Are the seasons changing? Can we expect longer summers and shorter winters?
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Despite it having been winter, the last week of August saw uncharacteristically cold weather in parts of South Africa, with snow and ice in areas that had not seen them in decades.
Are these extreme weather phenomena caused by a changing climate or are they just rare, freak incidents?
Social media has been abuzz with questions and opinions about shifting seasons, that winter is lasting longer than it should and the beginning of spring is later every year.
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However, interestingly a new study by researchers at the University of Chinese Academy Sciences in Beijing, found that in fact, summers are getting longer and winters shorter.
Using historical daily climate data from 1952 to 2011 to produce the study, researchers found that, on average, global summers have in fact elongated from 78 days in 1952 to 95 days in 2011. At the same time, on average, spring has contracted from 124 to 115 days; autumn from 87 to 76 days; and winter from 76 to 73 days.
Numerous studies have already shown that the changing seasons cause significant environmental and health risks, says lead study author Yuping Guan, a physical oceanographer.
“For example, birds are shifting their migration patterns and plants are emerging and flowering at different times. These phenological changes can create mismatches between animals and their food sources, disrupting ecological communities.”
Added to that a longer summer and shorter winter can also lead to more extreme weather events—some of which we’ve already witnessed firsthand.
This is one of the major factors most climate experts agree on - we are going to have more extreme weather events such as snow, drought, tornadoes and storms in areas where these are not the norm.
Dr Alistair Clulow, a meteorologist or weather expert based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, says however weather is not an exact science. “It is difficult to predict the weather for the next five days let alone the next 20 years.”
Mention climate and the first thing people think of: is the planet getting hotter?
“The earth is getting warmer on average, but climate change is much more than that.
“Regarding our seasons, they are dictated by the earth’s position relative to the sun, and that’s not going to change. But what is changing are global weather patterns; zones are shifting causing some areas to get warmer and others to get colder, and some to be windier.”
While the seasons would not change, alterations could be seen towards the edge of the seasons.
“For example, changing rainfall patterns may mean that rains start a little later in some areas or earlier in others. Plants may start flowering earlier or later as a result of changing weather
While the seasons would not change, alterations could be seen towards the edge of the seasons. “For example, changing rainfall patterns may mean that rains start a little later in some areas or earlier in others. Plants may start flowering earlier or later as a result of changing weather patterns.”
All of this would have an effect on environments (think of migration of species) and also farming and agriculture and could affect crops.
Clulow says there is no doubt that carbon dioxide-releasing activities such as power generation, deforestation and factory farming have contributed significantly to our planet warming.
While switching off the lights when leaving a room, or installing a geyser timer can definitely help, changes are also needed on a scale way beyond what the average household can do. The government needs to step in and make changes to how we generate electricity and how people move about.
“We really need to start investing in alternative energy such as solar and improve our transport systems, as too many people travel to work alone in their vehicles.
“If we had efficient trains and bus systems, people would be more likely to leave their cars at home. Creating safer, bike-friendly cities would encourage people to ride to work if they live close by. This would reduce carbon dioxide emissions, reduce traffic and keep people healthy while also saving money on fuel and vehicle maintenance.”
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