A future of extreme drought and brutal storms predicted by new climate modelling

New climate modelling studies foresee dire long-term consequences for a warming world.

Two new climate modelling studies map how the world might experience climate change under warming scenarios of increasing severity and over longer terms. Predicting widespread instances of extreme drought and brutal storms, the findings are concerning.

The first study, undertaken at the Universities of Leeds, York, Sheffield, Oxford, and Montreal, considers climate change outcomes beyond 2100 in areas such as heat stress, agriculture, and human wellbeing. Noting that the benchmark of 2100 used in much previous modelling is “just one human lifespan away,” it models as far ahead as 2500.

At that date, following current emissions trajectories, the modelling finds human life unsustainable across much of the Earth.

“We wanted a much better picture of the worlds our children and grandchildren might have to learn to live in, whether we meet or miss the Paris agreement goal,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Christopher Lyon, from the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, told The Weather Network.

“Most research and policy for ‘long-term’ climate change uses 2100 as its horizon and has been doing so for decades,” said Dr. Lyon. “2100 might have looked very far away in the first IPCC climate assessment report in 1990, but it’s now within the lifetime of young people today.”

“We are concerned that poorly mitigated longer-term climate change will change Earth so much that it becomes very difficult or impossible to sustain the meaningful places and rich ecosystems so important to the thousands of years of human development and survival until now,” Dr. Lyon added.

Content continues below
hurricane irma in miami (Warren Faidley/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images)

Hurricane Irma striking Miami, Florida in 2017. (Warren Faidley/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images)

Comparable findings came out of another recent initiative, Probable Futures, which has modelled likely outcomes of warming increases from 1.5°C to 3°C in climatic categories such as drought, precipitation, and “1-in-100 year storms.” The project demonstrates its extrapolations using interactive maps, which at the worst extreme show a drought-riddled world with chaotic weather.

“We as an organization are trying to help society build a collective climate literacy,” Alison Smart, Executive Director of Probable Futures told The Weather Network. “Civilization was built upon a stable climate, and there are assumptions of this stable climate built into every aspect of our society. Every road, every building is designed to withstand narrow temperature ranges and precipitation thresholds; our cultural events are organized around seasonal patterns.”

Smart added, “Because we have this assumed climate stability in every aspect of our society, we have grossly underestimated the scale, the scope, and the urgency of these changes we are facing once that climate stability disappears.”

In partnership with leading climate scientists, and the Woodwell Climate Research Centre in Massachusetts, the project maps the likely impacts of a warming increase of 1.5°C, the target threshold of the Paris agreement, as well as more severe increases of 2°C, 2.5°C, and 3°C.

A warming increase of 3°C by 2100 is an agreed upon likelihood if emissions are not curtailed, and would have catastrophic impacts across the globe, according to the modelling, including in Canada.

Content continues below

Large swaths of the prairie provinces are predicted to experience “unprecedented” drought events; Quebec, the Maritimes, and other coastal regions face the threat of regularly recurring “1-100-year storms”; and precipitation and temperature patterns would become unpredictable across the country, according to the project’s modelling.

“This is the trajectory we are headed on, these are the futures we are headed towards,” Smart said, referring to the modelled warming increases. “So we need to understand what those futures look like, we need to understand the difference between each incremental level of warming.”

“They’re very small sounding numbers,” Smart said, “but they make a big difference.”

As global stakeholders prepare for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, this November, the focus on the “now” remains a must. Yet the importance of using longer term modelling in concert with more immediate policy solutions is also essential.

“The impacts [of climate change] will extend beyond 2100,” Michael Brauer, Principal Research Scientist, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, told The Weather Network. “In some ways [this information] can be used to support more aggressive actions–if we extend the potential benefits of actions out beyond 2100 that can change the cost:benefit calculus to support spending more now on mitigation and adaptation efforts.”

To date, projections beyond 2100 have been “limited,” according to the Leeds study, “but it is now clear that without deep and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue for centuries into the future.” The stakeholders of the study are very much our children’s children.

Content continues below

“We hope that our findings help with much more effective action in terms of zeroing greenhouse gas emissions, and help vulnerable people and locations adapt to the changes they already face,” said Lyon. “We used our science to portray scenes of life in the future to help policymakers and the public make sense of the results beyond the graphs or numbers we see in scientific articles and reports.”

By connecting the public with a concrete idea of likely climate futures, both studies aim to demystify any confusion about climate science and serve as a catalyst for mitigation actions, as well as planning for a challenging next century, and beyond.

“We envision that this tool would help prepare people for the futures that at this point we likely cannot avoid,” said Smart. “But also the futures we still can.”

Thumbnail credit: Bloomberg Creative/ Getty Images