Does This Extreme Weather New Zealand Keeps Having Mean We're Fucked?

We asked a climate scientist if we're on the brink of climate change apocalypse.

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Apr 6 2017, 1:29am

Image by Thomas Duncan

New Zealand got a record-breaking whack of heavy rain for a week in March. And this week has been no better. The entire population of Edgecumbe has been evacuated after the Rangitaiki River breached its stop banks this morning. Flights at Auckland and Wellington airport have been cancelled and delayed. Power outages have affected thousands in South Auckland and Taranaki. Severe thunderstorm warnings have been issued for Thames, Coromandel and the Hauraki Gulf. And major landslips and flooding has caused road closures in Kaikoura, just as the town is recovering from being cut off by earthquake damage. Highways around the Waikato, Gisborne, Hawke's Bay, and Whanganui are also closed. What is going on?

We spoke to Nation Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research climate scientist Nava Feaeff to find out whether indeed we're at the brink of the climate change apocalypse.

VICE: Hi Nava, what the hell has been happening over the last week?
Nava Feaeff: The weather has certainly been very active across the country recently, that's one way to describe it. It's been a really busy week for us here [at NIWA] and it's not over yet.

How would you describe the weather in scientific terms?
There's been a couple of players. We've seen the remnants of tropical Cyclone Debbie, a cyclone no longer, but Debbie left behind a lot of energy in the atmosphere. There was a separate frontal boundary stretching from the Tasman Sea across New Zealand and along this boundary a new low pressure system formed.

Whoa, I'm not following, could you break it down for me?
Basically Cyclone Debbie left a lot of energy behind it, and combined with a heavy "low" the bad weather was all go. We saw a lot of rain and wind. While this is pretty much done for the North Island and we've got fantastic weather ahead of us, high pressure in the South Island means it's going to be pretty bad in Canterbury over the weekend.

Was this what happened in March, also?
It was a similar type of event where there was an intense low pressure system of tropical origin. The problem was that it came down but was sandwiched between two high pressure systems so there was nowhere for it to go. It couldn't move across New Zealand, so it just stayed in one place for five days and caused flooding.

It's been pretty insane recently, does climate change have anything to do with it?
That's always a question that comes up. No one weather event is caused by climate change, but they're all influenced by it. The warmer the atmosphere, the more it holds moisture so when it rains you've got more fuel for extreme events. Climate change does increase the likelihood of rainfall. For every degree of warming there is up to 8 percent more intense rain. Even if we weren't at the mercy of climate change now, the bad weather could've still happened, but climate change is definitely a contributor and it overall increases the likelihood of extreme events.

So if this stink weather may have still happened, does that suggest there's an argument that climate change doesn't exist?
Climate change is already here, there's no doubt about it. Unless of course you disagree with science. Attribution studies are able to pinpoint what impact climate change is having, for example. There are sceptics for everything. Some believe the world is flat, for example.

Do you think we're fucked, then?
I don't think I can answer that [laughs]. There's much to be done insofar as reducing emissions on a personal and governmental level. You can turn the negative impact around, but the atmosphere responds very slowly. Climate change is already here, and it's only going to get worse if we don't do anything about it.

What can we do to cope with these extreme weather conditions?
An easy solution is not to live in a flood prone area, and live near waters because coastal erosion is expected due to rising sea levels and storms. But anybody who purchases a property exposes themselves to some sort of hazard and risk—whether that's volcanoes in Auckland, earthquakes in Wellington, for example. For immediate action against storms, for example, I'd suggest you make sure your gutters and drains are clear. Buying sandbags is also a really easy thing to do to reduce the impact of heavy rain. It's adaptation theory, really. Something's happening so you make changes and adapt to the situation around your life.

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