The United Nations World Meteorological Organization reports that 2003 was the third warmest year on record, just behind 2002 and 1998, which remains the warmest year. In its year-end report on the status of the global climate, the WMO describes 2003 as a year of turbulence, marked by many extreme weather events.
The World Meteorological Organization describes an above normal number of hurricanes, typhoons and tropical cyclones this past year. For example, in Sri Lanka, it notes, heavy rainfalls in May from a tropical cyclone resulted in flooding and landslides, killing at least 250 people and causing the worst floods in 50 years.
WMO finds drought affected the livelihood of about 23 million people in eastern and southern Africa. It says extreme drought in the United States led to the most costly wildfires on record in southern California in late October. The report says heat waves in much of Europe last summer caused over 20,000 deaths and led to the loss of glaciers in the European Alps.
WMO Deputy Secretary-General, Michel Jarraud, says global warming is likely to lead to more frequent and extreme weather events. However, he says climate change alone cannot explain why any one extreme event occurs.
"Although climate change is likely to increase the frequency of extreme events, you cannot attribute any single one to any particular cause because any event is the combination of many, many causes," he said. "One of them is natural variability. Another one may be indeed climate change. Another one may be other factors. So, it is a very complex interaction between all the elements of this incredibly complex machine which is the earth."
Mr. Jarraud says nothing can be done about the extreme weather, but governments can take actions that can reduce the consequences from natural disasters.
He says every country in the world has a meteorological service, which can give early warnings about an impending disaster. In the case of a tornado in the United States, he says the warning time is only 15 minutes. But, even this, he says can allow people to go into shelters to protect themselves.
At the other extreme, Mr. Jarraud says drought is a phenomenon, which builds over weeks, months and even years. In this case, he says countries have a lot of time to prepare ahead.
"It can be action in terms of farming, to make reserves in food, that government can take precautions," he said. "If we know that the season is going to be less rainy than usual, you can encourage farmers to plant different types of crops and this is happening in many parts of the world. You can also decide that you are going to use less of the water in dams to produce electricity, but to keep more for irrigation or domestic use."
Mr. Jarraud says Bangladesh is one of the most dramatic examples of a country which has saved countless lives through its disaster preparedness program. He says about 30 years ago, a huge tropical cyclone killed about 250,000 people. Due to a shelter building program and early warning system, he says, the death toll from similar storms has been reduced to hundreds or even fewer.