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Experts convene to exchange solutions to help mitigate extreme climate and weather events.

Climate experts from around the world are gathering at Stellenbosch University to discuss aspects of extreme climate and weather events and strategies to prepare and adapt to them more effectively. The international conference, themed “Integrated Responses to the Intensification of Extreme Climate and Weather Events in Developing Economies,” is taking place from 22 to 24 May 2024. The event is co-sponsored by the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University, the Alliance for Collaboration on Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS) programme hosted at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in collaboration with two international partners, the Scientific Committee on Problems in the Environment (SCOPE) and the Non-Aligned Movement Science and Technology Centre (NAM S&T). The conference is being attended by 120 local and international delegates.

CSIR senior researcher and ACCESS Director Dr Neville Sweijd says the meeting acknowledges the increasing trend of extreme events such as floods, droughts, wildfires, extreme wind and storm surges. These occurrences are becoming more frequent, with increased intensity, longer durations and out of typical seasonal periods.

“Climate change manifests in various ways. It’s not just a gradual shift in weather patterns, as statistics might suggest; it manifests as periodic unprecedented extremes in temperature, rainfall and other climatic aspects. People don’t perceive climate change as a simple average of weather conditions over time; rather, they experience it as weather impacts, such as heatwaves that break long-held temperature records or extreme rainfall leading to flooding. These severe events serve as stark reminders of climate change’s significant impacts, underlining its urgency and the necessity for coordinated action to adapt to its devastating effects,” he says.

Climate experts agree that extreme climate and weather phenomena pose a clear and immediate threat to societies in several ways. They impact human lives and livelihoods. From deadly hurricanes and cyclones to strong heatwaves and lengthy droughts, these occurrences cause devastation, resulting in loss of life, community displacement and infrastructure damage. Such occurrences not only endanger individuals but also increase pre-existing vulnerabilities, disproportionately harming marginalised populations that often lack the resources to prepare for or recover from disasters fully.

“Extreme events pose a threat to our societies as they can alter ecosystems, destroy infrastructure and cause loss of lives and livelihoods. Therefore, it is very important for us to examine the scientific drivers of these events, as well as develop tools for early warning, and plan for the appropriate responses, both in anticipation of these extreme events and during and after they occur,” says Professor Guy Midgley from Stellenbosch University. 

Extreme events are well known in South Africa and in recent years, these events included the 2015 – 2018 Day Zero drought in the Western Cape, the Knysna Fires of 2018 and the Durban Floods of 2022. Globally, there have been occurrences such as the 2022 Pakistan floods, wildfires in California and Australia, flooding in Kenya and the drought in Zimbabwe this year, resulting from the recent El Niño and many more. He noted that a Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Extraordinary Summit was held on 20 May in Luanda, Angola to launch the SADC Humanitarian Appeal. The SADC plan is seeking $5.5 billion to assist more than 56.6 million people with urgent multi-sector humanitarian assistance, due to the effects of the 2023/24 El Niño.

“The International Panel on Climate Change, in its latest Assessment Report 6 ” dedicated an entire chapter to focus on this issue and noted that the trends are that these events are set to intensify under various climate change scenarios,” says Sweijd. “This is a particular problem in developing countries where there are large under-serviced and poorer sectors of the population that are more vulnerable to the impact of extreme events and is an area where governments need to quickly improve their capacity to save lives and livelihoods.”

Dr Johan Stander, Director at the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO), who is also in attendance at the conference, states that the WMO recognises that extreme climate events are a key impact of a changing climate. The organisation is working with member states on several programmes and projects to equip counterparts with the knowledge and frameworks to implement actions for developing early warning systems and mitigating these events. He notes that this conference was a welcome initiative which set a standard for other regions to consider.

Dr Dawn Mahlobo from the South African Weather Service (SAWS) says that the SAWS has several mechanisms and early warning systems in place for extreme weather, which have worked well in various instances. However, specific information for specific users – for the various sectors such as shipping, aviation, agriculture and housing – needs to be developed, and for this, SAWS is implementing the National Framework for Climate Services. She says, “This is an important meeting because it brings together all the actors in this work and we need to ensure a well-coordinated effort to deal with extreme weather, especially in the future as climate change exacerbates this problem.”

The meeting includes presentations on work related to the aspects of extreme events, including climate science, risk and vulnerability, early warning systems and policy and finance. Participants from almost 50 organisations are involved in the work, including delegates from Egypt, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Myanmar, Norway, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe, among others. The meeting seeks to learn from the work already underway and derive an end-to-end strategy that can be applied to all states as a means of managing extreme climate events.

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