Sunny? Cloudy? Raining? How fascinating!

Han Fook Kwang The Straits Times AsiaOne 15 Apr 14;

What is it about the weather in Singapore that makes it so fascinating?

If you get a funny look when asking this question, it's probably also sunny or cloudy or raining.

Or all three depending on which part of the day it is.

So, the weather here is so predictable you wish we had the four seasons?

That's a view borne out of ignorance.

It's time to change this attitude because not only is the weather as interesting as anywhere else in the world, knowing it is also the first step to understanding its importance to our future.

But the reality is that even though there has been much discussion in recent years about climate change and the dire consequences that might follow, interest in the weather has been as dry as the recent drought.

Ask anyone here and chances are, many can't tell the difference between a Sumatran squall and a north-east monsoon surge.

Or between cumulonimbus and altostratus. (Hint: Think clouds.)

As for climate change, it is too riddled with the confusing science of carbon emissions and ozone reactions.

This lack of interest and the accompanying ignorance are a shame because weather and climate are such a large part of our lives and so immediately felt, it's like not knowing your own body.

And it is of such a wondrous nature - alive and changing, noisy and colourful - too complex to know completely, yet so fundamental to our lives that only a fool would not want to know it.

Our farming and hunting forefathers knew better, or they would have died starving.

City dwellers think they can do without the knowledge but they will regret this in time.

So, what's so interesting about the Singapore weather?

Did you know that the monsoon rains we get in November and December originate from what's happening in Siberia?

It starts to get really cold there and, as the entire Asian continent cools during the northern winter period, a high pressure region develops.

As a result, the air moves towards the warmer seas in the south, such as the South China Sea, picking up moisture along the way and dumping it onto our part of the world.

There are other monsoon rains that develop in a similar way in west Africa and the south-west United States but none are as spectacular as what we get here.

That's because these winds move from the largest land mass in the world (the Euro-Asia continent) to the largest body of water (the Indo-Pacific ocean).

The rain they bring is the reason large swathes of humanity were able to settle in Asia, and so began modern civilisation.

Singapore is smack in the middle of this watery deluge.

It is also in the middle of two bands of high pressure regions, 30 degrees north and south of the equator, that give rise to what are often called the trade winds because they were used by sailing ships in the past to cross the big oceans, opening up trade routes between countries.

How can we not know about the mysterious winds when they bring not only the rain but also the ships, and Singapore's reason for existence?

If you want to know more, read an excellent publication produced by the Meteorological Service Singapore, The Weather And Climate Of Singapore, from which I obtained much of the information for this piece.

Indeed, the weather has made the news more often these days than before, the recent record-breaking drought being the latest example.

With large parts of the country parched dry, the grass brown and half-dead, it looked and felt to me like the country was dying.

Is this how the future might look if the climate change doomsayers are right?

With shiny skyscrapers standing tall among the urban infrastructure but amid death all around, among the trees and plants, and the animals that live off the vegetation?

At the height of the drought in February, it wasn't hard to imagine this death scene occurring in a future devastated by climate change.

According to the Met Service, temperatures here have risen an average of 0.25 deg C a decade, consistent with global trends.

For most people, this may be too small a change to detect, but beware the effects that chaos theory predicts.

This hypothesis is about how a system can become hugely sensitive to small - even infinitesimally tiny - changes in the initial condition, resulting in very large consequences.

The Earth's atmosphere is such a chaotic system.

In fact, it was a meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, who discovered this theory, leading him to make the well-known pronouncement that "the flap of a butterfly's wing can cause a tornado over Texas".

Can a similarly inconsequential change in some far-flung location result in a drought here many times more severe than the last?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report two weeks ago warning that the consequences of rising temperatures from carbon emissions were even more serious than predicted in 2007 when the last IPCC study was done.

Ice caps are melting faster than anticipated, sea levels rising, and heatwaves and heavy rain are intensifying with the prospect of water shortages, flooding and crop failures.

Some critics have labelled the report alarmist, questioning the science behind it.

For ordinary people like you and me, it is not possible to decide the merits of the various arguments.

What we can and should do is to become more interested in the weather and understand how it relates to the larger system.

And we have to start locally, with our own weather.

Even if it is always sunny, cloudy or raining.

It is too life-threatening a subject to be left to the experts.