Wild weather

A message from Life co-author, Helen Stephenson.

British people are famous for always talking about the weather, but there’s a good reason for this. The British Isles is located in a place where two huge weather systems meet. This means our weather can change many times in just one day! Although we are used to this, strange things have been happening in recent years. In fact, this is the same for many other places around the world. Most people seem to have experienced weather that was hotter, wetter, drier or wilder than normal. This article, based on an article by Peter Miller from the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Magazine, looks at what is happening to our weather.

What is happening to our weather?

What is ‘extreme’ weather? Why are people talking about it these days? ‘Extreme’ weather is an unusual weather event  such as rainfall, a drought or a heat wave in the wrong place or at the wrong time. In theory, they are very rare. But these days, our TV screens are constantly showing such extreme weather events. Take just three news stories from 2010: 28 centimetres of rain fell on Rio de Janeiro in 24 hours, Nashville, USA, had 33 centimetres of rain in two days and there was record rainfall in Pakistan.

The effects of this kind of rainfall are dramatic and lethal. In Rio de Janeiro, landslides followed, burying hundreds of people. In Pakistan, the floods affected 20 million people. Meanwhile, other parts of the world suffer devastating droughts. Australia, Russia and East Africa have been hit in the last ten years. And then there are unexpected heat waves, such as in 2003 in Europe. That summer, 35,000 deaths were said to be heat-related.

So, what is happening to our weather? Are these extreme events part of a natural cycle? Or are they caused by human activity and its effects on the Earth’s climate? Peter Miller says it’s probably a mixture of both of these things. On the one hand, the most important influences on weather events are natural cycles in the climate. Two of the most famous weather cycles, El Niño and La Niña, originate in the Pacific Ocean. The heat from the warm ocean rises high into the atmosphere and affects weather all around the world. On the other hand, the temperature of the Earth’s oceans is slowly but steadily going up. And this is a result of human activity. We are producing greenhouse gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. This heat warms up the atmosphere, land and oceans. Warmer oceans produce more water vapour – think of heating a pan of water in your kitchen. Turn up the heat, it produces steam more quickly. Satellite data tells us that the water vapour in the atmosphere has gone up by four percent in 25 years. This warm, wet air turns into the rain, storms, hurricanes and typhoons that we are increasingly experiencing.

Climate scientist, Michael Oppenheimer, says that we need to face the reality of climate change. And we also need to act now to save lives and money in the future.


air (n) the mixture of gases that is around the Earth and that we breathe
atmosphere (n) the air around the Earth
climate (n) the general weather conditions that are typical of a place
cycle (n) a series of things that are repeated again and again
death (n) the end of life
drought (n) a long period of time without rain
event (n) something that happens, especially something important or unusual
heat (n) the quality of being warm, or the temperature of something that is warm
hit (v) to have a bad effect on someone or something
lethal (adj) extremely dangerous and causing death
rainfall (n) the amount of rain that falls
steam (n) the hot mist that forms when water boils

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. The article says extreme weather is ...
becoming more common.
not a natural occurrence.
difficult for scientists to understand.

2. According to the article, extreme weather is a problem because ...
we can't predict it.
it affects places where lots of people live.
it’s often very destructive.

3. Extreme weather can by caused by ...
satellites above the Earth.
water vapour in the atmosphere.
very hot summers.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

4. Why was the rain in Nashville considered to be an extreme event?
There was a lot of rain over a long time period.
It doesn’t usually rain in Nashville.
There was a lot of rain in a short time.

5. What happened after the extreme rain in Rio de Janeiro?
There were major floods.
There were many deaths.
Millions of people were affected.

6. What caused many deaths in 2003?
a period of hot weather
floods that followed a bad summer
a long drought

7. Which of these things is the basis of normal weather patterns?
greenhouse gases
human activity
El Niño and La Niña

8. Where does atmospheric water vapour come from?
the land
the ocean
greenhouse gases

9. We can use satellites to ...
change where storms will happen.
trap greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
measure changes in atmospheric water vapour.

10. According to Michael Oppenheimer ...
we don't understand extreme weather events.
we can limit the effects of extreme weather.
we can stop climate change.