December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Hurricane Igor, 13 September 2010

Horizon: Global Weirding
BBC HD, 27 March 2012

I have not watched BBC’s Horizon for years after being driven away by the overuse of hyperbole and dramatic phrases; and so it was with trepidation that I sat down in front of ‘Global Weirding’. With such a strange title I was surprised to find some of the top scientists in the field participating in this programme and I had to concede quite early on that it was going to be a good documentary.

It is also timely. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have just released a special report on future extreme weather events and a paper just appeared in Nature on the issue, showing how we have seen extreme events increase over the last century. Instead of gathering oddities and outliers to present an extreme picture, Global Weirding used a few well chosen examples of how the relatively small global changes to our climate (1°C in the last century) are starting to reorganise our weather to great local effect.

It was discussed how warming oceans have given hurricanes more power, increasing the number of strong hurricanes. Along with this they showed how due to this effect of the warming ocean, places such as Dubai, which have never been known to have had a hurricane, could begin to see them. This could cause devastation to a population and infrastructure completely unaware of the dangers. And it was with this subtlety of highlighting how the changes that are relatively small on the global weather system, such as introducing hurricanes to a new area or bringing arctic air down over the UK, are going to affect us in which this programme was particularly strong.

The show also did not feel a suffocating pressure to entertain. They did not fly Brian Cox to the poles just to show us an ice sheet, to give an example that jumps to mind of the condescending view the BBC have on our attention spans. Instead relevant facts about violin manufacture or the history of a particular weather phenomenon were used to punctuate the story they’re telling.

And the story – to make a small criticism as I feel I must – maybe slightly went for interest over scientific rigour. The evidence so far shows that we only have strong certainty over increased hot days and rain events. However, Global Weirding only mentioned this and focussed instead on hurricanes and cold winters, which we currently do not have the tools to predict well into the future. But the point is that this is a story that needs to be told. We are beginning to look more at adapting our towns and cities to a changed world rather than trying to prevent it by reducing carbon dioxide levels. This programme helped highlight the serious changes that we could begin to see to local weather over the next few decades and will hopefully warn us of the dangerous dice we are currently rolling.

Image: Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team via flickr | dsleeter_2000