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Scientist brings climate change home

Do you think disappearing Arctic ice has little to do with your day-to-day life? Think again.
Do you think disappearing Arctic ice has little to do with your day-to-day life?

Think again.

As sea ice cover in the Arctic declines, extreme weather events around the world are increasing and affecting everything from the price of food to building styles, says a leading expert on the links between loss of Arctic ice and weird weather.

Climate scientist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who will give a free public lecture at the University of Victoria Tuesday night, said in an interview that the effects of disappearing Arctic sea ice are already being felt, including drought.

“If we can better understand what is coming our way, we can better prepare for it,” Francis said.

“If we understand that [drought is] going to be a more likely event in the future, we can come up with some policies to do a better job, such as how we use irrigation water or what crops we plant.”

One of the first steps in preparing for the coming changes is to convince the public to elect politicians who are willing make hard decisions, Francis said. “The public are the ones that have to demand these changes and say they are not willing to put up with not being prepared for extreme weather.”

Francis traces recent floods, heat waves and storms in the northern hemisphere to the effect of melting Arctic ice on the jetstream.

Her research shows that, as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere and glaciers melt, weather patterns change and storms or high-pressure areas remain in place much longer, causing floods or drought.

Francis is an internationally recognized expert on those changes, said Tom Pedersen, executive director of the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, the group hosting her talk.

“It is critical for the future that we adapt and deal with climate change,” he said, pointing to the 2003 heatwave that struck northern Europe as an example.

In Paris, where residents are unused to high temperatures, about 15,000 more people died that August than in other years. Most were elderly widows, whose families were on vacation and who did not know to stay hydrated or keep cool.

Three years later, when another heat wave hit, people went door to door with portable air conditioners and hydration centres opened, cutting the number of deaths to 300.

If anyone doubts the effect of extreme-weather events on the family budget, they should look at the 2010 heat wave that hit Russia, hammering the wheat crop, Pedersen said.

As soon as Russia banned wheat exports, the price of a tonne of wheat soared to $280 US from $180. “So everyone in the world had to pay more for food,” he said.

Francis believes people are becoming more aware of the problems of climate change. “It’s the silver lining to this cloud. The extreme weather is like slapping someone in the face and saying you have to start paying attention.”

The lecture starts at 7 p.m. at the Bob Wright Centre, Room B150.