THE massive blizzard in the United States northeast... soaring temperatures in Australia... unusual cold weather in India... widespread flooding in the Middle East... and intense flooding in Mozambique... It's only the second month of the year, but the extreme weather of 2013 has already given us a lot to talk about.
Weather patterns affect populations, economic development, ecosystems and even human health.
And one more thing: "Changing weather patterns are playing a role in the melting of arctic ice. The Arctic ice is melting because of changes in climate. This melting is now adding to the global sea level," said climatologist Arlene Aaron-Morrison.
Melting Arctic ice and its effects are making global changes, she stressed.
A small increase in sea levels can spell disaster. This means that when large storms hit, high sea levels will result in more powerful storm surges that can cause devastation. Case in point—Hurricane Sandy, and more recently what has been described as the "massive, historic" blizzard in the US.
"This one does does not come along every day. This is going to be a dangerous winter storm," said Alan Dunham, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Taunton, Massachusetts.
With respect to Hurricane Sandy, scientists said "the most damaging aspect of the storm was the massive storm surge, adding that the global warming-related sea level rise gave the surge a higher launching pad than it would have had a century ago, making it more damaging than it otherwise would have been".
As polar ice continues to melt and sea levels rise, weather experts say we will continue to experience extreme weather.
During a visit to The University of the West Indies late last year, representatives from Adelphi—a think tank that offers creative solutions and services on global environment and development challenges for policy, business and civil-society communities—quoted data from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which predicted a two- to three-degree Celsius increase in the planet's temperature and an 18- to 59-centimetre sea-level rise by 2100.
That may seem like a long way off and the increases predicted by the IPCC may seem inconsequential to most of us but in his contribution, Dennis Tanzler, expert in Climate and Energy and International Environmental Policy and head of Climate and Energy Policies at Adelphi, stressed the dangers these increases can pose for Caribbean islands.
Tanzler said climate change affects sea levels which will result in coastal erosion and salt water intrusion. It will also negatively affect the production of crops, rice, bananas and cocoa included. Natural disasters exacerbated by climate change will lead to flooding, damage to key infrastructure, such as was experienced in West Trinidad in the aftermath of heavy rainfall last August. Natural disasters will also have a detrimental effect on the tourism sector and lead to loss of life.
In determining climate changes, data of 30 years or more are looked at.
How does this relate to Trinidad and Tobago?
"If we look at all the data which we have available, we observed that there have been changes in rainfall intensities—that is, there is more rainfall for shorter periods. Also we have observed a slight increase in temperature, and have been experiencing warmer days and nights and less cold days and nights. And that is just nationally," stated Aaron-Morrison.
"Throughout the ages, we have experienced occasional extreme weather events and we will experience more in years to come," she added.
Rough seas are an almost immediate effect of severe weather. Last month, several fishing boats were pounded against rocks in Mt Irvine, Tobago, and beaches from Charlotteville to Crown Point were ordered closed due to rough seas. According to the Meteorological Office, the turbulent waters were caused by a large front system off the American continent that was headed east across the Atlantic.
Tobago may have received the brunt of the rough seas, but Trinidad's north coast was not spared.
"I have been hanging around the fishing depot here in Toco ever since I know myself," said Clint Williams, a fisherman and Toco's lighthouse keeper. "The kind of waves I saw last month were the biggest I've ever seen."
As Williams spoke with the Express, he kept watching the ocean as if he expected the calm waters to change in the blink of an eye.
The fishermen have gotten accustomed to especially turbulent waters. In January, the seas were rough for two weeks straight and Williams estimates the waves got as high as 12 feet in some cases.
"The waves were huge. One or two boats got damaged. We lost some fish nets. At the fishing depot, we had to pull up some of the boats all the way up the road. On top of that, in Matelot two houses close to the sea fell down and some boats mash up too," he said.
The fishermen finally got a respite when the waters calmed down for an entire week. Then around the end of January, the rough seas returned.
"Last week Thursday, one of the fishing boats went out and was overturned by a large wave very close to the lighthouse. Luckily everybody on board knew how to swim, so they made it to shore safely. Some of the fishermen are still scared and then you have some who will still take a chance and go out," said Williams.
Aaron-Morrison explained that weather extremes tend to be cyclic in nature—there are periods where we can experience extremes in weather patterns and then periods which are normal. But many meteorologists abroad have stated the extreme weather patterns we read or hear about on the news are the "new normal"—this continues to be a subject for debate today.
Nevertheless, the changes in climate are enough to make governments sit up and take notice.
"Regional governments have taken concern because of the impacts which are felt. The Trinidad and Tobago Government, under the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, has a division which is involved in climate change research and policy development. The Jamaican government now has a Ministry of Water, Land Environment and Climate Change," said Aaron-Morrison.
International consultant and adviser on climate change and co-founder and managing director of Adelphi Alexander Carius has said given the pressing economic, social and environmental effects of climate change, there is an urgent need for the world's governments, particularly foreign ministries, to engage in climate diplomacy to avert future crises.