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12 Oct, 2009 10:00

Climate whims: Weather havoc in the Caucasus

Even scientists have been unable to predict the unexpected snowstorms and tornadoes that are plaguing the most unlikely regions, raising concern that not enough is being done to combat climate change.

In the Ossetian mountains in the Caucasus, dozens of people have been trapped recently in a snowstorm. Drivers have been desperately trying to clear the snow banks. For many it has become a matter of survival as even there, where avalanches are fairly frequent, such severe weather at this time of year is very rare.

On the other side of the Caucasus mountains, in the coastal city of Sochi, panic is spreading among tourists, as powerful tornadoes form one by one above the sea and over the city.

Despite tornado warnings, many people have been caught by surprise.

From satellites to seaweed, gauges to groundhogs, there are literally dozens of ways to predict the weather, and all with varying degrees of success. But with so many factors affecting what's happening above our heads, including human activity, most forecasts are rather hit or miss – you just never know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next.

It never rains these days, it pours. So besides tornadoes, the Black Sea coast has recently been hit by flash floods and hail storms that turn parked cars into roaming boats.

Local meteorologists say the hail is getting bigger every year and the annual number of natural disasters is sky-high.

“During the past few years, the number of severe weather cases has grown one-and-a-half times,” says Yury Tkachenko from the Krasnodar Meteorology Centre. “Only a couple of years ago there were 250 disasters per year in our region, and now we are well beyond 400.”

So what is it that makes Mother Nature go wild? Billions of dollars are being spent on weather research worldwide, and there are still more questions than answers.

Most experts believe that global warming is to blame. World leaders discuss environmental problems and governments concentrate on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, some scientists say that the term “global warming” itself does not reflect the full picture.

“On average, it has become 0.74 degrees warmer during the past century. In Russia the warming factor is +1.29 degrees Celsius,” declares Yulia Dobrolyubova , a climate change expert from Moscow. “But at the same time, there are regions where we see opposite trends – it’s getting colder there. Besides temperature, there are also other changes in the climate – in the oceans, in the way rivers flow, in precipitation, the melting of glaciers and the condition of the frozen earth.”

It seems that at this point no one can make an accurate long-term forecast. Some scientists are convinced that in just three decades the Arctic ice will melt fully by September every year. Others say they're sure that the warming will be followed by severe cold.