How Can We Adapt to Extreme Weather Events?

Local boy wades through water to get to his flooded house near Santa Marta, Colombia. Climate change is predicted to increase the frequency of extreme weather events worldwide.

Over the last several weeks, Australia’s Queensland province has received tremendous amounts of rain, which has left most of the countryside struggling to cope with one of the worst episodes of flooding the region has seen in decades. The period from September to November 2010 was the wettest in history, and over 200,000 people across a land area the size of France and Germany combined have been affected by the flooding.

Extreme weather events also have impacted many other regions of the world; Brazil, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have been wracked by heavy, relentless rainfall in recent weeks. With the death toll rising and property damage costs soaring into the billions, this series of natural disasters has upended millions of lives. This extreme weather is instigated in part by La Nina, a cyclic weather pattern characterized by cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures that is often responsible for cool, wet weather in the South Pacific. While it’s important to note that these extreme weather events are influenced by these normal oscillations in sea surface temperatures, the heavy rains this year in Queensland, for instance, have been coupled with what researchers are calling the hottest year on record for the area. Though one season of intense weather cannot be directly attributed to climate change, it raises questions about what is to come in the future.

Current trends in Earth’s climate suggest that this year’s high temperatures in Queensland won’t be record highs for long — in only a few decades, they’ll be closer to average summer temperatures. Furthermore, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), increases in storm surge intensity and alternations in precipitation patterns worldwide are likely. Areas already prone to flooding are expected to see more rain; areas prone to drought are expected to see less. Major weather events are anticipated to be stronger and hit regions harder if long-term climate trends persist. This means future La Nina or El Nino events could spell even greater trouble for global populations.

In the midst of all of this, the people of these regions are struggling simply to maintain their livelihoods in agriculture, mining and other sectors. Take Australia: With access to clean water and sanitation already threatened by heavy flooding, the high temperatures have compounded the issue and are presenting major problems for the nation’s agricultural security. Nearly 7,500 hectares (about 18,500 acres) of cotton fields have been destroyed by flooding this year and major disruptions of sugar production are anticipated. With about 95 percent of Australia’s sugar originating in Queensland, shortages and price increases can be expected in the coming months. International commerce is being affected as well. More than 75 percent of Queensland’s coal mines have halted production, and many major rail lines and roadways linking these mines to ports have been cut off, causing $1 billion in lost production and an expected $5 billion cut from Australia’s annual economy.

If all these negative impacts are currently decimating one of the world’s most developed countries, what will a greater frequency of extreme weather events mean for the world’s developing nations, whose weaker infrastructure may make them more vulnerable to climate impacts?

Simply put, we all need to adapt. I’m not talking Darwin and evolution here, but rather the adaptation of human infrastructure and natural systems. If current predictions on climate change impacts tell us anything, we are on the precipice of something big and we’d better be prepared to face whatever changes come our way. Adaptation to climate change can take a variety of forms, from the development of advance warning systems and risk management plans to the implementation of adaptive strategies.

“Hard” structures, like sea walls and dams, provide one option to alleviate the effects of climate change. Ecosystem-based adaptation, on the other hand, seeks to use natural systems as a way to buffer against the worst impacts, providing an approach that can simultaneously protect against various aspects of climate change while providing other benefits to human and natural systems, like the provision of clean water and sustainable agricultural production. What’s more, ecosystem-based adaptation can be less expensive to implement and maintain than building hard structures, making it an ideal option for lower income communities and developing countries.

As many Queenslanders would surely attest, it’s better to be prepared when the next extreme weather event happens than to find yourself in the midst of another flood, wondering why you didn’t do more.

Josh Richards works on CI’s climate strategy team. To learn more about ecosystem-based adaptation, download our fact sheet (PDF – 577.63 KB).


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  3. Liz says

    It seems the silver lining in the example of Queensland would be the mass shut-down of coal mines — appropriate considering how harmful coal is for both humans and our environment.

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