Natural disasters and extreme weather patterns across the country are being blamed on climate change. From hurricanes to droughts, rising global temperatures are frequently mentioned as a contributing factor.
For the most part, science backs that assumption up. However, no one has been able to say exactly how climate change affects a single extreme weather event.
A report released Friday by the National Academy of Sciences has some answers. The report argues that it is possible to tell the role climate change plays in a variety of extreme events, by using what they call “extreme weather attribution.”
Extreme weather attribution means how scientists assign causes to weather events. This is done through understanding how a particular event develops, knowing its risk factors and quantifying how recent climate changes have affected it.
Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, scientists and meteorologists can now more accurately predict and pinpoint some causes for some of the weather patterns around the world.
“We can now say more about how climate change has affected the intensity or likelihood of some events.” David Titley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, said. He added that climate change is only one of many variables.
He compared climate to a cookie, in the sense that changing an ingredient makes a different cookie. It’s the change in one or more ingredients in a weather event that scientists are using to predict the intensity and frequency of storms and other weather extremes.
Predicting extreme weather and knowing whether or not climate change is a factor is important mostly because it allows communities to plan in advance, the report said. If an event is likely to recur, proper planning can take place to ensure people are relocated. If the event was a fluke, then there is no need to adapt.
When explaining just how much of an effect climate change could be having, Titley cited the likelihood of heatwaves in Russia. Without taking climate change into account, scientists would predict a major heatwave in Russia once every century. Today, accounting for the current warming trend, the country will likely see a heat event once every thirty years.
After meteorological stations around the globe announced that the U.S. would see a moderate to severe El Niño phenomenon this year. Concluding that it was due to climate change was easy, but not necessarily correct.
While some studies point to a connection between greenhouse warming and increased frequency of severe El Niño events, the natural phenomenon is notoriously hard to predict. Scientists haven’t studied enough periods to have a definite answer, and the science surrounding El Niño’s connection to climate change is still inconclusive.
Not all climate events have been strong ties to climate change, the report said. Tropical cyclones and wildfires are difficult to link to climate change. Other events, mostly those involving temperature, such as heatwaves and drought, are the ones where climate change is more likely to have an effect. Further analysis of these events can allow people to know just how much worse they could be if the Earth continues with a warming trend.
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Download graphic: Extreme-weather.zip