British, the London Olympics were the highlight of the year. However, for the medals won in the first few days there was a drought. This later changed to a flood, especially after the glorious Saturday of August 4 - three athletics gold medals in less than an hour. The Swiss tale was rather the reverse, as hopeful after hopeful failed to deliver. In fact, over the year, the initial Swiss alpine skiing achievements (Didier Cuche and others) compares poorly with the current lack of success: a flood turning into a drought.

Over the year, the weather in England was much like the Olympics. For the first three months there was the continuation of a drought: reservoirs low, watering restrictions and so on. Then (with a relative pause in the Olympic period) it turned to pouring rain (including the river parade for the Queen's jubilee). This rain went on and on, and it was only because the last few days of the year were fairly dry that the year as a whole was not the wettest since records began about 100 years ago: it was "only" the second wettest (silver medal position). Those numerous people who were flooded out of their homes, sometimes more than once, will devoutly hope not to see another year like it for another 100 years.

Why did this weather happen, and might it happen again? To answer that, we have to look at the climate. A study in The Times did actually that, and the result was an article entitled

Hot, cold, wet, dry: the extremes have only just begun

The culprit was the famous jet stream, well known to air travellers as helping flights towards the east but slowing them down in the other direction. Its movements north or south, maybe of only 100 km, makes an enormous difference, because it is a barrier between the cool and stormy atlantic weather to the north and the calmer and warmer air to the south.

So what makes the jet stream move north or south. Various theories have suggested natural variations, quite possibly linked with the El Niño and La Niña cycles in the Pacific ocean. However, a new theory suggests that the melting of the Arctic sea ice could also play a rôle. This would reduce the temperature differential between the pole and the Equator, weakening the jet stream, and hence its efficiency as a barrier. Thus, in winter we could get more extremely cold air, whilst in summer more rainfall.

In Geneva, we are probably fairly well protected by being much further south than the jet stream and being in the centre of a large land mass (Europe!). However, we can all remember the exceptional cold of last February: I have pictures of Versoix which amaze me whenever I look at them again, plus a beautiful souvenir book called "Léman Arctique Ice Storm", containing many beautiful photos.

But if we raise our gaze to the rest of the world, we see many other events that suggest that there are more weather extremes, arguably due to Global Warming (Climate Change to the sceptics). Hurricane Sandy made many people in the US realise how destructive nature can be, even to the most modern of infrastructures. As of now, the beginning of 2013, when the Tessin is bathed in Spring temperatures of over 20°C, northern India is having record low temperatures (New Delhi had its coldest day for 44 years). The reverse is true in Tasmania, Australia, where a combination of a record-breaking heatwave, high winds and drought, has led to terrible bush fires. Argentina also has a terrible heatwave, with the sad, and perhaps prophetic, consequence that the last remaining polar bear in the Buenos Aires Zoo has died of heatstroke.

The National Geographic magazine already last September had an article about extreme weather, entitled

Weather Gone Wild

Rains that are almost biblical, heat waves that don’t end, tornadoes that strike in savage swarms—there’s been a change in the weather lately. What’s going on?

I would recommend this article to everyone: it includes the highly alarming prediction that by the end of this century average temperatures could rise by three to eight degrees Fahrenheit, according to how we limit carbon emissions. With our current batch of leaders in the world, the higher limit seems to me to be more likely, with incalculable consequences. It also explains the jet stream movements in more detail.

As a retiree, I realise that whilst my generation has been pretty lucky, I feel guilty at the mess that we are leaving for future generations. I also feel that unrestrained air travel is contributing to this mess (despite the protestations from a cossetted airline industry that it is other people who are to blame). One article that I came across is from an organisation called the Intergenerational Foundation, whose declared objective is Fairness for Future Generations. The title of this article is

Flying in the Face of Fairness: Intergenerational Inequities in the Taxation of Air Travel

If, like me, you worry about the next generations, then try reading it!

Happy New Year.

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