Climate change is wreaking havoc in many countries as severe weather events cause mass death and wipe out staple food crops, meteorologists have told a world climate conference in Queensland this week. The World Meteorological Organisation conference of meteorologists and climatologists representing 187 countries showcased the latest communication tools being used to help countries protect people and food supplies threatened by climate change.

Staple food crop failures in developing countries are causing mass starvation, extreme rainfall is causing deadly floods, Pacific Islands are being completely submerged with people clinging to palm trees until storm surges subside, and France’s wine growing regions may have to move north. The WMO gathering is held once every four years to assess global agricultural meteorology and recommend areas for future research in order to maintain sustainable global food supplies.

WMO agro meteorology division chief Dr Mannava Sivakumar said the world population was projected to exceed 9 billion by 2025. “Even without climate change, to produce the extra food for the growing population is a major challenge so what climate change does is put an additional stress on what is already a major problem.”

“Because of the reduced rainfall, soils are going to be prone to erosion and degradation, crops may not be able to withstand higher temperatures or get enough water. It’s a double whammy that you have two big problems on your hands at the same time. The world has to look at it really seriously.”

Sivakumar said the international conference was vital to assist countries to provide farmers with timely, accurate forecasts to reduce the adverse risks posed by severe climate events.

I interviewed representatives from the USA, Russia, India, France, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands and asked them if they were already seeing impacts of climate change in their country and what threats these impacts posed to the people and agriculture. I also asked them how the country was helping the people to mitigate the risk of climate change threats:

INDIA: Rising temperatures over the last ten years had caused more frequent heat waves over 46 degrees C leading to hundreds of human deaths among tribal people as well as animal deaths. Extreme weather events such as floods are causing human catastrophes, with villagers being drowned in floodwaters.

Indian Meteorological Department head of agro-meteorology Dr Laxman Singh Rathore said food supplies were secure now because monsoon season crops were not affected by higher temperatures but winter wheat crop yields in some years are reduced by warmer winter temperatures in northern India. The Indian Government is setting up internet services in India’s 600,000 villages which will provide weather and climate forecasts and information to the country’s 600 million farmers.

Information centres with internet, television and radio communications and local print media have been set up in 25,000 villages in the past two years.

USA: The USA has had more extreme events such as hurricanes, flooding, drought, record high temperatures and cold outbreaks in recent years. US Department of Agriculture World crop weather analyst, meteorologist Dr Harlan Shannon said it was unclear yet whether the events were caused by variability or climate change. He said the USA was monitoring crop production around the world including Russia, Australia, China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina using WMO data and satellite imaging of weather systems to help US economists assist American farmers in assessing marketing opportunities.

RUSSIA: More frequent and intense forest fires and more droughts are occurring. However warmer temperatures in future would have positive impacts on Russia because warmer weather would increase the area available for growing summer and winter wheat crops and other cereals.

Warmer temperatures would enable Russia to grow cotton in the south of the country. Director of the National Agro-meteorological institute, Agro-meteorologist Alexander Kleshchenko, said if soils that were normally frozen thawed building foundations could be threatened. He said Russia was expecting droughts would be more frequent in future and drinking water supplies were being monitored.

FRANCE: Climate data shows varying increases in minimum and maximum temperatures in different regions of France. Frost days during winter are decreasing but in the next decade vineyards may have to move north. Meteo France end-user services manager Philippe Frayssinet said England could become a place to produce good wine.

“If Champagne would not be the right place to produce Champagne it would be a real problem for the economy of the region — the same for Burgundy and Bordeaux. The sensibility to the climate is very high.”

He said there was an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as forest fires, heat waves and floods causing crop failures and reducing export income. France has a colour-coded warning system with green indicating no risks, ranging through yellow for minor risk, orange for medium risk to red indicating an extreme event. France has also stationed hundreds of meteorologists around the world in its overseas territories to monitor weather and climate data including 150 meteorology staff in the French West Indies, 50 in Martinique and 50 in French Guyana.

BRAZIL: Minimum air temperatures have increased almost 2 degrees C in the past 40 years. Rainy seasons have changed with more frequent heavy rains causing deaths, infrastructure damage and crop failures in soya beans, coconuts, grain and rice crops. Frequency of frosts have fallen, affecting citrus crops.

San Paulo state Meteorology Institute agro-meteorology head Olivaldo Brunini said burning of the Amazon forests was being reduced and farmers in the forest were turning to raising beef cattle and grain farming.

AUSTRALIA: Water allocations to irrigation farmers have fallen by more than 90 per cent in the Murray-Darling Basin. Australia’s rice crop is down more than 90 percent to less than 100,000 tonnes a year since production peaked in 2004 at 2 million tones. Cotton production is down by almost 80 percent. Corn production in the Murray-Darling Basin is down by 60-70 per cent and corn production is moving to northern Australia. Lost crop production is estimated at 1.5 billion a year and threatens Australia’s food security.

Peanut Company of Australia managing director Bob Hansen is spending $50 million to buy land and water rights to move some of his farming and processing operations from Queensland to the Northern Territory.

NEW ZEALAND: Temperature rises were first detected in New Zealand and the surrounding region in the mid 1970s. Temperatures have now risen by about 1 degree C, reducing the number of frost days by a third to a half.

World Meteorological Organisation commission for agricultural meteorology president Dr Jim Salinger discovered the temperature trend in the mid 1970s and his publication of a journal article sparked global research which found global temperatures were rising.

Dr Salinger said the main threat of climate change globally was to food security. Hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers in India, Africa and China needed help to manage climate change effects on their farming systems.

Lower food production will mostly impact the semi arid sub tropics including Africa, the Mediterranean basin, the southern half of Australia, the south of South America and major cropping areas of the USA. By 2030 world food supply will need to increase by about 50 percent to feed the estimated 9 billion global population. Food prices were likely to rise, he said. Already one billion people were on the brink of starvation.

Dr Salinger said New Zealand would warm more slowly than continents such as Europe or North America because it was an island and water temperatures warmed more slowly than land and air temperatures. However, permanent snow and ice including glaciers in the south island have retreated by 55 per cent from 100 cubic kilometres of permanent snow and ice cover 100 years ago to 45 cubic km of permanent ice now. Eastern New Zealand is predicted to receive lower rainfall with serious droughts becoming four times more frequent. New Zealand’s eastern wine-growing areas will be able to introduce warmer wine styles. Existing Kiwi fruit and apple-growing areas will no longer be ideal growing areas.

KOREA: Temperature rises threaten the country’s staple rice crop. Orchards have moved to the north of the country to cooler regions. Korea’s National Institute of Meteorological Research senior research scientist Kyu Rang Kim said typhoons had increased in frequency and intensity causing floods which have destroyed rice crops at harvest time. Korea imports most of its food apart from rice.

PHILIPPINES: Increasing minimum and maximum temperatures have been recorded as have increasingly intense cyclones. Philippines weather services chief of the Philippines atmospheric, geophysical and astronomical services administration Flaviana Hilario said the country had recently recorded the most severe cyclone ever to hit the country.

“In 2006 we recorded the highest wind speed due to tropical cyclone, 320kp/h. So far this is the highest. We will see whether in the future this will be the norm or if this was a single event,” she said.

During the 2006 cyclone season 2700 people died and cyclones caused $36 billion damage in the Philippines. The Philippines is replacing fossil fuels with bio-fuels and geothermal energy sourced from volcanoes.

ETHIOPIA: Failures of rain were shortening growing seasons causing reduced crop yields in the south of the country and causing shortages of staple crops such as teff, maize, sorghum, barley and drinking water. Floods have increased in intensity in the eastern parts of the country, causing deaths of people and stock and destroying houses.

Ethiopian National Meteorological Agency research meteorologist Almaz Demessie said people were moving livestock in search of water and pasture and food were having to be bought from other areas when crops failed or people were leaving to find work so they could buy food.

TANZANIA: More rainfall seasons have been failing since the 1980s, severely affecting food supplies of people who are mostly subsistence farmers on small farms.

“If (the short rains) fail it means their survival is threatened and this becomes worse when the second rain fails because it means the whole year is a total failure and we’ve had the government intervening more often to give food assistance to the people,” Tanzanian principal agro-meteorologist Deusdedit Kashasha said. “They produce on small farms which may not be enough for a year in a good season so if they don’t even have that small amount produced it becomes pretty dire.”

FIJI: Air temperatures have increased by 0.6 degrees in the past 50 years which is reducing sugar crop yields because sugar cane needs cool nights to concentrate the sugar. Sugar is Fiji’s major export crop. Fiji Meteorological Service principal scientific officer Simon McGree said sea level rises were a major problem for the population of 850,000 people scattered on isolated islands. Sea level rises were also causing sugar crops on coastal flats to be flooded, destroying crops and salinifying the land. Sugar plantations are having to move inland, reducing the available cropping area.

SAMOA: Cyclones have increased in frequency and intensity in the last ten years threatening the population of 180,000 living on four main islands in the Samoan Islands group. Sea level rises have also caused coastal erosion. Samoan Meteorological Division Climate and Ozone Services principal scientific officer Sunny Seuseu said Samoa was researching ways to reduce greenhouse emissions by reducing fossil fuels and exploring renewable energy sources including wind, geothermal and solar power.

SOLOMON ISLANDS: Sea level rises have been recorded and king tides have washed over an atoll island in the north of the island group, destroying houses and local crops. Solomon Islands Meteorological Service principal climate officer Lloyd Tahani said the government was making plans to evacuate people from low-lying islands in cases of climatic emergency and had established a team of climate scientists to work in the Solomon Islands to establish early warning systems.

COOK ISLANDS: Tide gauges installed in 1992 show sea levels have risen marginally but tropical cyclones are becoming more frequent and more intense. In 2004-2005, the Cook Islands had five category five cyclones in five weeks lashing the 15 islands scattered over 240 square kilometres located 3000km north east of New Zealand with a population of 14,000 people. In 2004-2005 season some islands were submerged and people had to climb coconut trees and rise the storm out. Local farmers then had to use boats and dive two to three metres to harvest their taro crops.

Cook Islands Meteorological Service director Aruna Ngari said islands had been partially submerged before not this was the first time they had been completely submerged. He said some islanders were abandoning low-lying islands and moving to larger islands.