Climate Change 2001:
Impacts, Adaptationand Vulnerability
Other reports in this collection

7.2.4. Extreme Weather Events

Many climatic impacts are related to extreme weather events, and the same will hold for the impacts of climate change. The large damage potential of extreme events arises from their severity, suddenness, and unpredictability, which makes them difficult to adapt to. Development patterns can increase vulnerability to extreme events. For example, large development along coastal regions increases exposure to storm surges and tropical cyclones, increasing vulnerability.

The frequency and magnitude of many extreme climate events increase even with a small temperature increase and will become greater at higher temperatures (high confidence). Extreme events include, for example, floods, soil moisture deficits, tropical cyclones, storms, high temperatures, and fires. The impacts of extreme events often are large locally and could strongly affect specific sectors and regions. Increases in extreme events can cause critical design or natural thresholds to be exceeded, beyond which the magnitude of impacts increases rapidly (high confidence). Multiple nonextreme consecutive events also can be problematic because they can lessen adaptive capacity by depleting reserves of insurance and reinsurance companies. [8,]

An increase in the frequency and magnitude of extreme events would have adverse effects throughout sectors and regions. Agriculture and water resources may be particularly vulnerable to changes in hydrological and temperature extremes. Coastal infrastructure and ecosystems may be adversely affected by changes in the occurrence of tropical cyclones and storm surges. Heat-related mortality is likely to increase with higher temperatures; cold-related mortality is likely to decrease. Floods may lead to the spread of water-related and vector-borne diseases, particularly in developing countries. Many of the monetary damages from extreme events will have repercussions on a broad scale of financial institutions, from insurers and reinsurers to investors, banks, and disaster relief funds. Changes in the statistics of extreme events have implications for the design criteria of engineering applications (e.g., levee banks, bridges, building design, and zoning), which are based on estimates of return periods, and for assessment of the economic performance and viability of particular enterprises that are affected by weather. []

7.2.5. Large-Scale Singular Events

Human-induced climate change has the potential to trigger large-scale changes in Earth systems that could have severe consequences at regional or global scales. The probabilities of triggering such events are poorly understood but should not be ignored, given the severity of their consequences. Events of this type that might be triggered include complete or partial shutdown of the North Atlantic and Antarctic Deep Water formation, disintegration of the West Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets, and major perturbations of biosphere-regulated carbon dynamics. Determining the timing and probability of occurrence of large-scale discontinuities is difficult because these events are triggered by complex interactions between components of the climate system. The actual discontinuous impact could lag the trigger by decades to centuries. These triggers are sensitive to the magnitude and rate of climate change. Large temperature increases have the potential to lead to large-scale discontinuities in the climate system (medium confidence).

These discontinuities could cause severe impacts on the regional and even global scale, but indepth impact analyses are still lacking. Several climate model simulations show complete shutdown of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation with high warming. Although complete shutdown may take several centuries to occur, regional shutdown of convection and significant weakening of the thermohaline circulation may take place within the next century. If this were to occur, it could lead to a rapid regional climate change in the North Atlantic region, with major societal and ecosystem impacts. Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would lead to a global sea-level rise of several meters, which may be very difficult to adapt to. Although the disintegration might take many hundreds of years, this process could be triggered irreversibly in the next century. The relative magnitude of feedback processes involved in cycling of carbon through the oceans and the terrestrial biosphere is shown to be distorted by increasing temperatures. Saturation and decline of the net sink effect of the terrestrial biosphere -- which is projected to occur over the next century -- in step with similar processes, could lead to dominance of positive feedbacks over negative ones and strong amplification of the warming trend. []

Other reports in this collection