A climate of extremes?

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A climate of extremes?
Residential city street blanketed in couple feet of snow, car in foreground completely covered in snow

Was New York’s epic blizzard last month related to climate change?

Skeptical about global warming? 2010 has just tied 2005, making these the two hottest years on record. And nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.

But temperature is only part of the story. After a year that saw epic floods in Pakistan and California, massive floods have swamped Brisbane, Australia, population 2 million. Russia was toasted by a record heat wave last summer. Europe and, of course, New York were smothered by giant snowstorms.

And we just read that 2010 had the heaviest precipitation on records that date to 1880.

So we have to ask: Is this normal weather, or is this climate change in action?

See the Classroom Activity Page for this story.

And as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, what will happen the day after tomorrow?

There is good theoretical reason to think that an accelerating greenhouse effect will affect weather: Add greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and they trap more heat. In hotter conditions, more water evaporates from the ocean, which eventually falls as precipitation. Heat is energy, and more energy in the ocean and atmosphere provides more power to drive intense storms.

Graph shows large CO2 increase starting at 1950 and corresponding increase in annual global temp

Graph: Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force: Recommended Actions in Support of a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, October 5, 2010
If you doubt that warming temperatures have anything to do with carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, here’s something to think about. Horizontal divider shows average temperatures, 1901-2000.

If, as virtually all climatologists expect, global average temperatures will rise, what will happen to extremes like these:

• Daily record temperatures
• Precipitation
• Drought
• Hurricanes and other storms

These questions are devilishly difficult to answer. It’s a big planet, and assessing conditions during the past few decades, and making projections for the future, is a gnarly task. Climate models are better at getting the big picture than making regional forecasts for future weather. Data records are incomplete, especially as we delve further in the past.

Nevertheless, let’s ask our question about both recent weather data and future forecasts.

Record temperatures

As the climate warms, one easy prediction is that record warm days will become more common, and record colds will be less common. When Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, compared the number of record daily highs to the number of record daily lows in the U.S., he found they were roughly equal in the 1950s.

Animation: NASA
Click to see changes in average temperatures around the globe from 1885 to 2009.

Today, he says, “for every two record highs, there is only one record low. If there was no warming going on, the ratio would be one to one, so we are shifting the odds toward having a better chance for setting a record high versus a record low.”

Meehl says Australian data show the same thing.

Even though the climate has warmed by only about 0.6° C, he says, “This shows that even with a very small change in average temperature, about 1° Fahrenheit, we can get a pretty noticeable change in the extremes.”

At some point, we may look fondly upon today’s two-to-one ratio, as climate models suggest the ratio will reach 20 to 1 by year 2050 and 50 to 1 in 2100. Yet even then, when the U.S. average temperature may have risen by several degrees C, “We still get some daily record low temperatures,” Meehl says. “We still get extremely cold weather, although it will happen much less frequently.”

Change in very heavy precipitation over U.S.

Map shows Northeast has highest precip increase, Midwest second highest, followed by Alaska and Southeast

The amount of precipitation falling in the heaviest 1 percent of all daily events has increased during the last half-century, especially in New England and the Midwest.
Map: Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force: Recommended Actions in Support of a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, October 5, 2010.

Today, he notes, “When there’s a cold snap, people ask, ‘What happened to global warming?’ But even with warming, it will still get cold, but not extremely cold, and not as often.”

Precipitous rise in precipitation?

Rain and snow are two ways that the atmosphere feeds life on the planet. A hotter atmosphere has the ability to hold more moisture because more water evaporates from the ocean, and warmer air can also store more moisture.

Already, says Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the water-vapor contained in an imaginary cylinder stretching from Earth to space has been rising 1.3 percent per decade since the 1970s.

And so warming means more potential for precipitation.

“When we review change in the hydrological cycle,” Trenberth says, “not just tropical cyclones [hurricanes and typhoons] but extra-tropical cyclones and individual thunderstorms, the evidence from around the world is that when it rains, it rains harder, when it snows, it snows harder. This is consistent with the understanding we have, the theory.”

That is also happening in the United States, where days with intense rain and snow have been increasing, says Meehl. “When it rains, it pours, we see this in observations, and models show an increase in the future.” For example, a summary published in 20071 found that, “Over the last century there was a 50% increase in the frequency of days with precipitation over 101.6 mm (four inches) in the upper Midwestern U.S.”

However, land use plays a role in some observed precipitation changes, says James O’Brien, emeritus professor of meteorology and oceanography at Florida State University. “We studied heavy rainfall over 62 years in Orlando, Fla., and did a simple thing: We divided the time into two periods of 32 years each, and looked at the probability of one or more two-inch rainfalls.”

Extreme floods: Any relation to global warming?

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In the recent period, during almost all non-summer months, Orlando had a big increase in heavy rain, but Gainesville, 40 miles away, did not. “The cause in Orlando is absolutely clear,” says O’Brien. “It’s Disney World. It’s all the roads, the concrete, which act as a heat sink. In winter, a cold fronts hits a bubble of heat caused by this heat island, and it kicks up a storm and you get more rain.”

Heavy rain = heavy drought?

Even if total precipitation does not change, there are consequences to the newer “when-it-rains-it-pours” precip pattern. Heavy rain runs off rather than percolating into the soil, so instead of feeding plants, it can cause soil erosion and floods. If, as some models suggest, extreme precipitation increases in springtime, when the ground is still frozen, “that has a significantly different impact than extreme rainfall during summer,” says Daniel Vimont, an assistant professor at the Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, because the rain cannot enter the soil and must run off.

Heavy rain can also contribute to drought by drying the atmosphere, Meehl says. “We have to take into account the number of days between precipitation events. On a map of North America, almost everywhere intensity shows an increase to date, and a projected increase, but we also see dry days increasing, like in the southern tier of states and especially the Southwest. When it rains, it rains really hard, but there are more days between rainfalls. On average, you are getting less total precipitation, but the risk for floods has increased because of this intensity increase. Over long periods, we are seeing drier conditions, because the number of days between events is also increased.”

Facing a wave of drought

A trend toward drought is already under way, according to a 2004 study by Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which found that the percentage of Earth’s land area stricken by serious drought had more than doubled between the 1970s and the early 2000s.

The future seems no more benign. Last October, Dai published a review, based on 22 computer climate models, that projected a major expansion of drought over the next 30 years. The affected area includes the breadbasket regions of North and South America, most of Africa and Australia, and parts of China and neighboring countries.

A climate of drought?

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These maps show projections for drought in future decades, based on expected greenhouse gas releases. Positive numbers on the Palmer Drought Severity Index show unusually wet conditions for each region, and negative numbers show unusually dry conditions. Readings of -4 and below represent extreme drought.

According to the study, the western two-thirds of the United States will be significantly drier in the 2030s, after which matters will only get worse.

In general, the only places that will see more precipitation are in the extreme north — Northern Russia, Scandinavia, Canada and Alaska.

So reindeer need raincoats…

But seriously, “We are facing the possibility of widespread drought in the coming decades, but this has yet to be fully recognized by both the public and the climate change research community,” Dai says. “If the projections in this study come even close to being realized, the consequences for society worldwide will be enormous.”

Cyclones, typhoons and hurricanes

In terms of extreme weather, nothing beats the tropical storms variously called typhoons, tropical cyclones or hurricanes — for their winds, high seas and astonishing rainfalls. So hurricanes are the natural focus of study on the past and future effects of global warming.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina played the starring role in a series of powerful hurricanes that pounded the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and we reported that hurricanes were packing more power in a warmed planet.

Then came a counter-rebellion: scientists began questioning whether hurricanes were really more powerful, and noted that they were not getting more common (although everybody agrees that increasing population and development along the coasts both contribute to greater storm damage).

The chief hindrances to finding real trends in the tropical cyclones are their long-term, natural variation in strength and frequency, and the wobbly nature of data on older cyclones. In the North Atlantic, home of the best hurricane data, the quality of the data jumped when airplanes began flying into hurricanes in 1944, and again when satellite tracking began around 1970. Data on older Pacific and Indian Ocean storms are even more questionable.

To explore how global warming will affect tropical cyclones, the World Meteorological Organization set up a team under the leadership of Thomas Knutson, of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. Knutson’s group projected that hurricanes, globally, will become 6 percent to 34 percent less common by 2100, despite the warming trends2.

The counterintuitive reduction may be due to wind. These storms need a warm ocean to provide energy, “but you also need an atmosphere that cooperates,” explains Charles Conrad, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina and director of the Southeast Regional Climate Center. Wind shear, a change in wind velocity with altitude, can blow a developing storm apart. “Some global climate models suggest that more wind shear over the tropical and sub-tropical Atlantic may inhibit cyclones, so when you put that together with higher sea-surface temperatures, this suggests that when a system can develop, it will be stronger.”

Fluctuating lines show dramatic increase in sea surface temp increase and hurricane power starting in 1990s

Graph: Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate3
Heat energy from the ocean powers hurricanes, and storm intensity closely follows changes in sea surface temperature in the North Atlantic. “Power dissipation” is a measure of the storm’s total power, based on a cube of maximum wind speed.

A question of intensity

Given the rickety data on older storms, Knutson’s group concluded that “it remains uncertain whether past changes in tropical cyclone activity have exceeded the variability expected from natural causes.” According to team member Christopher Landsea, science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center, “Every single paper in the peer reviewed literature, looking at the theoretical side of hurricanes and global warming, or the climate model simulations, says the same thing. The changes today are very, very tiny, maybe 1 percent stronger, due to manmade global warming.”

But another member of the team begs to disagree. “I think the evidence is fairly unequivocal that there has been an increase in intensity,” says Kerry Emanuel, professor of tropical meteorology and climate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To gauge intensity, Emanuel used wind speed, measured at six-hour intervals, to calculate a “power dissipation index,” fancy lingo for the amount of energy that enters the hurricane.

The index, he says, shows that recent hurricane intensity is “beautifully correlated with ocean temperature in the tropics,” and those warm seas, in turn, result from accelerating greenhouse warming. Changing levels of greenhouse gases and reflective aerosols in the atmosphere “are the cleanest explanation for what happened with hurricanes,” Emanuel says. “I think there is a strong [human-caused] signal in Atlantic hurricanes over the last 40 years.”

Tower of power

And what of the future? The Knutson team projected that average maximum winds would increase 2 percent to 11 percent by 2100, so “a substantial increase in the frequency of the most intense storms is more likely than not globally, although this may not occur in all tropical regions.”

Although the group wrote that intense tropical cyclones, “deserve particular attention, as these storms historically have accounted for an estimated 85 percent of U.S. hurricane damage,” Landsea said, “That’s a very small increase, a long ways in the future,” and it could be offset by a decreasing frequency of storms.

In the world of climate, it’s usually possible to find another voice, and last year, a modeling study4 projected that the number of category 4 and 5 storms will almost double by 2100. (Category 5 includes the strongest hurricanes.)

We asked James Kossin, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who has studied hurricanes since 1987, about those results, and he told us, “There is a lot of uncertainty in our understanding of how tropical cyclones respond to their environment and to changes in their environment.”

The complicated connection between extreme weather and global change reflects some fundamental problems:

• Climate models can disagree.

• Climate models are best suited to global, not local, predictions. Small storms can easily “slip through the cracks” in models.

• Data can be surprisingly scarce. For example, hurricanes that did not reach land are likely missing from century-old data.

Linking changes in hurricanes to human-caused climate changes is “very challenging,” said Kossin. “I have medium confidence that climate change could lead to the strongest storms getting stronger” globally.

Emanuel, however, says the creators of these models “freely admit they will not model intense hurricanes, they don’t have the resolution. What does a 2 percent to 11 percent increase mean if the models are constitutionally incapable of having hurricanes? And this is what the models are telling us, but what does nature say? It tells us that hurricanes intensity is changing much more rapidly.”

Emanuel reminds us that storm destruction equates to at least the cube of wind speed, and therefore, a small increase in maximum wind can mask a much larger increase in intensity and damage.

From here, gentle reader, the arguments devolve from murky to truly obscure. We promise to report back in a few years, but we’re happy to note that this dispute, however contentious, is being fought in print by civil scientists who can cooperatively ponder on our climatic future.

Easy questions can be tough to answer

We’d love to know if warming is affecting wind, but the records do not support such a comparison, says Dan Vimont. In a study on climate change in Wisconsin, for example, “We started to look at wind, but there is not as much observational data. There are 200-odd temperature-precipitation gauges around Wisconsin reporting daily, but … it’s difficult to find a continuous record from a gauge that is monitored well.”

The reality is that as much as we’d like to attribute particular events like the floods in Pakistan and Australia to climate change, we may never know. “For any given event, it’s really hard to gauge how much climate change has contributed,” says Claudia Tebaldi, a climate statistician with the non-profit Climate Central. “Even for heat waves, where it’s obvious that as climate warms you would expect more intense heat waves, [you have to acknowledge that] a given heat wave may have happened anyway without climate change.”

– David J. Tenenbaum

Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, Kenneth Kunkel et al, chapter 2, U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2007.
  2. Tropical cyclones and climate change, Thomas R. Knutson et al, Nature Geoscience, published online: 21 FEBRUARY 2010 | doi: 10.1038/ngeo779
  3. Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate, Regions of Focus: North America, Hawaii, Caribbean, and U.S. Pacific Islands, chapter 2, Observed Changes in Weather and Climate Extremes, Kenneth Kunkel, editor, U.S. Climate Change Science Program, p. 56
  4. Modeled Impact of Anthropogenic Warming on the Frequency of Intense Atlantic Hurricanes, Morris A. Bender, et al, Science, 22 Jan. 2010.
  5. Changes in precipitation with climate change, Kevin Trenberth, Climate Research, in press, 2011.
  6. NASA climate change research.
  7. NASA surface temperature report.
  8. IPCC homepage.
  9. NOAA: state of the climate.
  10. Global surface temperature anomalies.
  11. Drought and climate change.
  12. Queensland flood in pictures.
  13. Australian floods and climate change.
  14. Pakistan floods and climate change.
  15. EPA on climate change.
  16. Hurricanes and climate change.
  17. A compendium of hurricane info.
  18. Global warming basics.