Wild weather

British people are famous for always talking about the weather, but there’s a good reason why we do. The British Isles are located in a place where two huge weather systems meet and, it often seems, do battle. Even so, strange things have been happening in recent years, as they have been in many other places around the world. There can’t be many people that haven’t been affected by weather that was hotter, wetter, drier or wilder than the weather they are used to. 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?

One weekend in May 2010, Nashville in the USA was expecting a few centimetres of rain. Two days later, 33 centimetres had fallen and eleven people had died in the resulting floods.

There’s been a change in the weather. Extreme events like the Nashville flood – described by officials as a once-in-a-millennium occurrence – are more frequent than before. Also in 2010, 28 centimetres of rain fell on Rio de Janeiro in 24 hours, causing mud slides that buried hundreds of people. And record rains in Pakistan led to flooding that affected more than 20 million people. The following year, floods in Thailand left factories near Bangkok under water, creating a worldwide shortage of computer hard drives. Meanwhile, severe droughts have affected Australia, Russia and East Africa. Deadly heat waves have hit Europe, leaving 35,000 people dead in 2003. Financial losses from such events jumped 25 percent to an estimated $150 billion worldwide in 2011.

What’s going on? Are these extreme events signals of a dangerous, human-made change in the Earth’s climate? Or are we just going through a natural run of bad luck? The short answer is: probably both. 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 and can affect weather patterns worldwide. But something else is happening too: the Earth is steadily getting warmer, with significantly more moisture in the atmosphere. The long-term accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is trapping heat and warming up the land, oceans and atmosphere. As the oceans warm up, they produce more water vapour and this, in turn, feeds big storms, such as hurricanes and typhoons.
And yet, there are ways of dealing with the effects of such extreme events. After 2003, French cities set up air-conditioned shelters for use in heat waves. In the 2006 heat wave, the death rate was two-thirds lower.

‘We know that warming of the Earth’s surface is putting more moisture into the atmosphere. We’ve measured it. The satellites see it,’ says climatologist Jay Gulledge. Another scientist, Michael Oppenheimer, agrees. We need to face up to that reality, he says, and do the things we know can save lives and money.


affect (v) to have an influence on something
deadly (adj) able to cause death
deal with (phr-v) to take action to solve a problem
effect (n) an influence that something has on another person or thing, especially one that causes a change
face up to (phr-v) to accept that something is true
feed (v) to give something what it needs so that it can develop
official (n) someone who has a position of authority in an organisation
record (adj) used to say that there is more or less of something, or that it is better or worse than ever before
shelter (n) a building or covered place that is made to protect people from danger or bad weather
shortage (n) not enough of something that is needed

Listen to a recording of the text: 

Reading comprehension: 

Read the article and choose the correct option.

1. The article says that extreme weather events ...
have an influence on the climate.
kill more people than before.
are part of a long-term change.

2. According to the article, ...
scientists don’t know what causes extreme weather.
there’s more than one factor influencing our weather.
it’s not possible for humans to influence the weather.

Read the article again and choose the correct option.

3. Why was the rain in Nashville considered to be an extreme event?
There was very high rainfall over many days.
The amount of rain was forecast in advance.
There was very high rainfall in a very short time.

4. The rainfall in Nashville in May 2010 ...
last happened a thousand years ago.
happens every one hundred years.
caused very rare flooding.

5. What caused deaths in Rio de Janeiro?
people were trapped under soil
the intensity of the rain
extensive floods

6. According to the article, ...
there has been a dramatic increase in the economic costs of extreme weather.
extreme weather events have risen by 25 percent since 2010.
in 2011, 25 percent of financial losses were weather-related.

7. Which statement is NOT supported by information in the article?
Extreme weather is influenced by human activity.
Unusual weather events are part of natural weather cycles.
Such extreme weather is too rare to be a result of climate change.

8. What is the key factor in the formation of storms?
warmer land temperatures
greenhouse gases
moisture in the air

9. Why did fewer people die in France in the 2006 heat wave?
There were better facilities provided.
Fewer people were in city centres at the time.
It wasn’t as severe as in 2003.

10. According to Michael Oppenheimer ...
there’s no way to stop extreme weather.
we can be better prepared for the effects of climate change.
we need to spend more money so that fewer people die.