Even more than in many parts of the world, the climate in Taiwan is changing, bringing greater chances of extreme weather conditions. Will Taiwan be ready?
Taiwan has been experiencing a steady trend of warmer winters, hotter summers, fewer but more torrential rains, and more frequent droughts, according to a 2011 government report. The Taiwan Climate Change Projection and Information Platform Project (TCCPIP) under the Ministry of Science and Technology) further notes that Taiwan’s average temperature rise over the past century – at 1.1-1.6 degrees Celsius – far exceeded the global average of 0.8 degrees Celsius as calculated by the United Nations-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Over the last 30 years, Taiwan’s temperature has risen by 0.29 degrees Celsius per decade, much faster than the global average of 0.07 degrees per decade.
The impact on Taiwan’s environment is already measurable. “Our ocean shores are retreating, and our coral is dying,” observes Hsu Huang-hsiung, deputy director and research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Research Center for Environmental Changes (RCEC). “Our projections indicate that we will probably have fewer typhoons but when they come they will be stronger and bring more rainfall.”
Not all of these changes can be directly attributed to global climate change, and in any case climate is influenced by a vast and intricately complex array of factors, with considerable seasonal, annual, and even decadal variability. For example, the fact that Taiwan and the entire East Asia region is warming faster than other parts of the world is due in part to the weakening of the East Asian Summer Monsoon (EASM) that brings moist air from the Pacific to the region. Scientists are unclear why the EASM is weakening, although a Chinese research paper indicates that it might be linked to climate change-related warming of the atmosphere above Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Nevertheless, climate experts are confident that climate change is a major factor increasing the likelihood of extreme weather both in Taiwan and around the world, with major implications for society. Heavier but more erratic rainfalls and typhoons can have significant impact on Taiwan’s fragile, mountainous landscape, with landslides a common and deadly occurrence. In August 2009, Typhoon Morakot broke records by dumping over 2,500 millimeters of rainfall on parts of southern Taiwan, causing ruinous landslides that buried the entire village of Xiaolin (sometimes spelled Siaolin) in Kaohsiung, killing hundreds.
At this point, scientists are hesitant to attribute any single storm to climate change, but with the IPCC already anticipating potentially larger and more powerful storms in the future, Typhoon Morakot served as a bellwether of what Taiwan might need to expect going forward.
The National Development Council (NDC) under the Executive Yuan, in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Administration, established a National Climate Change Adaptation Policy Framework and a National Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan in 2010. The objective is to bring together Taiwan’s government ministries, academics and researchers, non-governmental organizations, and business community to more clearly understand the looming challenges of climate change and generate assessments on specific vulnerabilities and how they might be addressed.
In a 2012 paper, Adaptation Strategy to Climate Change in Taiwan, the Council for Economic Planning and Development (forerunner to the NDC) identified eight key areas that are expected to be profoundly impacted by climate change. Relevant government ministries were assigned to explore adaptive measures that could be taken in their areas of competence: for the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the likely effect on vulnerable infrastructure; for the Ministry of Interior, the potential impact on land use and coastal zones; for the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the implications for power supply, industrial activity, and water resources; for the Council of Agriculture (COA), the impact on agriculture and biodiversity; and for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the potential ramifications for public health.
The National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction (NCDR) under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) is tasked with forecasting the impact of climate change on natural disasters such as typhoons and landslides with the aim of diminishing the loss of life and property in the future. MOST also funds several important research groups in alliance with universities and research centers. The Consortium for Climate Change Study, for example, is a joint effort by MOST and several universities, including Academia Sinica’s RCEC. Under the leadership of the NCDR, MOST also supports the TCCPIP, the research body that has fostered much of Taiwan’s research and preparation work, including publication of the landmark study Climate Change in Taiwan: Scientific Report 2011. An updated version of the study is due to be published in the near future.
Tung Tsung-ta, associate researcher at MOST’s Department of Natural Sciences and Sustainable Development, highlights the need for inter-agency cooperation in his area of expertise, water resources. “If you have stronger rainfall, you’ll have more landslides and more soil being flushed out, so you expect that the water will be more turbulent, which will impact the water quality,” he explains. “And if you have drought, then the amount of nutrients in the water will increase, which will lead to more bacteria and make water treatment more difficult.”
Taiwan already has such widely recognized problems as insufficient reservoir capacity due to silting (which Tung notes was greatly worsened by the 9/21 earthquake in 1999 and the more recent Typhoon Morakot), and its old and leaky pipelines – problems that will only worsen over time. The combination of inadequate water-storage capacity and more frequent droughts could have a severe impact on Taiwan’s agricultural (which consumes some 70% of Taiwan’s water) and industrial sectors.
The potential impact of water resources on public health is also a concern. For example, dengue fever, already at epidemic proportions last year in southern Taiwan, could migrate north as the climate warms. Since the mosquitoes carrying dengue fever breed in stagnant water in hot climates, the extent of the challenge facing public health officers is expected to grow as temperatures rise.
Taiwan is not yet implementing many of the recommendations of the various research groups, aside from some general proposals regarding coastal and river valley development. According to the Adaptation Strategy report, the work being done today will be of value in future in establishing a legal framework and government organizations to deal with climate change, drafting relevant national policies and decision-making mechanisms, enhancing research and development in climate-change adaptation technology, cultivating related specialists, and increasing public awareness and knowledge about climate change.
The accuracy of climate modelling is crucial to projecting future climactic conditions so as to effectively guide Taiwan’s climate-change policymaking.
The IPCC relies on climate models called General Circulation Models (GCMs), computer simulations that depict “physical processes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surface.” The IPCC considers them “the most advanced tools currently available for simulating the response of the global climate system to increasing greenhouse gas concentration.”
Academia Sinica’s Hsu notes that at least 20 different GCMs have been developed by research institutes and are recognized by the IPCC. While Taiwan has not developed its own model, instead using a climate model adopted from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), Hsu says Taiwanese scientists have made a major contribution by improving it.
Climate models are assessed by how well they can simulate past and present global and local climate systems. Hsu says that Taiwanese researchers’ adaptation of the NCAR climate model has enabled them to predict known weather phenomena that had not been successfully modeled elsewhere. “We believe that this can provide important information that will be useful in identifying possible change in the future,” he says.
Taiwan’s distinct geography – a relatively small island with steep mountains – gives it a highly complex pattern of microclimates that NCDR’s scientists say are very difficult to model accurately. Although Taiwan has 100 years of recorded weather data, most of it is limited to temperature, precipitation, and wind speed, and is not as detailed as required for accurate climate modeling.
Another disadvantage is the limited number of scientists working on such models in Taiwan. The IPCC bases its confidence in its own climate projections on the consensus derived by having a large group of scientists using various climate models. In Taiwan, those numbers aren’t available. And since international politics isolates Taiwan from the IPCC, Taiwan’s climatologists are instead seeking out greater cooperation with regional organizations in South Korea, Japan, and the United States.
Weather forecasting is another area where Taiwan is making strides in both improving accuracy and gaining greater international cooperation. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for example, reportedly is seeking greater cooperation with Taiwan in weather forecasting and other areas of regional concern. Chien Hiu-chen, head of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) GHG Reduction Management Office, says that through its attendance at the climate change talks that led to the Paris Accord last December, Taiwan is gaining cooperation with Japan, South Korea, and other countries in the area in regional weather forecasting.
The climate projections will be increasingly important for policy and planning for infrastructure, coastal development, agriculture, and a host of other sectors, while accurate weather forecasting, particularly with regard to extreme weather events, can be crucial to protecting Taiwan.
Insurance and damage
Chang Ching-cheng, an economist at Academia Sinica, is working on analyzing data comparing typhoon damage to related weather forecasts in hopes of helping to better prepare for future storms. She observes that with extreme weather events projected to increase in intensity, Taiwan will have to be ready to deal with the economic fallout. In developed countries, people commonly safeguard against such damage by purchasing property insurance, but Chang says that Taiwan’s comparatively small size and the tight concentration of the population on just 30% of the landmass means that insurance companies are unable to distribute the risks widely. As a result, insurers would need to charge high premiums for the coverage.
In Taiwan, the government is using its own funds to cover losses to private property from flooding, especially in the agricultural sector. This method is popular with the farmers, as they can receive protection without having to buy insurance. However, given the frequency of natural disasters in Taiwan, the COA always runs out of funds from its contingency reserves and must request additional funding.
In addition, at the government’s encouragement many farmers have been shifting production from cheaper crops such as rice to high-value fruits and vegetables, as well as intensive aquaculture for export. The result is that the amount of post-disaster compensation to be paid is getting higher and higher. Nevertheless, such programs provide “a very effective way for local politicians to demonstrate that they are doing something that can help farmers and can attract votes within their jurisdiction,” says Chang, leading to the lowering of loss thresholds and the need for even more funds to be provided by the government.
Chang says the government is seeking to promote property insurance for all sectors, including agriculture, adding that less than half of Taiwan’s private properties are adequately insured against fire, earthquakes, typhoons, and other disasters. Such insurance is only mandatory for properties that are mortgaged, accounting for only around half of Taiwan’s private residences.
Lin Jiun-chuen, geography professor and director of National Taiwan University’s Global Change Center, urges the government to develop its disaster fund mechanisms into an insurance system. “If you think that the threat of climate change will raise the risk of disasters, then it’s very difficult to survive with limited budgets,” he observes.
The NCDR has done a lot to integrate and synthesize vast amounts of data coming from an array of scientific institutions, research centers, and government ministries, and it has made the data publicly available online at http://tccip.ncdr.nat.gov.tw/v2/index_en.aspx. The content includes both historical data and projections about future climate based on various models and scenarios involving different emissions levels.
The website took six years of intensive work to build, but serves to inform both policymakers and the public. “People are asking questions, wondering what’s climate change, what’s happening in Taiwan, what will be the impacts – but you can’t assess the impacts without the climate data,” explains Kuo Shih-yun, management and socio-economic system division assistant research fellow at NCDR. “So we know that the first step is to establish those data points.”
The warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body established to investigate measureable changes in the world’s weather and temperature, is clear: the world’s temperature is heating up, with immense implications for global weather patterns and perhaps even life itself.
“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” states the IPCC in its most recent report. “The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.”
The average global temperature in 2015 was the warmest since record keeping began in the 1850s, and the ten warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The IPCC is unambiguous in its assessment of the science of climate change: climate change is real, and it is caused by the unprecedented surge in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and other “greenhouse gases.” GHG concentrations have reached a milestone of 400ppm (part per million), up from 288ppm in 1850, and continue to rise. 2014 saw emissions reach 36 billion tons, and while the numbers might have declined somewhat with China, the world’s biggest emitter, experiencing economic slowdown, economists and scientists forecast that they will continue to rise.
CO2 (which comprises over 90% of all GHG emissions trapped in the atmosphere) and other greenhouse gases are emitted primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The amount of these gases trapped in the atmosphere has nearly doubled since the Industrial Age began in the mid-nineteenth century, and with the rise of China seems certain to continue rising. Greenhouse gases allow sunlight to filter through the atmosphere, but due to the way they react with light, particularly infrared light, they serve to capture the heat that would normally be reflected back into space, in effect turning the entire world into a vast greenhouse – the Greenhouse Effect.
“Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history,” notes the IPCC report. It observes that recent climate changes have already “had widespread impacts on human and natural systems” due to more frequent heat waves and droughts, and less frequent cold fronts.