Storms are set to intensify in Papua New Guinea (PNG), specialists warn, as the Pacific Island nation grapples with the effects of climate change.
The country is already highly prone to natural disasters - including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, cyclones, river and coastal flooding, landslides, and drought.
“As ocean surface temperatures rise, storms will increase in intensity. This is the driving factor,” Bradley Opdyke, a scientist with the Department of Earth and Marine Sciences at the Australian National University, told IRIN from Canberra.
“At these temperatures, like those found seasonally around the island of PNG, the likelihood of intense storms does increase.”
At risk are low-lying coastal areas and many coral atolls, with nearly 500,000 people in 2,000 coastal villages vulnerable to weather extremes and inundation, a recent report by the World Bank and the South Pacific Applied Geo-science Commission stated.
“Combined with a sea-level rise, increasing storm intensity raises the risk of coastal storm surge, inundation, and storm damage generally,” James Renwick, a Wellington-based scientist with the New Zealand National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research, said.
“Moving infrastructure away from the coast is a sensible medium- to long-term strategy,” he added.
But increased storm intensity is just part of the problem.
“Weather conditions are more variable than in the past,” Samuel Maiha, the director of the PNG Meteorological Department in Port Moresby confirmed.
Traditionally, tropical storms would strike between November and May. Today the season runs from October to June instead, he said.
Of PNG’s 6.3 million inhabitants, 80 percent live in rural subsistence communities and have traditionally been susceptible to extremes of climate (rains and drought) related to the El Niño, but are often unaware of the risks.
At the end of 2009, eight men from Mahur Island in the country’s northeast went missing while fishing. Two months later, their boat was found drifting near the island nation of Nauru, with seven severely malnourished survivors on board, two of whom later died.
“People becoming lost at sea is becoming more usual,” Nick, one of the survivors, told IRIN. “Reading the weather is harder, and tides have also changed, but we have to fish and travel by boat.”
According to the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) general knowledge in PNG of climate change effects is poor, particularly in rural areas.
Low recognition of hazards and climate change leaves many unable to assess risks properly, with even the country’s National Weather Service now feeling that its monitoring network has fallen below a credible level, the World Bank report states.
The World Meteorological Organization says that if 21st century warming occurs as projected, the maximum wind speed of tropical cyclones will likely increase by between 2 and 11 percent on average worldwide, while rainfall rates will increase approximately 20 percent within 100km of a storm centre.