The year 2010 was one of the worst years for extreme weather in history (and 2011 seems to be shaping up the same way). It was one of the most destructive and one of the most expensive. National Geographic Channel's program, Explorer, took a look at some of the worst such weather and also the surprising cause behind much of it.
It wasn't just one area affected by the weather; places all over the planet were hit. Australia had the worst flooding in four decades, covering an area larger than France and Germany together. Russia had such a bad drought – with the hottest summer on record – that 50,000 were killed by the weather (including the wildfires). Pakistan had extreme heat followed by floods that washed away more than 5,000 miles of roads and railways. And the United States had record winter cold and snow after one of the hottest summers on record.
The cause of all this can be put down to one thing: water. Too much water. All precipitation starts in the ocean with gaseous water vapor providing storms' fuel. The sun transforms water into vapor, which increases first heat and then evaporation, with energy building up in the atmosphere, which further increases the potential for more extreme weather.
Water vapor is the most efficient transmitter of solar power, increasing energy steadily as we can see when looking back: 9 out of 10 of the hottest years on record have happened since 2002. Nineteen nations set new record high temperatures. 2010 was also the wettest year on record.
Food crops were washed away in Bolivia; China was the hottest it has been in 60 years; and Brazil had the heaviest rainfall in 50 years, with the most lives lost in a single day. Meanwhile, the U.S. had increasingly intense hurricanes, destructive tornadoes, blistering heat and record cold, but also some luck as most monster storms didn't hit land. All these form the new enemy: too much water.
In a single hurricane, the condensation of water vapor produces 200 times the energy of the total electrical production of the entire world. Then, a storm surge brings its extra destructive power. Surge is important because of the oceans rising.
Thermal expansion is what happens when the water warms. It expands, (increasing evaporation and then vapor) and the ocean then rises, covering low-lying areas like Bangladesh for example.
It has been a difficult decade and there is worse to come. Increased sea levels lead to increased severe storms, hurricanes and destructive storm surges – all the result of a gradual warming of the planet. It is easy to forget that the largest amount of greenhouse gas is water vapor, not carbon dioxide, even though the latter is a big contributor as well.
Watch the full powerful show on Saturday, June 4th, 2011, at 7pm