19.3.6 Extreme events
As discussed in WGI AR4 Technical Summary (Solomon et al., 2007) Box TS.5 and Table TS.4, various extreme events are very likely to change in magnitude and/or frequency and location with global warming. In some cases, significant trends have been observed in recent decades (Trenberth et al., 2007 Table 3.8).
The most likely changes are an increase in the number of hot days and nights (with some minor regional exceptions), or in days exceeding various threshold temperatures, and decreases in the number of cold days, particularly including frosts. These are virtually certain to affect human comfort and health, natural ecosystems and crops. Extended warmer periods are also very likely to increase water demand and evaporative losses, increasing the intensity and duration of droughts, assuming no increases in precipitation.
Precipitation is generally predicted in climate models to increase in high latitudes and to decrease in some mid-latitude regions, especially in regions where the mid-latitude westerlies migrate polewards in the summer season, thus steering fewer storms into such ‘Mediterranean climates’ (Meehl et al., 2007 Section 10.3.2.3). These changes, together with a general intensification of rainfall events (Meehl et al., 2007 Section 10.3.6.1), are very likely to increase the frequency of flash floods and large-area floods in many regions, especially at high latitudes. This will be exacerbated, or at least seasonally modified in some locations, by earlier melting of snowpacks and melting of glaciers. Regions of constant or reduced precipitation are very likely to experience more frequent and intense droughts, notably in Mediterranean-type climates and in mid-latitude continental interiors.
Extended warm periods and increased drought will increase water stress in forests and grasslands and increase the frequency and intensity of wildfires (Cary, 2002; Westerling et al., 2006), especially in forests and peatland, including thawed permafrost. These effects may lead to large losses of accumulated carbon from the soil and biosphere to the atmosphere, thereby amplifying global warming (**) (see Sections 4.4.1, 126.96.36.199; Langmann and Heil, 2004; Angert et al., 2005; Bellamy et al., 2005).
Tropical cyclones (including hurricanes and typhoons), are likely to become more intense with sea surface temperature increases, with model simulations projecting increases by mid-century (Meehl et al., 2007 Section 10.3.6.3). However, despite an ongoing debate, some data reanalyses suggest that, since the 1970s, tropical cyclone intensities have increased far more rapidly in all major ocean basins where tropical cyclones occur (Trenberth et al., 2007 Section 3.8.3), and that this is consistently related to increasing sea surface temperatures. Some authors have questioned the reliability of these data, in part because climate models do not predict such large increases; however, the climate models could be underestimating the changes due to inadequate spatial resolution. This issue currently remains unresolved. Some modelling experiments suggest that the total number of tropical cyclones is expected to decrease slightly (Meehl et al., 2007 Section 10.3.6.3), but it is the more intense storms that have by far the greatest impacts and constitute a key vulnerability.
The combination of rising sea level and more intense coastal storms, especially tropical cyclones, would cause more frequent and intense storm surges, with damages exacerbated by more intense inland rainfall and stronger winds (see Section 6.3.2). Increasing exposure occurs as coastal populations increase (see Section 6.3.1).
Many adaptation measures exist that could reduce vulnerability to extreme events. Among them are dams to provide flood protection and water supply, dykes and coastal restoration for protection against coastal surges, improved construction standards, land-use planning to reduce exposure, disaster preparedness, improved warning systems and evacuation procedures, and broader availability of insurance and emergency relief (see Chapter 18). However, despite considerable advances in knowledge regarding weather extremes, the relevant adaptation measures are underused, partly for reasons of cost, especially in developing countries (White et al., 2001; Sections 7.4.3, 7.5 and 7.6). Despite progress in reducing the mortality associated with many classes of extremes, human societies, particularly in the developing world, are not well adapted to the current baseline of climate variability and extreme events, such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts, and thus these impacts are often assessed as key vulnerabilities.