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Unimaginable climate conditions becoming reality

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Rescue operations for missing people are underway at a submerged underpass in the Osong area of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, July 16. Korea Times
Rescue operations for missing people are underway at a submerged underpass in the Osong area of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province, July 16. Korea Times

By Kim Rahn

Two weeks ago my family took a trip to a resort in Hongcheon, Gangwon Province. Planning the trip far in advance, we had no idea that there would be so much rain that week.

After having fun at the waterpark, which was still enjoyable despite the rain, our concerns over returning home safely grew deeper as the downpour intensified. Because the resort we stayed in was situated in a mountainous area, my cellphone kept buzzing with text warnings of landslides sent from various nearby local governments, along with heavy rain warnings.

The concerns were based on our own experience three years ago during a summer trip to Jeonju, North Jeolla Province. During that trip, we met with torrential rain on our way home. The rainwater on the roads was rising rapidly and forcing us to make a detour while the navigation system was directing us toward a closed road in the middle of a city where we had never been. My family members and I were gripped with fear which continued for some time even after we managed to escape the downpour as we headed northward.

Luckily, this time, it did not rain as much on the day of our return. But the unrelenting rainstorms throughout that week wreaked havoc on many parts of the country, causing major flooding and multiple landslides which killed at least 50, including 14 who died in the flash flooding of an underpass in the Osong area of Cheongju, North Chungcheong Province.

Weather and disaster authorities said the daily and hourly precipitation recorded in many parts of the country were the highest ever, reaching almost once-in-a-century levels, and thus it was almost impossible for them to prepare for the weather event with hopes of preventing or reducing the damage witnessed.

Even though the precipitation was unprecedentedly high, what is worrisome is that such "unexpected situations" have been seen repeatedly in recent years. Many regions have seen new precipitation records almost every year.

It seems fair to say that "once-in-a-century" rainfall is becoming a once-a-year certainty.

The cause of this situation is obvious: global warming.

Climate and water management experts say the raised temperature of the Earth has brought about large amounts of rainfall, snowfall, intense heat and cold that go beyond the Earth's usual tolerances.

While Korea has been suffering weeks of continuous heavy rain, before that it had early heat waves. Many other parts of the world are also experiencing extreme heat or rainfall, with southern European nations having temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius and eastern Canada seeing its most serious floods in 52 years. Now it is common for the world to have such "unusual" climate patterns and it is getting harder to tell which is usual and which is unusual.

A scene from the Japanese animation
A scene from the Japanese animation "Weathering With You" / Courtesy of Media Castle

These somewhat unimaginable climate conditions remind me of an animation and a webcomic, both about a climate change-devastated future.

In the 2019 Japanese animation "Weathering With You," director Makoto Shinkai weaves an interesting plot around a female protagonist who possesses the ability to control the weather. But what remained long and deep in my head was the setting: Tokyo, in the years 2021 to 2024, where it rains almost every day. Due to the years-long rain, one-third of Tokyo becomes submerged.

The Korean webtoon "Us on the Water" (direct translation), currently running on Naver, shows a post-apocalyptic Korean Peninsula, where more than half of the land has been submerged due to a global sea level rise and the remaining population lives mostly in formerly high-elevation regions. People have lost the civilization they had built and focus only on how to survive, with region-based factions in conflict and killing one another over scarce resources.

Although the settings are imaginary, they are quite probable considering the series of unusual weather conditions around the world in recent years and the fact that some low-lying island countries are already experiencing submersion from the rising sea level. World Meteorological Organization spokesperson Claire Nullis said in June, "What we're witnessing today is unfortunately a foretaste of the future."

Following the heavy rain, the authorities are busy coming up with countermeasures, such as banning building new homes with semi-basement housing, upgrading alert systems and establishing more drainage facilities. But these measures can become useless in yet another case of "unprecedented" weather conditions becoming normal and repeated. The fundamental solution is, of course, stopping global warming from growing more serious, if not cooling down the Earth. Without this, we may have to face in the real world what seemed to be possible only in the fictional settings of animation and webtoons.

The writer is news division head of The Korea Times.

Kim Rahn


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