What happened to winter?

2019-07-22 10:37
Monthly rainfall (mm) April to June 2019.

Monthly rainfall (mm) April to June 2019.

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It  may be nippy today, but in general, where is Pietermaritzburg’s winter?

This is the question being asked by scores of locals and those in other provinces who agreed it has been a “very mild” winter this year.

For the past few years we have seen the global record for highest temperature in recorded history being broken, and it is thought that 2019 will also be a record breaker.

University of KwaZulu-Natal agrometeorologist Dr Alistair Clulow said that since 1880, the globe had experienced a constant rate of temperature increase as part of the earth’s natural global warming cycle, but things changed in the early 1970s.

He said temperatures are increasing five times faster now compared to before 1970.

“The temperature is increasing at a higher but constant rate at present. This may continue or even increase further if we don’t reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

“This can mostly be attributed to industrialisation, the burning of coal and other fossil fuels as well as food production.

“Ploughing and fertilising soils and draining wetlands releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

“Green­house gases trap heat in our atmosphere. Increase their concentration and you trap more heat,” he said.

Statistics given to Weekend Witness by the South African Weather Service show that Pieter­maritzburg has experienced higher average temperatures for May and June than last year and, while the temperature difference may not seem like a large jump, the effects are being felt across the city, as well as across parts of the province.

Clulow, however, said climate change doesn’t only affect the temperature, but that there are other factors to consider, such as shifts in rainfall patterns, more storms and higher wind speeds.

“It is very complex and difficult to predict how things will change,” he noted.

Wind speeds can affect farmers as strong winds can damage and bruise produce, resulting in less good-quality products to export.

“Wind can have a negative affect on many crops.

“Maize and sugar cane have a higher chance of lodging, which means they fall over, and fruit can be damaged with a reduction in fruit quality.

“We are going to have to start looking at using artificial micro-climates and controlled environments because of the changes in weather and the impact it has on crops. This will be difficult in South Africa as we use large expanses of agricultural land.

“There is a lot more research that needs to be done,” he said.

Clulow added that the warmer the winters are, the greater the effects on other factors.

“Lots of pests and diseases are controlled by the cold periods in winter. When we don’t experience them, or they are not long enough, then the plants they feed on can be significantly damaged.

“Some fruit trees require chill units to be able to bear fruit. So warmer winters and later first frosts have a big impact...”

The South African Weather Service said data they gathered showed that while Pietermaritzburg specifically, and KZN in general, received above-normal rainfall during April however, below-normal rainfall was recorded for May and June.

They said this also explained the average maximum temperature being below normal during April over large parts of KZN.

The weather bureau said the dry conditions during May and June resulted in above-normal average minimum and maximum temperatures.

“The only exception is the north-western part of the province, where below-normal minimum temperatures were observed during June,” they said.

The Weather Service said some provinces (notably Northern Cape, parts of Western Cape as well as North West and the provinces north of the Vaal) have received very “spotty”, isolated-type rainfall, or almost nothing at all.

“Certainly there was a late summer/autumn ‘spike’ in rainfall,” they said, “but this was very localised”.

Pietermaritzburg temperature deviations in 2019 in relation to normal 

April – average minimum 0,5 °C above normal and average maximum 1,6 °C below normal

May – average minimum 2,1 °C above normal and average maximum 1,2 °C above normal

June – average minimum 0,8 °C above normal and average maximum 1,6 °C above normal

— SA Weather Service.

Pietermaritzburg residents and people from around the country posted on the Weather Today-Southern Africa Facebook page about 2019’s “mild winter”.    

Lynda Tyrer, from Pietermaritzburg, posted: “The winters are much warmer and drier. I remember not too long ago lying at night listening to the sleet hitting the windows and being so overdressed to keep warm that I looked like a second-hand clothing store on legs. No frost to speak of and the yard looks like silt, powdery and dusty.” 

Chris van Latum posted: “Yesterday was 27°C, which is nine degrees higher than the average for Gauteng over this period.” 

Sharon Taylor posted on the page: “Same in the Eastern Province, Zambia. Last year was so cold but I have only worn my fleece in the office twice this year.”

Simon Spooner wrote: “Same here in Bulawayo. Warmest July thus far for many years.” 

Felicity Schröder Roets from Hillcrest posted that her lawn is still green and “the cicadas are still screeching, deciduous trees haven’t lost all their leaves, night birds are still calling. So yes, it’s a much warmer winter here”. 

Jurgen Human posted: “The winter definitely came very late and the day temperatures are much higher than normal.  Maybe, just maybe, everything is just delayed and the cold will come at the end of July, August”.  Thomas Meyer from New Germany, Durban, posted: “Maybe the cold weather is still going to appear as Mother Nature has been acting very strange these last couple of years.”

Karen Pepworth Palmer from Pieter­maritzburg posted: “The fig tree is getting new leaves and we cannot prune roses as it’s still too warm.”

Susan Myburgh Simkiss posted: “Winter? What winter? Global warming is real and we can see it happening before our eyes.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  climate change
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