Tag Archives: fire

Wrong Door Raid and Flash-Bang Grenade Heart Attack

Wrong Door Raid and Flash-Bang Grenade Heart Attack Provoke Lawsuits

Lucy Steigerwald |

A few victims of the drug war\' “standard procedure” are fighting back in court. First, a Colorado Springs woman who suffered a heart attack during a raid has brought a lawsuit:

Rose Ann Santistevan, 71, is suing for medical expenses and noneconomic losses such as pain and suffering.

An emphysema sufferer, Santistevan was alone in bed receiving oxygen on Oct. 6, 2009, when a multijurisdictional SWAT task force with a search warrant surrounded her home in the 200 block of South Prospect Street. They threw in a flash-bang grenade before rushing in with guns drawn, authorities have confirmed.

Stricken by a heart attack, Santistevan was admitted in critical condition at Memorial Hospital Central, where she remained for several days. A search of her home yielded no arrests and turned up no drugs, the family said.

And a New Jersey family who received the nightmarish black-clad gunmen treatment from SWAT is suing the police department for unlawful entry and false arrest. They specifically target one Police Detective William Palomino in the civil suit:

About 40 narcotics and emergency response team officers executed search warrants at numerous locations during a major drug raid following four months of undercover surveillance. The Colons’ apartment was not among the approved targets in the “no-knock” search warrants obtained by authorities, who mistook a door leading to the family’s apartment for what they thought was a door to the building’s basement.

Palomino admits what happened to the Colons was a mistake, but his attorney says he wasn’t there after he pointed out the door to the rest of the team. So it was his kind of his fault, but it wasn’t. After all, he did not personally do the following:

[Now 18-year-old] Miguel Colon testified that he, his little brother and a friend were in one room of the apartment, and that his mother was in the kitchen, talking on the phone, when “more than five” men dressed all in black and not bearing any police identification burst in.

“I asked: “Who are you?’ The response I got was: ‘Shut up and get on the floor,”
Colon testified.

They then ordered everyone to the floor at gunpoint and ransacked the apartment, overturning beds and going through the laundry as his brother cried and his mother started having a “panic attack,” Colon said.

“She couldn’t breathe,
” he testified. “I told them, ‘My mom needs to breathe. She needs medication.’ They told me to shut up.”

When she started choking, he said, he defied them and got up to get the medicine anyway, but they pushed him back down. Eventually, they went with his mother to get the medicine but had their guns drawn the whole time, he said. The family was held for about two hours before being freed.

Months of surveillance, and they can’t tell which door is which. Warrant or no, they couldn’t bother to check whether a disabled grandmother was lying in bed before they tossed a potentially lethal device in her general direction. But don’t worry, we’re gonna win this drug warsoon.

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Can Combustion Be Spontaneous?

Can people spontaneously combust? The Romans (and Dickens) thought so. As it’s given as a cause of death by a coroner, what IS the truth?

By Peter Hough

When firemen were called to 76-year-old Irishman Michael Flaherty’s home in the middle of the night last December, the sight that greeted them could have leapt from the pages of a Victorian murder mystery.

Mr Flaherty’s body had been burned away to little more than a pile of ashes. Apart from the floor below him and ceiling above, the room was not damaged. There were no signs of foul play or anything that could have caused the ignition.

Mr Flaherty was lying on his back in the living room with his head near an empty fireplace, but firemen found no sign of accelerants such as petrol and there was no evidence of anyone having entered or left the scene.

He was alone in the house and his neighbours were only alerted when the smoke alarm sounded. By the time the firemen had arrived, the flames that had engulfed the pensioner had left barely a trace of him to identify.

So what is the explanation? Having dismissed all alternatives, the West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin last week made headlines by officially recording Mr Flaherty’s demise as a case of ‘spontaneous human combustion’.

But while many may scoff at the idea that the human body can catch fire and burn of its own accord, I’m rather more open minded than most when it comes to cases such as this. For, having written a book on the controversial subject and researched the area for 20 years, I have learned of many similar deaths that are very hard to explain away.

So what is spontaneous human combustion, and how long has it been happening? I first came across the idea in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, where the author does away with the alcoholic rag-and-bone man Krook by making him mysteriously burst into flames.

Dickens had done his research: in the 1850s, the main theory used to explain these occurrences was alcohol — that, if you drank enough, it seeped into your skin and made it possible to catch alight if you brushed past a flame. Thankfully, that explanation was later revealed to be nonsense.

But Dickens was not the first to touch on this phenomenon in print. The first sketchy mentions were made as far back as Roman times by the natural historian Pliny — though it wasn’t until 1613 that the first proper written account emerges in an English medical journal.

A lady called Mrs Russell was staying with her daughter’s family in Christchurch, Dorset, when she woke in the night during a noisy thunderstorm with the feeling she had been clouted on the side of her head. She decided to check on the rest of the family and found, to her horror, her daughter burning in her bed.

The report says the poor woman couldn’t be properly extinguished even after death, so she spent the next couple of days smouldering — which does suggest her body was somehow burning from the inside.

It’s not surprising that this fire has been linked with the electrical storm — was she struck by lightning? Or was it the little-known phenomenon of ‘ball lightning’ recorded during storms, where a ball of electricity can explode when it reaches the earth?

Most cases cannot be explained in this way, however. We don’t know exactly how many instances of spontaneous human combustion have occurred, as many may have been unreported or put down to something else (not many coroners are willing to be associated with ‘mumbo jumbo’ or cause additional hurt to the family).

But with my co-researcher Jenny Randles, I found at least 111 cases around the world where the cause of the fire hasn’t been found — and there have been many more since the book was published in 2007.

The basic case usually follows a set pattern — the person was found only after they had burned, nobody heard screams and their surroundings were relatively untouched by fire.

According to our statistics, 59 per cent of cases involved women, and half occurred between midnight and 6am. Often the walls and ceiling were coated in greasy soot, thought to be burnt remnants of body fat.

There have been people who have survived this sort of experience. The most interesting case we found was an American called — fittingly — Jack Angel. In 1974, Angel, a travelling salesman from Georgia, parked his motorhome outside a Ramada hotel and went to sleep.

He awoke to find his arm had been charred so badly that it had to be amputated; other parts of his body had suffered burns, too.

No part of his motorhome was damaged, he didn’t smoke and there was no fault with the vehicle. Angel — and his lawyers — insisted on a major investigation. Police took the mobile home apart hoping to find some electrical short circuit that would allow Angel to sue the manufacturers.

After months of effort they hadn’t found anything to explain Angel’s burns, and the case was closed.

Over the years, theories have been put forward to explain spontaneous human combustion. It has been linked with paranormal activity — one Lincolnshire case in 1905 where a maid burst into flames was blamed on a poltergeist that was also said to have beheaded chickens.

Nowadays, the favourite scientific theory is the ‘candle’ or ‘wick’ effect. Under certain circumstances, it is believed that the human body can burn like an inside-out candle, with the clothing acting as a wick.

For this to happen, someone would have to collapse from, say, a heart attack and fall on a source of ignition such as an open fire or cigarette that then sets light to their clothing. The fire would have to burn away the top layer of skin, allowing the highly flammable fat below to seep into the clothing and fuel the flames for hours.

Scientists suggest this could go on until nothing remained but ash. The theory was demonstrated using a dead pig wrapped in cloth on BBC’s QED show in the Eighties.

So why doesn’t the rest of the room catch on fire? The theory is that if it happens (as in most cases) in a closed space with limited oxygen, the fire would burn very slowly and be insufficient to burn the rest of the room.

What people often overlook is that it is very hard to completely burn a human body, as we are 90 per cent water. In crematoriums, bodies are exposed to heat of 1,100c for an hour-and-a-half, and the bones still remain.

So scientists suggest the wick effect would take, at the very least, 16 hours of smouldering to turn a body to ash. Not quite ‘bursting into flames’, then.

The trouble is that — for that reason alone — many of the stories I have come across just don’t fit with this ‘candle’ theory.

Take the case of Barry Soudain, from Folkestone, Kent, in 1987. His landlord, chasing him for rent money, found him on the kitchen floor: all that remained were his feet — the rest (you guessed it) was ash.

The police were adamant it was the ‘candle’ effect, but there was a half-full kettle of water boiling on a gas ring on the hob. If he had caught alight from the gas ring, he couldn’t have been burning for hours or the kettle would have burned dry.

I talked to the coroner — and he believed that the candle effect wasn’t the answer.

Another explanation is the ‘Haystack’ theory. Farmers are familiar with the phenomenon of haystacks and compost heaps catching fire. At the end of hot, dry summers it is not uncommon for harvested hay or steaming compost to spontaneously combust due to a combination of flammable matter and micro-organisms such as bacteria and mould breeding within the tightly packed material.

It is not inconceivable that similar types of bacteria in the human gut, aided by methane gas, could cause a person to erupt into flames and burn with the ferocity of a tinder-dry haystack. As one of the fire officers I spoke to for my book, Preston-based Tony McMunn, told me, the results of a normal fire death and a case of spontaneous human combustion bear no comparison to one another.

He had witnessed both, and described most people caught in a fire as having crisp, blackened skin but little damage beneath the surface. But with spontaneous combustion, often all that is left is an arm or leg.

As he chillingly put it: ‘It’s as if they burned from the inside out.’

Perhaps we can explain away some of these strange deaths, but I don’t believe we will ever solve them all. Take the chilling tale of two little sisters in 1899 from Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire — Amy and Ann Kirby, aged four and five.

For some unknown reason, they lived a mile apart, one with their mother, one with their grandmother. One day, so the records show, the grandmother ran into Amy’s room to find her on fire, with no explanation. The child died from her injuries.

Her grandmother had to make the agonising walk to tell the girl’s mother of the tragedy. But instead she was met by the mother bearing the news that Ann had passed away, too. How? She had gone up in flames — at exactly the same time as her sister.

Perhaps some things will always remain a mystery.

Peter Hough is author with Jenny Randles of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

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Years of liberal dogma have spawned a generation of amoral, uneducated, welfare dependent, brutalised youngsters

Years of liberal dogma have spawned a generation of amoral, uneducated, welfare dependent, brutalised youngsters

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By Max Hastings

A few weeks after the U.S. city of Detroit was ravaged by 1967 race riots in which 43 people died, I was shown around the wrecked areas by a black reporter named Joe Strickland.

He said: ‘Don’t you believe all that stuff people here are giving media folk about how sorry they are about what happened. When they talk to each other, they say: “It was a great fire, man!”?’

I am sure that is what many of the young rioters, black and white, who have burned and looted in England through the past few shocking nights think today.
Manchester: Hooded looters laden with clothes run from a Manchester shopping centre


It was fun. It made life interesting. It got people to notice them. As a girl looter told a BBC reporter, it showed ‘the rich’ and the police that ‘we can do what we like’.

If you live a normal life of absolute futility, which we can assume most of this week’s rioters do, excitement of any kind is welcome. The people who wrecked swathes of property, burned vehicles and terrorised communities have no moral compass to make them susceptible to guilt or shame.

Most have no jobs to go to or exams they might pass. They know no family role models, for most live in homes in which the father is unemployed, or from which he has decamped.

They are illiterate and innumerate, beyond maybe some dexterity with computer games and BlackBerries.

They are essentially wild beasts. I use that phrase advisedly, because it seems appropriate to young people bereft of the discipline that might make them employable; of the conscience that distinguishes between right and wrong.

They respond only to instinctive animal impulses — to eat and drink, have sex, seize or destroy the accessible property of others.

Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it.

A former London police chief spoke a few years ago about the ‘feral children’ on his patch — another way of describing the same reality.

The depressing truth is that at the bottom of our society is a layer of young people with no skills, education, values or aspirations. They do not have what most of us would call ‘lives’: they simply exist.

Nobody has ever dared suggest to them that they need feel any allegiance to anything, least of all Britain or their community. They do not watch royal weddings or notice Test matches or take pride in being Londoners or Scousers or Brummies.

Not only do they know nothing of Britain’s past, they care nothing for its present.

They have their being only in video games and street-fights, casual drug use and crime, sometimes petty, sometimes serious.

The notions of doing a nine-to-five job, marrying and sticking with a wife and kids, taking up DIY or learning to read properly, are beyond their imaginations.

Last week, I met a charity worker who is trying to help a teenage girl in East London to get a life for herself. There is a difficulty, however: ‘Her mother wants her to go on the game.’ My friend explained: ‘It’s the money, you know.’

An underclass has existed throughout history, which once endured appalling privation. Its spasmodic outbreaks of violence, especially in the early 19th century, frightened the ruling classes.

Its frustrations and passions were kept at bay by force and draconian legal sanctions, foremost among them capital punishment and transportation to the colonies.

Today, those at the bottom of society behave no better than their forebears, but the welfare state has relieved them from hunger and real want.

When social surveys speak of ‘deprivation’ and ‘poverty’, this is entirely relative. Meanwhile, sanctions for wrongdoing have largely vanished.

When Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith recently urged employers to take on more British workers and fewer migrants, he was greeted with a hoarse laugh.

Every firm in the land knows that an East European — for instance — will, first, bother to turn up; second, work harder; and third, be better-educated than his or her British counterpart.Who do we blame for this state of affairs?

Ken Livingstone, contemptible as ever, declares the riots to be a result of the Government’s spending cuts. This recalls the remarks of the then leader of Lambeth Council, ‘Red Ted’ Knight, who said after the 1981 Brixton riots that the police in his borough ‘amounted to an army of occupation’.

But it will not do for a moment to claim the rioters’ behaviour reflects deprived circumstances or police persecution.

Of course it is true that few have jobs, learn anything useful at school, live in decent homes, eat meals at regular hours or feel loyalty to anything beyond their local gang.

This is not, however, because they are victims of mistreatment or neglect.

It is because it is fantastically hard to help such people, young or old, without imposing a measure of compulsion which modern society finds unacceptable. These kids are what they are because nobody makes them be anything different or better.

A key factor in delinquency is lack of effective sanctions to deter it. From an early stage, feral children discover that they can bully fellow pupils at school, shout abuse at people in the streets, urinate outside pubs, hurl litter from car windows, play car radios at deafening volumes, and, indeed, commit casual assaults with only a negligible prospect of facing rebuke, far less retribution.

John Stuart Mill wrote in his great 1859 essay On Liberty: ‘The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.’

Yet every day up and down the land, this vital principle of civilised societies is breached with impunity.

Anyone who reproaches a child, far less an adult, for discarding rubbish, making a racket, committing vandalism or driving unsociably will receive in return a torrent of obscenities, if not violence.

So who is to blame? The breakdown of families, the pernicious promotion of single motherhood as a desirable state, the decline of domestic life so that even shared meals are a rarity, have all contributed importantly to the condition of the young underclass.

The social engineering industry unites to claim that the conventional template of family life is no longer valid.

And what of the schools? I do not think they can be blamed for the creation of a grotesquely self-indulgent, non-judgmental culture.

This has ultimately been sanctioned by Parliament, which refuses to accept, for instance, that children are more likely to prosper with two parents than with one, and that the dependency culture is a tragedy for those who receive something for nothing.

The judiciary colludes with social services and infinitely ingenious lawyers to assert the primacy of the rights of the criminal and aggressor over those of law-abiding citizens, especially if a young offender is involved.

The police, in recent years, have developed a reputation for ignoring yobbery and bullying, or even for taking the yobs’ side against complainants.

The problem,’ said Bill Pitt, the former head of Manchester’s Nuisance Strategy Unit, ‘is that the law appears to be there to protect the rights of the perpetrator, and does not support the victim.’

Police regularly arrest householders who are deemed to have taken ‘disproportionate’ action to protect themselves and their property from burglars or intruders. The message goes out that criminals have little to fear from ‘the feds’.

Figures published earlier this month show that a majority of ‘lesser’ crimes — which include burglary and car theft, and which cause acute distress to their victims — are never investigated, because forces think it so unlikely they will catch the perpetrators.

How do you inculcate values in a child whose only role model is footballer Wayne Rooney — a man who is bereft of the most meagre human graces?

How do you persuade children to renounce bad language when they hear little else from stars on the BBC?

A teacher, Francis Gilbert, wrote five years ago in his book Yob Nation: ‘The public feels it no longer has the right to interfere.’

Discussing the difficulties of imposing sanctions for misbehaviour or idleness at school, he described the case of a girl pupil he scolded for missing all her homework deadlines.

The youngster’s mother, a social worker, telephoned him and said: ‘Threatening to throw my daughter off the A-level course because she hasn’t done some work is tantamount to psychological abuse, and there is legislation which prevents these sorts of threats.

‘I believe you are trying to harm my child’s mental well-being, and may well take steps?.?.?. if you are not careful.’

That story rings horribly true. It reflects a society in which teachers have been deprived of their traditional right to arbitrate pupils’ behaviour. Denied power, most find it hard to sustain respect, never mind control.

I never enjoyed school, but, like most children until very recent times, did the work because I knew I would be punished if I did not. It would never have occurred to my parents not to uphold my teachers’ authority. This might have been unfair to some pupils, but it was the way schools functioned for centuries, until the advent of crazy ‘pupil rights’.


I recently received a letter from a teacher who worked in a county’s pupil referral unit, describing appalling difficulties in enforcing discipline. Her only weapon, she said, was the right to mark a disciplinary cross against a child’s name for misbehaviour.

Having repeatedly and vainly asked a 15-year-old to stop using obscene language, she said: ‘Fred, if you use language like that again, I’ll give you a cross.’

He replied: ‘Give me an effing cross, then!’ Eventually, she said: ‘Fred, you have three crosses now. You must miss your next break.’

He answered: ‘I’m not missing my break, I’m going for an effing fag!’ When she appealed to her manager, he said: ‘Well, the boy’s got a lot going on at home at the moment. Don’t be too hard on him.’

This is a story repeated daily in schools up and down the land.

A century ago, no child would have dared to use obscene language in class. Today, some use little else. It symbolises their contempt for manners and decency, and is often a foretaste of delinquency.

If a child lacks sufficient respect to address authority figures politely, and faces no penalty for failing to do so, then other forms of abuse — of property and person — come naturally.

So there we have it: a large, amoral, brutalised sub-culture of young British people who lack education because they have no will to learn, and skills which might make them employable. They are too idle to accept work waitressing or doing domestic labour, which is why almost all such jobs are filled by immigrants.

They have no code of values to dissuade them from behaving anti-socially or, indeed, criminally, and small chance of being punished if they do so.

They have no sense of responsibility for themselves, far less towards others, and look to no future beyond the next meal, sexual encounter or TV football game.

They are an absolute deadweight upon society, because they contribute nothing yet cost the taxpayer billions. Liberal opinion holds they are victims, because society has failed to provide them with opportunities to develop their potential.

Most of us would say this is nonsense. Rather, they are victims of a perverted social ethos, which elevates personal freedom to an absolute, and denies the underclass the discipline — tough love — which alone might enable some of its members to escape from the swamp of dependency in which they live.

Only education — together with politicians, judges, policemen and teachers with the courage to force feral humans to obey rules the rest of us have accepted all our lives — can provide a way forward and a way out for these people.

They are products of a culture which gives them so much unconditionally that they are let off learning how to become human beings. My dogs are better behaved and subscribe to a higher code of values than the young rioters of Tottenham, Hackney, Clapham and Birmingham.

Unless or until those who run Britain introduce incentives for decency and impose penalties for bestiality which are today entirely lacking, there will never be a shortage of young rioters and looters such as those of the past four nights, for whom their monstrous excesses were ‘a great fire, man’.

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Warning: Extreme weather ahead

Warning: extreme weather ahead

o John Vidal
o guardian.co.uk, Monday 13 June 2011 19.59 BST

Drought zones have been declared across much of England and Wales, yet Scotland has just registered its wettest-ever May. The warmest British spring in 100 years followed one of the coldest UK winters in 300 years. June in London has been colder than March. February was warm enough to strip on Snowdon, but last Saturday it snowed there.

Welcome to the climate rollercoaster, or what is being coined the “new normal” of weather. What was, until quite recently, predictable, temperate, mild and equable British weather, guaranteed to be warmish and wettish, ensuring green lawns in August, now sees the seasons reversed and temperature and rainfall records broken almost every year. When Kent receives as much rain (4mm) in May as Timbuktu, Manchester has more sunshine than Marbella, and soils in southern England are drier than those in Egypt, something is happening.

Sober government scientists at the centre for hydrology and ecology are openly using words like “remarkable”, “unprecedented” and “shocking” to describe the recent physical state of Britain this year, but the extremes we are experiencing in 2011 are nothing to the scale of what has been taking place elsewhere recently.

A tornado makes its way across Baca county, Colorado, in May 2010. Photograph: Willoughby Owen/Getty Images/Flickr

Last year, more than 2m sq km of eastern Europe and Russia scorched. An extra 50,000 people died as temperatures stayed more than 6C above normal for many weeks, crops were devastated and hunderds of giant wild fires broke out. The price of wheat and other foods rose as two thirds of the continent experienced its hottest summer in around 500 years.

This year, it’s western Europe’s turn for a mega-heatwave, with 16 countries, including France, Switzerland and Germany (and Britain on the periphery), experiencing extreme dryness. The blame is being out on El Niño and La Niña, naturally occurring but poorly understood events that follow heating and cooling of the Pacific ocean near the equator, bringing floods and droughts.

Vast areas of Europe have received less than half the rainfall they would normally get in March, April and May, temperatures have been off the scale for the time of year, nuclear power stations have been in danger of having to be shut down because they need so much river water to cool them, and boats along many of Europe’s main rivers have been grounded because of low flows. In the past week, the great European spring drought has broken in many places as massive storms and flash floods have left the streets of Germany and France running like rivers.

But for real extremes in 2011, look to Australia, China and the southern US these past few months. In Queeensland, Australia, an area the size of Germany and France was flooded in December and January in what was called the country’s “worst natural disaster”. It cost the economy up to A$30bn (£19.5bn), devastated livelihoods and is still being cleaned up.

In China, a “once-in-a-100-years” drought in southern and central regions has this year dried up hundreds of reservoirs, rivers and water courses, evaporating drinking supplies and stirring up political tensions. The government responded with a massive rain-making operation, firing thousands of rockets to “seed” clouds with silver iodide and other chemicals. It may have worked: for whatever reason, the heavens opened last week, a record 30cm of rain fell in some places in 24 hours, floods and mudslides killed 94 people, and tens of thousands of people have lost their homes.

Meanwhile, north America’s most deadly and destructive tornado season ever saw 600 “twisters” in April alone, and 138 people killed in Joplin, Missouri, by a mile-wide whirlwind. Arizonans were this week fighting some of the largest wildfires they have known, and the greatest flood in recorded US history is occurring along sections of the Missouri river. This is all taking place during a deepening drought in Texas and other southern states – the eighth year of “exceptional” drought there in the past 12 years.

“I don’t know how much more we can take,” says John Butcher, a peanut and cotton farmer near Lubbock, Texas. “It’s dry like we have never seen it before. I don’t remember anything like this. We may lose everything.”

HAARP: ANGELS DON\'T PLAY THIS HAARP

The impacts of extreme weather are greater in poorer countries, which this week are trying to secure a climate deal in the resumed talks in Bonn. In Mexico, the temperature peaked at 48.8C (119.8F) in April, the warmest anywhere in the world that month, and nearly half the country is now affected by drought. There have already been 9,000 wildfires, and the biggest farm union says that more than 3.5 million farmers are on the brink of bankruptcy because they cannot feed their cattle or grow crops.

“We are being battered by the adverse impacts of climate change,” says a negotiator for the G77 group of developing countries who wants to remain anonymous. “Frontline states face a double crunch of climate heat and poverty. But the rich countries still will not give us the cash they promised to adapt or reduce their emissions.”

Wherever you look, the climate appears to be in overdrive, with stronger weather patterns gripping large areas for longer and events veering between extremes. Last year, according to US meteorologist Jeff Masters, who co-founded leading climate tracker website Weather Underground, 17 countries experienced record temperatures. Colombia, the Amazon basin, Peru, Cuba, Kenya, Somalia and many other countries have all registered far more or less rainfall or major heatwaves in the past few years, he says. Temperatures in Bangladesh have been near record highs, leaving at least 26 people dead in the past week; Kuwait has seen temperatures in excess of 50C and Rajasthan in India 49.6C, while parts of Canada, including Toronto, have been sizzling at a record 33C.

Rich countries may be more or less immune in the short term because the global trading system guarantees food and access to electricity allows air conditioning, but in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, millions of people this year have little or no food left after successive poor rainy seasons. Last week, international aid agencies warned of an impending disaster.

Sceptics argue that there have always been droughts and floods, freak weather, heatwaves and temperature extremes, but what concerns most climate scientists and observers is that the extreme weather events are occurring more frequently, their intensity is growing and the trends all suggest long-term change as greenhouse gases steadily build in the atmosphere.

Killer droughts and heatwaves, deeper snowfalls, more widespread floods, heavier rains, and temperature extremes are now the “new normal”, says Nikhil da Victoria Lobo of the giant insurance firm Swiss Re, which last month estimated losses from natural disasters have risen from about $25bn a year in the 1980s to $130bn a year today. “Globally, what we’re seeing is more volatility,” he says.

People in the most affected areas are certainly not waiting for climate scientists to confirm climate change is happening before they adapt. In Nepal, where the rain is heavier than before, flat roofs are giving way to pitched roofs, and villagers in the drought-prone Andes are building reservoirs and changing crops to survive.

New analysis of natural disasters in 140 countries shows that climate is becoming more extreme. Last month, Oxfam reported that while the number of “geo-physical” disasters – such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions – has remained more or less constant, those caused by flooding and storms have increased from around 133 a year in 1980s to more than 350 a year now.

“It is abundantly clear that weather-related disasters have been increasing in some of the world’s poorest countries and this increase cannot be explained fully by better ways of counting them,” says Steve Jennings, the report’s author. “Whichever way you look at the figures, there is a significant rise in the number of weather-related disasters. They have been increasing and are set to get worse as climate change further intensifies natural hazards.

“I think that global ‘weirding’ is the best way to describe what we’re seeing. We are used to certain conditions and there’s a lot going on these days that is not what we’re used to, that is outside our current frame of reference,” says climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University.

New trends have been emerging for a decade or more, says the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). “In Europe, a clear trend is emerging towards drier springs. This year’s drought follows exceptionally dry years in 2007, 2009 and 2010,” says a spokesman.

While no scientist will blame climate change for any specific weather event, many argue that these phenomena are textbook examples of the kind of impact that can be expected in a warming world. Natural events, such as La Niña and El Niño, are now being exacerbated by the background warming of the world, they say.

“It is almost impossible for us to pinpoint specific events . . . and say they were caused by climate change,”
says William Chameides, atmospheric scientist at Duke University, who was vice-chair of a US government-funded national research council study on the climate options for the US which reported last month. “On the other hand, we do know that because of climate change those kinds of events will very, very likely become more common, more frequent, more intense. So what we can say is that these kinds of events that we are seeing are consistent with climate change.”

He is backed strongly in Europe. “We have to get accustomed to such extreme weather conditions, as climate change intensifies,” says Friedrich-Wilhelm Gerstengarbe, assistant director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “Heavy storms and inundations will happen in northern Germany twice or three times as frequently as in the past.”

We’ve always had El Niños and natural variability, but the background which is now operating is different. [La Niña and El Niño] are now happening in a hotter world [which means more moisture in the atmosphere],” David Jones, head of climate monitoring and prediction at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne told Reuters after the Queeensland floods.

David Barriopedro, a researcher at Lisbon University’s Instituto Dom Luiz, last month compared last year’s European heatwave with the one that struck in 2003 and calculated that the probability of a European summer experiencing a “mega-heatwave” will increase by a factor of five to 10 within the next 40 years if the warming trends continue. “This kind of event will become more common,” he says. “Mega-heatwaves are going to be more frequent and more intense in the future.”

But there may be some respite coming from extreme weather because the El Niño/La Niña episodes are now fading fast, according to the WMO. “The weather pattern, blamed for extremely heavy downpours in Australia, southeast Asia and South America over late 2010 and early 2011, is unlikely to redevelop in the middle of 2011,” it advises. “Looking ahead beyond mid-year 2011, there are currently no clear indications for enhanced risk of El Niño or La Niña in the second half of the year”

The WMO concludes, tentatively, that global weather will now return to something approaching normal. The trouble is, no one is too sure what normal is any more.

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