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A Climatologist: “Every year we have flooding – it is not climate change. It is a human problem”

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By Kouthar Sambo

Authorities are on high alert following inclement weather conditions, particularly across the Western Cape, Gauteng, and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). This comes as torrential rain wreaks havoc, resulting in dozens being displaced.

Speaking on VOC’s PM Drive show on Monday, a Climatologist at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Peter Johnston, explained the current change in weather patterns, which may be attributed to climate change.

“Climate is the average atmospheric conditions over a long period, at least 30 years. Winter in the Western Cape, for instance, is cold and wet, this is the climate,” clarified Johnston.

“When we get cold, stormy weather, it is exactly what it is expected to be in Winter. However, sometimes the weather is more extreme than usual, and the average cold front is a little different than usual, but it is not out of the ordinary.”

One might therefore concur the climate is not changing, he explained, but the climate is changing. According to Johnston, there are warmer summers with very hot temperatures – but how does this affect us in winter?

“This is where it gets tricky – if the ice caps are getting warmer, more ice is melting, and more cold water around zero degrees Celsius is going into the ocean, which is about three of four degrees Celsius, making the ocean colder. The colder ocean then spreads to the north, and the air above it gets colder, so when a cold front comes, and draws air from that ocean, that air is colder than normal because the climate is moving up,” detailed Johnston.

While the variations in weather can become complex, Johnston noted that it is not simple to predict a cold front ahead of time and this cannot be predicted as a generalised blanket statement.

“What is clear, is that there is extreme heat and extreme cold. In the Western Cape, there is a mixture of natural variability where the seasons change.”

Then there’s climate change which is almost a permanent change, he said, and it is difficult to spot on a daily basis.

“One must ask: would that have happened if the climate wasn’t changing?” challenged Johnston.

He stressed the importance of distinguishing between climate change and human-induced problems.

“Every year we have flooding – is this a climate problem? No, it is a human problem. Some areas and structures are vulnerable while some homes in a formal settlement are shielded from the harsh weather because the structures can withstand harsh weather. Unfortunately, many people don’t have the luxury of living in a formal settlement,” added Johnston.

Photo: Pixabay

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