Middle East snow, extreme heatwaves and UAE fog: what's going on with the weather?

Around the world, wild weather has been the first big breaking story of 2013, bringing misery, suffering and sometimes death across continents.

Morning fog descends over Dubai Marina in Dubai. The UAE has seen blankets of severe fog in January. Sarah Dea / The National
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“This is Abu Dhabi, not London,” was the running joke on countless text messages and tweets yesterday, as yet another thick blanket of fog descended on the capital.

The first few weeks of this year have been remarkable for the number of foggy days across the country, prompting comparisons with the famous London “peasoupers” of last century.

But while the London fog was the result of air pollution from countless coal fires, the type found in the UAE has a more benevolent cause.

Known as advection fog, it is the result of warmer, moist air from the sea passing over land as it cools at night and condenses into tiny water droplets.

It occurs in the cooler months, and the past weeks have been particularly chilly.
Beyond a few cancelled flights and a number of unfortunate road accidents, fog here causes relatively few problems.

But for much of the rest of the world, weather has been the first big-breaking story of 2013, bringing misery, suffering and sometimes death across continents.

In the northern hemisphere the story has largely been the cold. In Russia, especially in the east, temperatures have dropped to minus 50°C, causing more than 200 deaths and stopping the traffic lights in some towns.

In the city of Norilsk, inside the Arctic Circle, a three-metre fall described in Russian media as a “snow tsunami” has resulted in workers digging tunnels to get into buildings.

China has also suffered from unusual cold. Blizzards have killed an estimated 180,000 cattle in the north, while in Xinjiang in the west, as many as 1,000 houses have collapsed under the weight of snow.

In the south, which is not used to colder weather, the authorities have opened emergency shelters to provide warm clothes and food.

Snow has covered much of Britain and a rise in temperatures this week has led to floods as rivers swollen with melting ice and heavy rain burst their banks.

Some of the most dramatic scenes have come from the region. Jordan has had up to a foot of snow, blocking roads in Amman, with blizzards also paralysing Jerusalem and leading to a warning from the Israeli armed forces to take care around the occupied Golan Heights, where snow covered minefields.

Cold and snow have also added to the misery of refugees escaping from the conflict in Syria to camps on the borders of Turkey and Jordan and the mountains of Lebanon.

In other parts of Lebanon and the West Bank, heavy rain has caused at least half a dozen deaths by drowning.

Floods have also wreaked devastation in Australia, caused by heavy rain after Tropical Cyclone Oswald.

In the states of Queensland and New South Wales, hundreds of homes have been under water, with at least three people dead. In some parts of Queensland, nearly a metre of rain fell in 24 hours.

In southern Australia, the problem has been one of drought and near-record temperatures, with Sydney reporting a high of 45°C this month, the second-hottest day on record.

Bushfires have been fuelled by high winds and heavy plant growth caused by cooler and wetter weather after the last drought in 2010.

Brazil has also seen some of its hottest weather in nearly a century, with temperatures reaching 42°C in Rio after the New Year, causing widespread power cuts.

In Mexico, it was cold causing problems, with snow falling on the border with the US and causing at least 29 deaths – some from hypothermia and others from carbon-monoxide poisoning after using solid-fuel heaters indoors.

Snow, rain, drought, heat, floods, even fog. The biggest question is how, or if, these weather events connect.

In Australia, a series of extreme events in recent years has led to widespread agreement that man-made climate change is responsible. In other countries, the debate still continues.

Certainly, there seems to be general consensus that the world’s weather is becoming less predictable and more volatile.

An editorial in the magazine New Scientist last week warned that “the wild weather that greeted the New Year is a taste of things to come”, adding “extreme is the new normal”.

While New Scientist warns that “lumping extreme weather events under a simple umbrella can be misleading”, it suggests that “while single events can rarely be confidently attributed to climate change, clusters probably can”.

Sitting on the front line is the global insurance industry, which is set to pay out billions of dollars as a result of extreme weather.

Lloyds, the London insurance and reinsurance company, which handles the equivalent of Dh138 billion in premiums a year, is backing a number of research initiatives into climate change.

They include Climatewise, an international group of leading insurers that looks at the likely impact of wilder weather, as well as possible solutions.

A report commissioned by Munich RE, the risk-management company, has found the number of claims related to the weather has risen five times in the past 30 years, and that 30 per cent of losses can be attributed to climate change.

Yet the evidence remains far from conclusive. This week another study, from the Research Council of Norway, has revealed that while the Earth’s temperature has risen sharply in the 1990s, it levelled off in 2000. The same was true of water and surface temperatures.

Rather than rising 3°C, as predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the study concluded that even if carbon dioxide levels were to double by 2050, the rise in temperature would not be more than 1.9°C.

The rise in the 1990s “may have caused us to overestimate climate sensitivity”, concludes Terje Berntsen, of the University of Oslo.

Or as the American writer Mark Twain is said to have observed: “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”