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No plans for State-backed research on links between climate change and specific weather extremes

An emerging field of research allows scientists to study the role of human-caused climate change in heatwaves and flooding.

Emergency services in Carrick on Suir after the River Suir burst its banks and flooded part of the town during Storm Frank, 2015
Emergency services in Carrick on Suir after the River Suir burst its banks and flooded part of the town during Storm Frank, 2015
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE GOVERNMENT HAS no plans to drive research on the role of climate change in specific extreme weather events in Ireland.

As global temperatures rise, extreme weather events such as droughts, heatwaves, storms, and flooding are increasing in frequency and intensity. 

When extreme weather hits, the public and the media want to know to what extent it could have been caused by climate change.

An emerging field of research called weather event attribution offers a way to answer that question.

It allows scientists to study how much of a role human-caused climate change plays in a specific event like a heatwave or a flood and that research shows policymakers how to understand and assess the risks that weather extremes caused by climate change pose to society.

However, there has been little such research carried out in Ireland to date and the government has no identified plans to focus on it in the near future.

The government’s Climate Action Plan 2021 contains plans for measuring the cost of extreme weather events to the State from damage repairs and revenue loss.

But it does not include any plans for researching the role of human-caused climate change in those extreme events.

The Journal asked the Department of the Environment and Climate whether it would be funding or supporting attribution studies.

In a statement, the department mentioned other climate research that is ongoing in Ireland, but did not identify any attribution studies.

A spokesperson for the department pointed to the EPA Research Programme, which is funded by the government and is “responsible for coordinating environmental research in Ireland”.

“The Department provides an overall budget in excess of €10 million per annum to the EPA. This funds the environmental research programme that delivers essential scientific support for: environmental policy development and implementation; and broader decision making,” the spokesperson said.

It said a full list of EPA research projects can be found on the EPA Research Database.

The database does not contain any future attribution studies.

The Journal has asked the EPA for comment.

Climate change and weather extremes

Although the impact of climate change on weather instability has been known for decades, researchers were reluctant to label whether or not a specific event was caused by climate change because the techniques to do so had not been fully developed. 

Now, scientists can run a model to look at different scenarios of what the world would be like if humans had not burnt fossil fuels or produced greenhouse gases.

It allows them to study what the weather patterns would be like in a world without human interference on the climate, and whether a heatwave, a storm or a cold event, for instance, would be as probable or as intense. 

In 2014, a team of climate scientists founded World Weather Attribution, a research initiative that analyses weather events to determine whether or not they could have happened in a world without climate change.

WWA Co-founder Dr Friederike Otto, a professor at the University of Oxford, told The Journal that attribution studies can determine the role of climate change and other factors in a particular weather extreme.

“There’s often the question when an extreme weather event happens nowadays of: Is this climate change or not? And that is, a bit, the wrong question because there is not a yes or no answer,” Dr Otto said.

She explained that weather events, including extreme ones like flooding or storms, “always have multiple causes”.

“There’s always a role to play from the chaotic, natural variability of the weather system – things like where the event happens, is it over a city, over forest and so on, play a role; conditions earlier in the year, for example, if you have a drought in the summer, that will be more severe if it was already dry during the winter and spring and so on.

But human-caused climate change can be one of the drivers of extreme events and it can alter the likelihood and intensity of an extreme event occuring.

“In event attribution, what we do is answer the question whether and to what extent climate change has altered the likelihood and intensity of an event we have just observed.”

firefighters-battle-a-gorse-fire-at-howth-head-in-dublin-as-the-hot-weather-persist-throughout-the-country Firefighters battle a gorse fire at Howth Head in Dublin during hot weather in 2018 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Recent work by the WWA found the extreme heat that hit the northwest of the US and Canada last summer would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.

Additionally, climate change made the disastrous flooding in Germany and Belgium, which led to more than 200 deaths, more likely to happen and more intense.

It can also determine when climate change wasn’t a key cause, like in the case of Southern Madagascar, where exceptionally low levels of rainfall have caused a food security crisis, but the rain patterns in the last two years were not significantly impacted by human-caused climate change.

“Because we know very well how many greenhouse gases have been put into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we can estimate what is possible in a world that might have been without human-caused climate change,” Dr Otto said.

If, in that modelled world, an event that happens once in 10 years in the real world would only happen once in 100 years, it’s a clear signal of the influence of climate change.

“Then, we know that climate change made the event 10 times more likely, because the only difference between these two worlds is the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.” 

Dr Otto said the WWA has seen “very clearly” that heatwaves have been made “more likely, more intense, because of climate change”.

“For heatwaves, climate change is really an absolute gamechanger and often makes the events orders of magnitude more likely,” she said.

In the case of droughts, climate change can sometimes play a relatively small role in frequency or intensity – but combined with social factors like high levels of poverty or dependence on rain-fed crops, the impact on local populations can be severe.

Meanwhile, heavy rainfall is increasing in many parts of the world. “The increase is a lot smaller than for heatwaves, but because we’re often only adapted to a very narrow range of possible weather, even small changes can make a huge difference.”

Irish research

Although weather event attribution is becoming a more common research field in other countries, it is not yet a major feature of climate studies in Ireland.

In December, Met Éireann meteorologist and climate researcher Pádraig Flattery told The Journal that “we don’t do much of it [attribution science] here in Ireland but we probably will end up doing more of it in the future”.

A report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in July 2021 looked at the science of event attribution and how data on Irish weather could be used for attribution studies.

It used November 2009, when days of heavy rainfall led to flooding in the south-west of the country, as a case study to show how scientists can collect data and run models to conduct attribution studies.

In that case, it did not find evidence that the rainfall in the days before the flooding was made more severe or more likely as a result of human-caused climate change, but said its work offered an example for how future attribution studies could be conducted.

001 Shannon flood Fooding along the River Shannon in Athlone, February 2020 Source: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The report identified main five sources that store information about Irish weather events – Met Éireann, the Office of Public Works, Insurance Ireland, the European Severe Weather Database and Munich RE’s NatCatSERVICE16, an archive of worldwide natural disasters.

But it raised problems with the records held by all five of the sources.

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It said Met Éireann’s reports “vary from brief notes to comprehensive analysis, have no standardised structure, and usually include no information on the socio-economic impact of the event in question”.

The OPW’s flood hazard mapping website is a useful tool, the report said, but “the obvious downside of this resource is its sole focus on one type of weather extreme, as well as non-standardised entries”.

Insurance Ireland gave a “consistent and trustworthy estimate of total insurance claims stemming from a particular event” but “unfortunately, there is no disclosed methodology and the data are available only on post-2000 events”.

The European Severe Weather Database’s records were “extremely brief and sometimes concern trivial affairs in the face of the overall scale of an event”, while Munich RE’s NatCatSERVICE16 contained “many discrepancies and inconsistencies in the data for Ireland”.

“In the Irish context, attempts to understand past weather events can be hindered because some weather data records are of insufficient duration or some older records have not yet been digitised, despite the availability of some very long-duration records and a relatively high density of recording stations,” the report said.

“Lack of data is the main obstacle in setting out statistical thresholds for recognising weather events as extreme.”

It recommended that an inventory of extreme weather events be extended and maintained, “possibly through an open platform supported by the research community and relevant stakeholders such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the OPW”.

The Journal asked the OPW if it has responded to that recommendation.

In a statement, the OPW referred to a website it launched in 2006 that presented “information from a database of details of flood events around the country that it had collated from a range of organisations, and in particular the local authorities”.

“The database has been updated over time, and now holds information covering approximately 7,000 past events, ranging from minor ‘nuisance’ flood events up to and including the most extreme floods,” the OPW said.

“This information has recently been migrated to the OPW flood information portal; www.floodinfo.ie, and is currently being updated to include the most recent events.”

Additionally, 470 hydrometric stations at rivers, lakes and tidal locations measure surface water levels and are used to estimate the volume of water flow.

“This type of hydrometric data, collated from the OPW records, the EPA and other organisations, on single event flows and water levels, along with long-term records, forms the foundation of climate attribution studies,” it said.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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