Getting in Touch with the Weather: Extreme Weather and Climate Change Awareness

Extreme Storm Manhattan, NYCSept 8th, 2012 which resulted in two tornados on the edge of NYC. (
Extreme Storm Manhattan, NYC Sept 8th, 2012. (

What is with the weather recently?

It seems like every news bulletin these days has a story about some ‘one in a hundred year’ storm, flood or fire – except they seem to be happening every second year!

While the media increasingly ignores climate change as a topic (even in the case of scientific evidence linking extreme weather events with climate change), there are good grounds for hypothesising that our personal experience of weather affects our awareness of climate change.

For instance, studies have noted how our daily experience of weather makes us more or less predisposed to the issue of climate change. So people surveyed on a hot day will be more likely to be concerned about or ‘believe in’ climate change.

Recently, I’ve began to ponder the link between personal experiences of extreme weather and engagement with climate change as an issue of personal concern. One graphic example of this was documented in an article written by a US sociology professor who described how her family’s house in Maine was destroyed during a lightning storm. Her harrowing account made a direct connection between the storm and climate change. The personal had now become the political.

Dodging the ‘Twisters’!

My own recent ‘up close and personal’ encounter with extreme weather happened early last week. I’d taken a friend out in my boat for a fish off the northern beaches of Sydney. The forecast looked good – light northerly winds, chance of light rain. I’d checked the internet before leaving home and noticed a big storm cell some 50 miles to the north-east – no worries – a long way away from where we would be. However, as we ran along the coast that morning the ocean was much rougher than I expected – small sharp waves with no back on them and a raging current. As we fished, the sun disappeared behind a procession of darkening clouds. We could see heavy rain to our east.

Then out of the corner of my eye I spotted something I’d only seen in photos and news reports – a ‘twister’ (waterspout) descending out of a cloud and churning up the ocean not more than a mile from us! As we sat there watching this marvel thicken and twist, another formed to the south. This one was thinner and more uncertain, moving in a strange dance. After a good ten minutes they disappeared, however we now looked at the clouds with a new fear and fascination – would there be any more and how close would they be?

Waterspout off Dee Why Beach, Sydney, 19 Feb 2013 (Image: Christopher Wright)
Waterspout off Dee Why Beach, Sydney, 19 Feb 2013 (Image: Christopher Wright)

In the days after this, I read up on waterspouts. While not the same as a true tornado, waterspouts can be extremely dangerous for boats in open waters. While infrequent along the NSW coast there have been instances of quite large waterspouts forming in places such as Bateman’s Bay on the NSW south coast, and there are many cases of true tornadoes along the NSW coast such as this graphic footage of a twister at Lennox Head in 2010.

Indeed, just last week a series of violent evening storms hit Sydney and the south coast resulting in severe localised damage. Reports in the media of ‘mini-tornadoes’ immediately got me thinking about the waterspouts we’d encountered.

Extreme Weather and Climate Change Awareness

Climate science highlights the catastrophic effects that will ensue from the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. In coming decades we are likely to experience more frequent and intense extreme weather events – ‘weather on steroids’ – that will shake our understanding of the environment and what is possible.

However, will these individual realisations be sufficient to result in a collective realisation of our predicament and meaningful political action?

While Hurricane Sandy and the recent flooding of New York City generated sudden attention to climate change in the mainstream media and some political movement, it is interesting how quickly we’ve again reverted to ‘business as usual’. How extreme a weather event will we really need to shake us out of our denial?

Media attention post NYC floods (Image:
Media attention post NYC floods (Image:

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