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World: Is The Freak Weather Random Or A Dangerous Pattern?

What is happening to the weather? It's supposed to be deep midwinter in the northern hemisphere, but much of Central Europe is basking in spring temperatures. Meanwhile, fierce storms have caused havoc in Northern Europe from Ireland, across Scandinavia, through Belarus and on to Russia. Parts of Kazakhstan are overwhelmed with snow, and further afield, California is struggling against snow and flash floods. South Africa has flooding amid a drought -- and it's even been snowing in the parched deserts of the United Arab Emirates.

Prague, 10 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Asian tsunami disaster, in which some 150,000 people died, has reminded the world of nature's awesome power and unpredictability.

Less dramatic in scale, but also sinister in impact, is the occurrence of freak weather in many parts of the world. In Kazakhstan, for instance, heavy snowfalls have cut off the capital Astana and led to the evacuation of people from outlying areas. Qairat Taribaev of Kazakhstan's State Agency of Extraordinary Situations said: "On January 9, starting at 1930, all the highway routes from Astana and those from all the district centers of Aqmola Oblast have been stopped. All the roads have been closed. In general, in Aqmola Oblast 88 persons and 16 automobiles were rescued from the snow."

In Europe, much of center of the continent enjoys balmy, temperate days. The temperature in Prague set a 230-year record of 13.8 degrees Celsius. Meanwhile, the north has just been ravaged by floods and gales.

A weekend storm which raged eastwards from the Atlantic led to the worst flooding in decades in parts of northern Britain. It swept over northern France and Germany, and arrived in Scandinavia, where it was so fierce that Sweden had to turn off two nuclear power stations, leaving tens of thousands of people without electricity. At least 11 people died and others are missing.

Barry Gromett, a spokesman for the Meteorological Office in Britain, says the storm was a "quite remarkable event," with winds of 195 kilometers per hour in the high country.

But he is cautious about saying this is a manifestation of global warming. That is the theory which predicts a warming of the earth's climate though the man-made production of heat-trapping gasses: "It's very difficult to look at this particular weather pattern at the moment and really with any certainty say that this is perhaps the type of weather we might well experience in future years."

Gromett acknowledges that the mild temperatures and ferocious storms do fit the controversial theory: "Certainly one of the scenarios described [under global warming] in the United Kingdom would be for an increased incidence of stormy weather, and milder winters, and certainly wetter periods as well."

But at the same time, he says, another contradictory scenario under global warming is that Britain might have much colder winters, even an ice age. This would come about because the melting polar ice cap would reduce the salinity of the oceans, thus causing the failure of the Gulf Stream winds that bring warm, moist air to Britain and Ireland.

In Prague, an expert on climate change and a member of the Greenpeace environmental group, Clara Sutlovicova, admits meteorologists cannot yet predict with any accuracy what conditions climate change is likely to produce. But she says the theory's mainstream scenario fits what is actually happening: "Research on the latest analysis of the climate system and the impact of the climate change on Europe, [indicates that] you would find that effects like quite warm winters without snow, and also warm summers, quite dry, are expected outcomes of climate change in Europe and, in fact, Europe is warming faster than the rest of the world, according to the latest European Environmental Agency analysis."

Sutlovicova says major variations in weather patterns threaten the ecological balance: "It is a great disaster for flora and fauna, but also for agriculture. If the earth does not get enough rain or snow in the winter, you can imagine the impact in a dry summer, if there is a dry summer again, you can imagine the agricultural losses in the next season."

She says she believes the reality of global warming is shown by the extremely heavy payouts by insurance companies to cover the spiraling costs of devastation to property around the world.