Trouble In Paradise

ivorypost1-img.jpgI am lucky enough to find myself in what is often described as Paradise: the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. As we prepare for Greenpeace’s largest ship, the Esperanza, to arrive – organising meetings, speaking to the Government, local environment groups and people active on climate change – I find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of the island and its people.

Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, is a tiny island surrounded by coral reef and shallow lagoons. Towering mountains are a reminder of the islands birth, one of violent eruptions and volcanic activity, that has left in its place magnificent peaks covered in lush greenery frequently wreathed in clouds.

Being a low-lying island in the Pacific is not as secure and safe as the laid back locals would lead you to assume. Cyclones, storm surges and drought have always been a part of life, and now with the increase in extreme weather due to climate change the idyllic seaside existence faces more of these events.

Sea walls, rainwater tanks and cyclone plans are being discussed and implemented. Local environment groups, the Government and others are looking for ways to adapt, but as everyone is fully aware, the source of climate change is not here where the impacts are being felt.

We are here to build capacity, work with the government, local NGOs and support local activism. It is so important that Pacific Islanders have the chance for their voice to be heard. Their strength and action is inspiring, but what we really need is action from the source of the problem- countries like Australia have the wealth and the technology to cut their emissions and act as responsible neighbours by mitigating against further warming.

Greenpeace has a long and proud association with the Pacific Islands, having worked for decades in the region on a range of issues: nuclear transport, nuclear testing, toxic waste, preserving Pacific fisheries and climate change.

Our ship tour starts tomorrow with the arrival of the Esperanza and from there our schedule is full. We travel to Aitutaki to assist the Government and the Red Cross with awareness-raising about cyclones, water salinisation and other climate impacts. From Aitutaki we travel to Pukapuka a tiny atoll, part of the Cook Islands and one of the most remote locations on earth. Pukapuka is reachable only by sea or chartered flight, so we will be taking the Government team and their much needed supplies with us. While there, the crew of the Esperanza will be assisting with vital consultations, mapping and surveying.

Our next stops will be Samoa and Vanuatu where we will continue our work with the Climate Warriors of the Pacific.

The Pacific Warriors will work to preserve their homes, their way of life and Greenpeace will lobby for the global changes that can reduce the impacts. What will you do?

  • Steve Woodman

    “…and now with the increase in extreme weather due to climate change ”

    Can you point me to the peer reviewed research papers that have demonstrated an actual increase in extreme weather in the South Pacific since, say 1950?

    I’d be very interested in reading these.

  • Meg Ivory
  • Steve Woodman

    Thank you, Meg for those references. I do appreciate your assistance.
    However, I was specifically interested in peer reviewed papers dealing with observed catastrophic weather events in the South Pacific. The material you kindly referred me to, while interesting in their own right, either deal with the northern hemisphere or are news articles or reports.

    Looking at them I find the following:

    The Unesco Report does not give examples of weather events attributed to global warming, only due to temporary ENSO events.

    The report also states: “Global warming is not strictly speaking a signal, as it does not possess any identifiable frequency. This general warming trend has been observed since the beginning of the century, and appears to have been gathering speed over the last few years. At this stage, it is not possible to definitively assess whether this phenomenon is of natural origin or whether it is linked to man’s increased industrial activity.”

    The second reference (Miller et al, Nature Letters, 428, 2004) deals with sea level rise, not specifically catastrophic weather events.

    The Kerry Emanuel paper (Nature Letters Vol 436, 2005) deals with the North Atlantic and discusses that while there is no trend in increasing frequency of hurricanes he found an increase in hurricane intensity and duration. He indicates, however, that the 60% increase in storm duration in the North Atlantic and North Pacific “…partially reflects changes in reporting practices.”

    The next reference is an article from Science Alert in 2007 about an IPCC report which gives no examples of catastrophic weather events caused by human induced CO2. Of note, however, is the list of actual observations :

    “Observed climate trends cited by the small islands chapter include:
    • Annual and seasonal ocean surface and island air temperature have increased by 0.6 –1.0°C since 1910 throughout a large part of the region southwest of the South Pacific Convergence Zone
    • Fewer hot days and warm nights, and significantly fewer cool days and cold nights, particularly in years after the onset of El Niño, 1961–2003.
    • Analyses of satellite and tide gauge data show a maximum rate of sea level rise in the central and eastern Pacific, spreading north and south around the sub-tropical gyres of the Pacific Ocean near 90°E, mostly between 2 and 2.5 mm/year, peaking at over 3mm/year for the period 1950–2000. ”

    The abstract of the next article by Stine et al ( Nature 457, 2009)does not refer to observed catastrophic weather events in the South Pacific and discusses changes in the phase of annual cycles. The abstract does make the point that:

    “…the causes and significance of these changes remain poorly understood—in part because we lack an understanding of the natural variability.”

    The next reference I could not access. The next is a news article apparently about sea level rise and not catastrophic weather events.

    The final article by Elsner et al (Nature Letter 455 2008) deals with Atlantic storms and found they are getting stronger on average though in his abstract they state:
    “Over the rest of the tropics, however, possible trends in tropical cyclone intensity are less obvious, owing to the unreliability and incompleteness of the observational record…”

    Meg, once again I thank you for your kind assistance. I accept the slight upward trend in global temperatures this century may have consequences for those living in exposed locations and I applaud the efforts organizations like Greenpeace are making to assist Islanders mitigate any effects.

    However, I am still not convinced that we have yet seen catastrophic weather events in the South Pacific that can be attributed to human induced climate change instead of natural occurring weather events. Some of the articles you referred me to quite rightly point to the inadequacy of past data sets and the need for more research.

    I have contacted the CSIRO Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research with the same request. If they refer me to relevant research I’ll let you know.

  • Meg Ivory

    Hi Steve,

    The Fourth Assessment by the IPCC released in 2007 contains an entire section on of peer reviewed information about specific events in the South Pacific these were compiled by Working group 2. That is the best place to find the information you are looking for.

    The news articles are referring to released papers, with a bit of digging you should be able to find their original sources.



  • Steve Woodman

    Hi Meg

    You’ve hit on the frustration I’m experiencing. If there was credible evidence of catastrophic weather events in the South Pacific caused by human induced climate change, I shouldn’t have to dig around, the scientific papers would be plastered on billboards!

    If my digging reveals such evidence I’ll forward it to you for distribution, because I’m sure it will assist you to convince the growing numbers of cynical observers who, like me, are frustrated with the apparent lack of observational data.


  • Great work! Keep it up.

    I am gobsmacked by the actions of the Australian Federal Government. Who is calling the shots and getting these people to make such destructive and ludicrous decisions?


  • Steve Woodman

    Meg, you may be interested in the following forecast for this season’s north Atlantic tropical storms from the UK Met office:

    Note that the forecast ACE index ( a measure of intensity)for July to November 2009 is around 50% of the 1990 to 2005 average.

    Despite the accelerating rate of CO2 emissions it seems natural variation is still the major factor in today’s weather, particularly those catastrophic weather events you are concerned with, and leaves me unconvinced about the severity of human induced climate change.

    The IPCC chapter you referred me to refer to studies which suggest that the severity of storms may have increased over the last few decades, surprisingly in the section where they give examples of supposed catastrophic weather events they attribute to human induced climate change; they don’t mention cyclones in the Pacific.

    I include the full forecast from the Met office as background.

    North Atlantic tropical storms forecast

    ‘Tropical cyclone’ is the generic term for a low-pressure system over tropical or subtropical waters, with intense convective activity (e.g. thunderstorms) and winds circulating in an anticlockwise direction in the northern hemisphere (clockwise in the southern hemisphere). A tropical storm is a tropical cyclone with mean wind speeds of at least 39 m.p.h. The terms hurricane and typhoon are region-specific names for strong tropical cyclones with wind speeds of more than 73 m.p.h.
    The North Atlantic tropical storm season usually runs from June to November. The degree of activity over the whole season varies from year to year and is measured in several ways. The total number of tropical storms observed over the season is the best known measure of the level of storm activity. However, the total number of storms tells us little about variations in the intensity and lifetime of storms from one season to the next. The Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) index is often used as an index of activity that includes storm lifetimes and intensities as well as total numbers over the season; it is a measure of the collective intensity and duration of all tropical storms over the season.
    The year-to-year variability in the number of tropical storms forming over the North Atlantic is mainly influenced by variability in sea-surface temperatures (SST), over both the tropical North Atlantic, and the tropical Pacific. The table below shows numbers of storms and ACE index observed in recent years.
    North Atlantic tropical storms (July–November)
    2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
    Number of storms 15 25 9 12 15
    ACE index 225 243 76 71 141
    At the start of each North Atlantic season the Met Office forecasts the number of tropical storms expected throughout the period. This year, for the first time, we also include a forecast of ACE index. The forecast is made using a dynamical global seasonal prediction model (called GloSea) which simulates the ocean-atmosphere processes and interactions that determine tropical storm development. Multiple GloSea forecasts are made (using ensemble forecasting methods) to allow estimation of the range of likely outcomes. In contrast to the dynamical methods used in this forecast, statistical prediction methods, which have traditionally formed the basis of most published predictions, do not model atmospheric processes. They rely on past relationships between storm numbers and preceding observed conditions (e.g. preseason SST patterns).
    Because the dynamical-model grid does not fully resolve relatively small features such as tropical storms, the model output is adjusted using storm counts from past forecasts and observations. A similar adjustment is made for the forecasts of ACE index. The GloSea forecast implicitly includes predictions of the sea-surface temperature (SST) anomalies. This season the GloSea SST predictions for the two influential regions, the tropical North Atlantic and the tropical east and central Pacific, both favour below-average North Atlantic tropical storm activity. Cooler-than-average SSTs are predicted for the tropical North Atlantic, while for the tropical east and central Pacific GloSea predicts that SSTs will continue to warm, and will remain substantially warmer than average through to November. The best estimate of six storms (range three to nine) predicted to occur this season represents well-below average activity and is below numbers observed in recent years; the last time a total of only six storms was observed was in 1992. The ACE index is also predicted to be below average.
    Recent studies have shown that GloSea and other European dynamical models have considerable skill predicting the number of tropical storms – for example successfully predicting the change from the exceptionally active season of 2005 to the below-normal activity of the 2006 season. Last year the Met Office forecast was for 15 storms with a 70% probability range of 10–20; in the event, 15 storms were observed to occur.
    The forecast has been produced following research collaborations with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).

    Forecast for July to November 2009
    Issued 18 June 2009
    Six tropical storms are predicted as the most likely number to occur in the North Atlantic during the July to November period, with a 70% chance that the number will be in the range three to nine. This represents below-normal activity relative to the 1990–2005 long-term average of 12.4.

  • Darren Smith

    Hi Steve

    Thanks for your interest in our blog! Just in response to your comment:
    “If there was credible evidence of catastrophic weather events in the South Pacific caused by human induced climate change, I shouldn’t have to dig around.”

    Our blogger, Simon, has some interesting comments. Take a read:

  • Steve Woodman

    Thanks Darren, I’ve responded to Simon’s article and I appreciate his effort to sum up the story so far, as it were.

    As you can probably tell I take a healthy interest in the global warming discussion and believe me, I want to be convinced of the proposition that humans are the driver, particularly if I’m expected to accept political and economic changes that will be costly to achieve and will fundamentally change the way our country operates. That being the case I want to be satisfied that the reasoning is sound. So far that goal has not been achieved.

    I do appreciate the opportunity to discuss my questions, doubts etc with the organisation at the forefront of the discussion.

    Keep up the good work, I think its fantastic that organisations such as Greenpeace assist island populations cope with the results of bad weather. A cyclone is a cyclone regardless of which of the multitude of influences conspire to create a particular weather event.

  • Steve Woodman

    Meg & Darren

    I’ve just come across some material regarding the Argos buoys (3000 ocean sensors located all around the world and is part of the Integrated Ocean Observing System) which has been in operation since the end of 2003 and, I read, gives the most accurate and up to date analysis of the condition of the ocean.

    Apparently the data from across the oceans indicates no significant ocean warming for 6 years (on the graphs I’ve seen today’s temp appears to be below that in 2003). This correlates with the flattening of air temperatures during the same period despite increasing CO2 emissions.

    As the ocean is obviously important for weather patterns in the Pacific this is surely good news for the Islanders. I’ll try and track down any research papers that confirm this and pass them on to you.


  • Steve Woodman

    Meg & Darren
    My digging around for peer reviewed research literature regarding the supposed increase in catastrophic weather events is not having the results I anticipated. I’m finding more studies that report no trends than those that do. After 30 years of warnings about the coming bad weather, I would have thought there would by now be very obvious signs.

    For example, I’ve located another study, this time from China (Tropical Cyclone Damages in China by Qiang Zhang, Liguang Wu, and Qi ufeng Liu) that indicates that there has been no trend in mortality from land falling storms in China in the period 1983 to 2006 despite a growing population. They also cite recent studies that show “that there are no statistically significant trends in the power dissipation index PDI and intense hurricanes in the Western North Atlantic basin (Wu et al. 2006;Kossin et al. 2007; Wu et al. 2008; Wu and Wang 2008)”.

    The full study can be seen here.
    I trust this is of interest.