A New Effort to Link Extreme Weather to Climate Change

Epic floods in Pakistan and Australia; a heatwave that killed 54,000 people in Russia; the hottest April on record in the UK in about 400 years; flooding and the deadliest Tornado season in memory in the United States; the worst drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa…and that all in the last 18 months.

There’s something happening here, but so far scientists have been reluctant to attribute climate change to any specific weather event.  That, however, may soon change.  From The Independent.

… A growing number of climate scientists are now prepared to adopt a far more aggressive posture, arguing that the climate has already changed enough for it to be affecting the probability of an extreme weather event, whether it is an intense hurricane, a major flood or a devasating drought.

“We’ve certainly moved beyond the point of saying that we can’t say anything about attributing extreme weather events to climate change,” said Peter Stott, a leading climate scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter.

“It’s very clear we’re in a changed climate now which means there’s more moisture in the atmosphere and the potential for stronger storms and heavier rainfall is clearly there.”

Kevin Trenberth, a distinguished senior scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, also believes the time has come to emphasise the link between extreme weather and the global climate in which it develops.

“The environment in which all storms form has changed owing to human activities, in particular it is warmer and more moist than it was 30 or 40 years ago,” Dr Trenberth said.

“We have this extra water vapour lurking around waiting for storms to develop and then there is more moisture as well as heat that is available for these storms [to form]. The models suggest it is going to get drier in the subtropics, wetter in the monsoon trough and wetter at higher latitudes. This is the pattern we’re already seeing.”

The Met Office and NCAR have joined forces with other climate organisations, including the influential US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organisation (NOAA), to carry out detailed investigations of extreme weather events, such as the vast flooding in Pakistan last year, to see whether they can detect a climate change “signal” as a likely cause.

A group of their researchers has formed a coalition called the Attribution of Climate-Related Events which is preparing a report on the subject to be published later this year at a meeting of the World Climate Research Programme in Denver. They hope in future to assess each extreme weather phenomenon in terms of its probability of being linked with global warming and then to post the result on the internet.

One of the great challenges to the political debate over climate change here in the United States is that it is generally pretty far down the list of priorities for your average American.  I presume this is probably true for much of the developed world, but probably not as much for agrarian societies in regions (like the Sahel) where people have personally witnessed climate change in their lifetimes.

Americans just don’t consider climate change to be a problem for them. (So what if the world is getting a little bit warmer?  We don’t see it affecting our lives.) Accordingly, climate change activism remains in the realm of a small (but growing!) cohort of Americans.

If this project is successful, it could potentially be a game changer.  People will be able to see–and understand– just how climate change is affecting their lives and livelihoods. If a head of household understands that the flood which destroyed her home is attributable to anthropogenic climate change, which in turn is exacerbated by problematic public policies, then just maybe a broad based social movement on climate change might be born.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m hoping for…