Record-breaking everything!

‘Record-breaking,’ ‘unprecedented,’ ‘freak event,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘extreme event’: these are some of the terms being used to refer to the serial catastrophes that have been occurring in different parts of the planet

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

‘Record-breaking,’ ‘unprecedented,’ ‘freak event,’ ‘unnatural,’ ‘extreme event’: these are some of the terms being used to refer to the serial catastrophes that have been occurring in different parts of the planet, practically within days of each other although they span geographical regions that are very far apart. In fact, they have been affecting all the continents. This therefore suggest that there may be a common underlying cause, whether emanating from planet Earth itself or from an extraterrestrial source. From a science perspective one would try to figure out which is the primary or triggering event, which may then be sustained by other factors for given periods of time.

The variety of descriptors applied allude each to a particular aspect and gives some food for thought. Record-breaking they certainly are in the regions where they are happening, for example the forest fires in the north-west of the North American continent, which have been preceded by hitherto unknown temperatures in the 40 to 50 degrees range and prolonged dryness. In other parts of the world, though, such as during summers in India, these levels of temperature have been routinely experienced in inhabited areas and it would seem that people’s physiologies have adapted to them. There usually aren’t as many deaths as took place, for example, during one summer over a decade ago in France when almost 20,000 people, mostly the elderly, died from dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Extreme too they definitely are as they exceed the normal limits that people are used to, but not quite unprecedented when we really come to think of it – because there have been precedents that have been witnessed, though perhaps elsewhere. Freak in the sense of ‘abnormal, irregular or bizarre’ seems appropriate, as we ourselves are currently witnessing – or rather enduring: a particularly cold winter that we are both talking and complaining about. When people living in Port Louis tell you that as the evening sets in they feel cold, well, that is a real indication that the winter is an abnormal one, and unusually so early on. Besides, however, it has also been associated with much rain, of the persistent continuous type that lasts almost a whole day in the ‘highlands and central plateau,’ per the meteorological office bulletin forecast.

The reason for the severe cold is apparently an anticyclone. That we are used to, but what is no doubt bizarre to our lay minds is the fact that instead of the usual one or two per season, this time round they seem to be following each other in succession: one is not yet gone that another is tagging behind. As someone remarked, ‘ek so la queue li pé risse éne lote!’ – ‘it is pulling another one with its tail end!’ Despite the sun, and no rain for a change, Sunday last has been cold, and windy. And the met forecast was that there was yet another anticyclone forming and that would be coming in from the south-east of the Indian Ocean basin. Is that a foreboding of what we can expect for next year’s winter?

Not too far from us, the Western Cape region in South Africa witnessed – hold it – snowfall! And that was on Sunday as well. As adults scurried to take cover and rush home, children in heavy clothing were seen to be enjoying themselves, putting out their hands to catch snow and doing merry go-rounds. That snowfall is for sure an abnormal phenomenon, and the reason put forward was that there was a freezing Atlantic wind that was blowing.

What has characterized these events is their suddenness, and that caught people aback and unawares, as they were unprepared to face what was happening, especially the floods that took place in regions as far removed from each other as one can imagine – Costa Rica in South America, China, several countries in Europe, Perth in Australia, India – where floods have ravaged the state of Maharashtra. What is abnormal in this case is that they extended into the hinterlands, whereas ‘normally’ it is Mumbai which goes under water when the annual monsoon sets in.

One could say that there is nothing unusual, abnormal, unprecedented, freak or record-breaking about this because it takes place every year and people know it will happen. Such floods are more common in the states of Bihar, Assam, and Uttarakhand. It may be recalled that in the latter, several years ago, there happened what was referred to as the ‘Himalayan tsunami.’ It was the first ever of its kind. Besides the damage to habitations, roads and other infrastructure, thousands of people lost their lives and thousands more went missing.

This is the other characteristic of these catastrophes, the loss of lives and people missing, along with the devastations caused to residential areas, invariably with great loss and a painful realization that it is going to be an uphill struggle to restore a minimum of what increasingly now is being referred to as the ‘new normal.’ As with us here after some of the massively destructive cyclones we have experienced, nothing was ever the same again, but we have learnt our lessons over the years.

However, these global catastrophes that we have been seeing seem to belong to another category altogether, and this is where the issue of what is causing them comes to the fore. Cyclones, tornadoes, typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions are regarded as ‘natural’ phenomena, meaning that that we have no control over their occurrence. The term ‘unnatural’ therefore suggests that there may be other factors that may be linked to the catastrophes of extreme heat and flooding, and the UN’s panel on climate change (International Panel on Climate Change) conclusively puts this down to the sum total of human activities, and which will increase as the population of the world continues to grow. They generate carbon dioxide, the emissions of which cumulatively lead to global warming, and its consequence is the ‘abnormal’ events that we are witnessing, mostly helplessly.

Given that they are taking place more frequently and regularly, the question is whether instead of considering them as abnormal they will in a foreseeable future be considered as another subset of the ‘new normal’? Something to ponder.

* Published in print edition on 27 July 2021

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