Home--Issues--Energy and Climate Change

The Human Cost of Global Warming

By Fred Pearce
The Ecologist
March 15, 2002

Lidia Rosa Paz was at a loss. She caught my arm and pointed despairingly into the raging river to the spot, 50 metres out into the water where, until days before, she had lived. Her shanty town called Pedro Dias in the town of Choluteca in Honduras had been washed away on the night of 28 October 1998, taking more than a hundred people to their deaths. Lidia had survived. But every one of her possessions had gone.

Hers was one story on a night when floods and landslides ripped apart the countrys geography, leaving more than 10,000 Hondurans dead and two million homeless. It was the night that Hurricane Mitch, the most vicious hurricane to hit the Americas in 200 years, came calling, and dumped a years rain on the small Central American country in just a few hours. Choluteca is in southern Honduras, on the Pacific coast far from the normal track of Caribbean hurricanes. When the radio issued storm warnings that night, neither Lidia nor any of her neighbours took much notice. Hurricanes never come here, she told me. Or at least they never did.

For tens of millions of people across the world, Lidias story is prophetic. Many meteorologists believe that Mitch a ferocious hurricane made worse by the warm seas that allowed it to absorb huge amounts of water from the ocean was a product of global warming, and a sign of things to come. For the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of flood-prone river valleys and coastal plains across the world. For those living on deforested hillsides prone to landslips. For more who do not yet know that they are vulnerable in a new era of hyper-weather.

Within months of Mitch, a similar disaster of record rains, floods and landslides ripped through the shanties west of Caracas in Venezuela, killing 30,000. Again the storms hit areas not used to climatic extremes. No one could have foreseen what happened here, said Jos Rafael Gomez Pinto, a Red Cross volunteer. This was a vacation area where people came to spend the weekend. Even millionaires had houses here.

And soon after, storms in the Indian Ocean took their turn, flooding large swathes of eastern India and Mozambique. Climatologists said the ocean was exceptionally warm. Evaporation released exceptional amounts of moisture into the advancing storms. Millions suffered and their plight was encapsulated in the television images sent round the world of Sofia Pedro, who gave birth to her daughter Rositha in a tree as the flood water surged around her.

The water was coming right up to the house, and was getting stronger and stronger, so like everyone else in the village, we headed for the trees, she said later. There were 15 of us all together, and we were there for four days. We prayed and prayed. We had nothing to eat, and the children cried and cried, but we could do nothing for them. The name of the tree, Maturrara, means sacred. The villagers would pray to the tree, so they had faith that it would protect them.

1998 was the year of weird weather. Besides Hurricane Mitch, it was the year that forest fires of unprecedented ferocity ripped through the jungles of Borneo, and neighbouring New Guinea had the worst drought for a century. East Africa saw the worst floods for half a century during the dry season with much of the desert north of the region flooded. Tibet had its worst snows in 50 years. Ice storms disabled power lines through New England and Quebec, plunging residents into a world without power or electric light for many days. The coffee crop failed in Indonesia, cotton died in Uganda and fish catches collapsed off Peru. There was no water to fill the Panama Canal. Warm seas caused the tiny algae that give coral their colour to quit reefs in their billions across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, leaving behind the pale skeletons of dead coral.

The following year, freak storms cut a swathe through Europe, from France to Romania. Two-thirds of France was declared a disaster zone after winds of 200 kilometres per hour ripped up millions of trees, including 10,000 in the grounds of the palace at Versailles outside Paris alone. We have never seen this kind of violence before, said Patrick Galois of the French weather service. In the UK, the three autumn months of 2000 were the wettest in a record going back more than 200 years. Parts of south east England had nearly three times the normal rainfall. In September 1999, central Nigeria suffered the worst floods in a generation, with hundreds of villages under water.

All a coincidence? Not according to the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It says recent years have seen a clear increase in heavy and extreme precipitation events. The weather was showing exceptional violence because 1998 was the warmest year in the warmest decade in the warmest century of the last millennium. The second and third warmest years on record were 1997 and 1995. There is now little doubt that our planet warmed substantially during the 20th century. In the final 20 years, it warmed by 0.5C.

All around, weather has become more extreme. Wet regions of the planet, such as steamy tropical rainforests and the rain-drenched middle and higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere, have become both wetter and stormier. Average annual rainfall globally has increased by up to 10 per cent during the 20th century because warming has increased evaporation. The floods that inundated Mozambique in 2000 and again in 2001 arose because maximum daily rainfall in parts of the region had risen by 50 per cent during the century.

The proportion of rain falling in heavy downpours has increased by a quarter in the eastern US. And British climatologists confirmed clear evidence in the UK that twice as much of the winter rains are falling in intense downpours as in the 1960s, leading to floods of the kind that brought havoc in late 2000. They found a similar pattern in Australia, South Africa, Japan and Scandinavia, as well as a significant intensification of the Asian monsoon, reflected in the worst floods on the Mekong river in 70 years.

At the same time dry areas in continental interiors have become drier, causing deserts to spread. With average annual rainfall down 20 per cent in the Mediterranean, forest fires rage during most summers. And Spain has embarked on massive plans to transfer water from the wetter north west of the country to the drying south and east. The rain dried up in the Asian interior, centred on Afghanistan, which has now suffered three years of intense drought. The unprecedented drought has been a far bigger killer for rural communities than the Taliban or the US bombing. We are waiting to die. If food does not come, we will eat this... Ghalam Raza, a man close to death in the northern Afghan village of Bonavash, told reporters in January this year. He was holding up a piece of crude bread made from crushed grass. The entire village, reporters said, was in a similar condition, with diarrhoea, distended bellies and bleeding bowels epidemic.

Across Africa, river flows fell by 17 per cent during the 1990s, leaving fish high and dry, emptying irrigation canals and hydroelectric reservoirs alike. The desiccation of much of Africa is already undermining economies. In Zambia, according to environment secretary Jewette Masinja, the southern, central, western and eastern provinces have all been hit by recurrent droughts in the past decade, wrecking the countrys grain basket region.


The planet is thawing as it warms. In northern Canada, hunters are finding insufficient snow for their traditional hunting season. And melting ice is taking seals, a traditional source of meat and furs, far from the shore. In 2001 the ice stayed over the horizon all summer. We had to go over 30 miles just to hunt seals, said Eugene Brower of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association. Changing wind patterns mean that snow ridges have shifted and ancient methods of navigating through frozen wilderness no longer work, say the hunters.

Meanwhile an 84-year-old betting contest held annually on a frozen Alaskan river is providing the latest evidence of a global thaw. The Nenana Ice Classic has been held since 1917 on the Tenana River. Contestants bet for a jackpot, that this year hit $300,000, on the exact moment when a wooden tripod erected on the frozen river falls through the breaking ice each spring. When they checked the records they found that the breakthrough occurs today an average of five days earlier than at the start of the contest.

The ice is thinning and people are falling through it, say hunters on Baffin Island in the Canadian north. One experienced hunter recently lost both legs to frostbite as a result. And ice cellars used by Alaskan hunters for centuries to store caribou meat and whale blubber through the summer are melting, as the permafrost proves not to be permanent after all. Oddly, igloos no longer keep the Inuit warm. Unprecedented winter warm spells in the Arctic are causing igloo walls to melt and refreeze, losing their insulation properties in the process.

Much of Siberia has warmed by 5C eight times faster than the global average. As frozen soil is replaced by bog, roads buckle and buildings topple. One such at-risk building is the nuclear power station at Bilibino. The Greenland ice cap is losing thickness at up to a metre a year. Recently declassified sonar measurements by UK and US military submarines reveal a decline in the average thickness of Arctic ice in late summer of 42 per cent in the past 40 years. Ships can now sail through the legendary Northwest Passage above Canada most summers.

The evidence of a global thaw extends far beyond the Arctic. Satellite observations show that snow cover on land has diminished by 10 per cent since the 1960s. Mountain glaciers have retreated from the Andes to the Himalayas to the Rockies. Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania has lost 82 per cent of its ice cap since 1912. Alpine glaciers have lost half their volume since the pioneer mountaineers first scaled their peaks in the mid-19th century. Several Alpine ski resorts are on the verge of being abandoned by tour companies because they can no longer guarantee snow. Austrian resorts such as Kitzbuhel and Zell am See are at most immediate risk. But only a handful of resorts can now provide pre-Christmas snow, and in most places the ski season has been pushed back by two weeks.

Europes retreating glaciers are yielding up grisly secrets. In Italy, where August 2000 was the warmest on record, a huge labyrinth of tunnels and trenches constructed by Austrian troops in the glaciers of the Dolomite mountains during the First World War re-emerged, exposing frozen combat boots, food tins, rifles, live ammunition and several skeletons of soldiers. The same month, the bodies of four British airmen, deep frozen in northern Iceland since a plane crash in 1941, also emerged.

The loss of glaciers is not just an aesthetic irritant or an inconvenience for winter sports. It can kill big time. Back in 1970, a lake of water that had melted from the foot of a glacier on Mount Huascaran in the Andes burst its banks and rushed down a mountain valley, engulfing an estimated 60,000 people, almost half of them in the town of Yungay, which disappeared from the map. It was, at least arguably, the biggest single disaster caused by global warming to date.

After 1970, Perus leading hydroelectric company, ElectroPeru, began to survey most of the countrys glacial lakes. In 40 cases, it employed engineers to siphon off the water from potentially dangerous lakes. But five years ago it stopped the work, arguing that it was a government responsibility. This is really dangerous, says Peruvian mountaineer and glaciologist Cesar Portocarrero, With global warming, new lakes are forming all the time. We no longer have them mapped, so the risk of another big disaster grows. One high-risk area, he believes, is among the glaciers around Salkantay Mountain near the Inca ruins of Machu Pichu.


The people of Tuvalu are abandoning ship. They have signed a deal with New Zealand that will allow them to leave their country in fixed numbers each year, beginning this year, as rising tides and worsening storms destroy their homes. Tuvalu is a group of coral islands in the South Pacific, nine of which are home to the countrys total population of 10,000 people. Paani Laupepa of Tuvalus ministry of natural resources, said: We have coastal erosion, droughts and an unusually high level of tropical cyclones. Salt water intrusion [into soils] has affected our traditional food crops, and now we are seeing flooding of low-lying areas.

As ice on land melts and the waters of the oceans gain volume through thermal expansion, sea levels worldwide rose by 10-20cm during the 20th century. The once-idyllic islands of the South Pacific have suffered more than a billion dollars in damage from tropical storms and rising sea levels in the past decade. Nakibae Teuatabo, a resident of Kiribati, explains their day-to-day plight: Eight or nine house plots in the village that my family belongs to have been eroded away. I remember there was a coconut tree outside the quarters where I lived. The beach all around it was eroded, and eventually it disappeared. Also the droughts are much worse than they used to be. We can go more than six months without rain these days. Now the next row of coconut trees is withering, too. Our elders say we have never had droughts that last so long.

In mid-2001 charities began rushing food aid to a clutch of low-lying coral islands off Papua New Guinea. Children were reported starving as rising sea levels eroded fields and poisoned soils with salt water, and strong winds and rough seas prevented islanders going to sea to catch fish. The Carteret Islands have been losing small islands regularly since the 1960s. In 1995, a tidal wave washed away the shorelines of Han, Piul and Huene islands. Many people resorted to eating sea weed and relying on government relief supplies. One islander on Han told the Independent newspaper in Port Moresby: The situation here now is that erosion is occurring from both sides and the island is getting narrow. In Piul, many families are leaving. On Huene, the island is divided into half now and there is a wide passage in the middle. Four families only are left while most have left for the other atolls. The situation on Iolasa, Iosela and Iangain islands is such that when high seas occur, they stand below sea level and this is very frightening.

Four out of five of the worlds beaches are eroding away. On the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of the US the coastline is retreating at an average one to two metres a year, claiming 1,500 buildings a year. Louisiana is losing an acre of land every 24 minutes. Here, rising tides are increasing the risk of deadly storm surges pouring inland across lagoons and bayous. The sea is invading vital barriers, islands and marsh areas that once protected the land behind.


Many human diseases are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. Mosquitoes carrying malaria and dengue fever are spreading out of lowland tropical swamps into the tropical highlands of Kenya and Zimbabwe, bringing the disease to new populations that have no immunity. This occurs most dangerously in the aftermath of floods and storms. Dengue fever reached epidemic proportions in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, after Hurricane Mitch. And there have already been unpleasant surprise epidemics.

When Somalia and northwest Kenya suffered unseasonal heavy rains in early 1998, a cattle disease called Rift Valley fever jumped the species barrier and killed more than a thousand herders and their families within a few weeks. The disease had invaded rural communities without medical services and already weakened by drought. Louise Martin, a WHO doctor who flew into the infected zone, said that these desert people were living huddled with their animals on small patches of dry land. They had no clean water, and little food except for their diseased animals. She watched them die of what locals called the bleeding disease.

Mohammed Hassan left a village on the Somali border where five people and many animals had died. He walked for 20 days through the flooded countryside to the regional centre of Garissa where, as he lay on a hospital bed waiting to die, he told how he had eaten sick animals because there was no other food. Outside, a goat which had just aborted ate grass where a child played.

And without extra vigilance in public health, including better sanitation, water-born diseases such as cholera and river blindness could return in many areas. A study of more than 50,000 children in Lima, Peru, from 1993 to 1998 found that for every 1C of warming, 8 per cent more children arrived at a local clinic for treatment of diarrhoea. Warming in 1998 doubled the number of cases.

Climate change could also be delivering exotic animal diseases round the world on the winds. An early example could have been the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK. According to Dale Griffin of the US Geological Survey, southerly winds brought a dust cloud from the Sahara desert, where the disease is endemic, to the UK just a week before the mysterious outbreak began last February. Changing atmospheric circulation has increased the incidence of Sahara dust reaching the UK. Dust from the Sahara has probably also spread a deadly fungus that kills coral to Caribbean coral reefs.

Could the worldwide surge in hay fever be part of the greenhouse effect? Researchers at the US governments Department of Agriculture believe a combination a high CO2 levels and warmer temperatures could be triggering big increases in the amounts of pollen in the air.


Nature is under siege from global warming. A review for the IPCC in 2000 found more than 400 statistically significant associations between climate change and disrupted ecosystems. There was a widespread and coherent impact, on all continents and involving all types of plants and animals, it said.

In the Canadian north, polar bears and walruses are going hungry as they wait on land for the ice to reform in autumn and allow them back onto their marine hunting grounds. Migrating caribou cannot reach their summer pastures before the grass has gone to seed. In England, aphids are emerging so early in spring that the migrating birds that feed on them are still in Africa.

In the waters off Antarctica, krill find that the sea ice under which they feed is disappearing. Other creatures go hungry as a result. This may explain population crashes among the sea lions of the Falklands and elephant seals of the South Shetland Islands.

A quarter of all the worlds coral reefs had been destroyed in the past 20 years, mostly by soaring sea temperatures. In the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific, more than three-quarters of shallow coral reefs are thought to have died. Among the thousands of coral atolls that make up the Maldives of the Indian Ocean, the mortality rate is 90 per cent. When, in 1999, biologists made a rare visit to one of the worlds largest, most remote and biologically rich coral atoll systems, the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, they reported that most of the coral is dead. Sea temperatures not seen in the Caribbean for at least 3,000 years have wrecked the coral reefs of Belize.

Climate change is already depressing fish stocks in many parts of the world, warns one of the worlds leading fish scientists, David Griffith of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Changes in the North Atlantic are a particular concern. Sea bass have already drifted north out of British waters and towards Norway in recent years. The collapse in cod stocks in the North Sea and western Atlantic may be partly attributable to a 1C rise in sea temperatures in the past decade, according to UK government scientists.

Meanwhile on land, tropical trees are growing faster and dying younger. A run of warm winters has unleashed in western Canadian forests an epidemic of mountain pine beetle, which has spread through an area the size of Ireland, killing trees within a year. The beetles have been present in the forests for thousands of years, but their population was held in check by winter cold, which kills the larvae. Until now.


Finally, want some good news? Its a hard call, but for Californians at least, the surfs up permanently. The states waves are growing bigger. Thanks to global warming increasing the intensity of Pacific storms, the biggest waves are a third higher than 50 years ago.

It seems life really is a beach.

Updated: 11/28/2003

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