When weather disasters happen, is climate change to blame? The stories, video, and interactives in Weather on Steroids explore that question from a number of angles. It turns out that blaming climate change for wild weather's not that simple. Here’s why.
30 January 2012 • Why does a good love go bad? What makes a sweet kid turn into a rotten adult? And why did Texas see the hottest, driest summer in its history in 2011?
Some questions don’t have easy answers, but people search for them anyway. We can’t help you with romance or child rearing, but when up to 10% of the trees in your state are dead or dying (as was the case in Texas by the end of 2011), or when your city gets more than twice as much rain in 24 hours as it’s measured on any other day (which happened in Binghamton, New York, last summer), it’s only natural to ask: Was that natural variability or global warming?
Until the last few years, scientists lacked the tools to respond in a satisfying way. But that’s starting to change. Researchers can now estimate how likely several kinds of extreme events would be, with and without human influence. With that information in hand, they can then calculate the probability that a given extreme was made more, or less, likely by our century-plus of fossil-fuel burning.
Scientists at the heart of this work, known as attribution science, see great promise in the emerging ability to provide hard numbers to represent the impact of climate change on extreme weather—even though they sometimes need to cast their findings in a double layer of probability
statistical methods, and a crystal-clear definition of ‘extreme’ for the event at hand. The hope among attribution specialists is that they can streamline the process and generate solid results within a few weeks or months, while the memory of an event is still fresh (see Is this climate change?).
Accelerating the research can’t avert a weather disaster, but the work has a variety of other uses. City and regional planners could take the risks of a given weather extreme into account for preparation and response planning. The findings might also be used to help direct the billions of dollars pledged by nations to go toward climate change adaptation. And these studies not only illuminate the increased odds of some weather risks—they can also estimate whether other events, such as cold waves or snowmelt-induced floods, are becoming less likely in a greenhouse-warmed atmosphere.
CAUSES AND EFFECTS A shocking summer in Europe kick-started the boom in attribution research. Weeks of intense heat in 2003 killed tens of thousands of people across the continent, including more than 14,000 in France alone. Countless temperature records were smashed: England saw its first 100°F (37.8°C) reading in more than 300 years of observations, and Paris had its warmest night ever recorded, with a low of 77.9°F (25.5°C).
Disturbed yet intrigued by the disaster, Allen joined forces with Peter Stott (U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre) and Dáithí Stone (now at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) to study its roots. In a landmark 2004 Nature paper led by Stott, the trio estimated with greater than 90% confidence that human influence had at least doubled the odds of a record-hot European summer. (For more on how they came up with the numbers, see Fingerprints and percentages, below.)
The 2004 paper marked a turning point in climate change research. Stott, Allen, and Stone have since collaborated with others on several more event-focused studies. One led by Oxford’s Pardeep Pall and published in Nature last year looked at the risk of the kind of flooding that devastated parts of England and Wales in the autumn of 2000. When compared to a simulated atmosphere without the estimated influence of human-produced greenhouse gases, the simulations with those gases raised the risk by more than 20% in 9 out of 10 simulations and by more than 90% in 2 out of 3 simulation events. They’ve then assessed whether various factors—such as prior regional climate trends; atmospheric, ocean, or sea ice states; or current levels of greenhouse gases—would have provided a basis for early warning of the event.
When dissecting an extreme event, the group’s work examines natural variations in the atmosphere and oceans as well as climate shapers related to human activity. Examples on the group’s Interpreting Climate Conditions website include studies of unusually cool U.S. conditions in 2008, the Russian heat wave in 2010, and the spate of U.S. tornadoes in spring 2011. In some cases, the researchers found that enhanced greenhouse gases contributed only a small amount to the strength of a particular extreme event. But they emphasize that the risk of some such events can still be expected to rise in future decades, as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate.
Despite the different approaches of each research strategy, a shared theme is present: if climate change isn’t the main driver behind a given extreme, it might still play an important role—perhaps as the straw that breaks a camel’s back. Two scientists from Germany’s Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Stefan Rahmstorf and Dim Coumou, estimated in a recent study that local warming has boosted the risk of record-setting heat fivefold in Moscow. In another analysis, Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon calculated that global warming added about 0.9°F (0.5°C) to the state’s record-breaking hot summer of 2011, which ran a total of 5.4°F (3.0°C) above average. If so, one might argue it was that extra 0.9°F of human influence—small as it may sound—that helped push the event and its impacts into truly unprecedented territory.
According to NCAR’s Kevin Trenberth, it’s critical to recognize that every large-scale weather extreme now operates in an atmosphere that’s been altered by fossil-fuel use. Trenberth, who was among the first to attribute seasonal U.S. weather shifts to El Nio and La Nia, emphasizes the context of increased greenhouse gases, higher temperatures, and enhanced water vapor in which extreme events now play out. He and colleagues have mapped global flows of energy and moisture and estimated how much climate change may have enhanced the amount of rain falling in storms such as Hurricane Katrina.
Trenberth’s work relies on a different set of strategies than the ones used by the other groups described in this report (see Extreme weather forensics). While he anticipates much more work on climate change and extreme events, he points to areas of refinement that will further help assess the connections between the two. For example, models cannot yet depict every atmospheric feature with equal accuracy, so key influences may be missed. Also, Trenberth stresses, being unable to prove human influence is not the same thing as being able to disprove it, so researchers may be underestimating the role of climate change by starting from the assumption that it has no influence (the “null hypothesis”).
THREE WAYS OF SEEING Each of the lines of research discussed above offers a different take on attribution science. However, the scientists involved agree that the human role in climate change is real and that natural variations, such as El Nio, are a critical part of the mix—as important to study now as ever.
Moreover, their findings aren’t as much in conflict as it may sometimes seem, given that a relatively modest boost in human influence on climate can still lead to a big rise in probabilities for extreme events. One upcoming study led by Friederike Otto (University of Oxford) examines the two analyses of Russia's 2010 heat wave noted above, which seem to diverge, only to find that there is no major contradiction between them.
As NOAA's Randall Dole puts it, “Results that may be widely touted as in disagreement with prior results might in fact be entirely consistent—just stated another way.”
Here’s a rough analogy from everyday life to help distinguish among the different approaches: Adding just a little bit of speed to your highway commute each month can substantially raise the odds that you’ll get hurt some day. But if an accident does occur, the primary cause may not be your speed itself: it could be a wet road or a texting driver. In this analogy, the NOAA group is looking at accident-causing mechanisms of all types, including speed, while the approach of Stott and colleagues (and Rahmstorf and Coumou) is to measure how much that extra 5 or 10 mph hikes the odds that you’ll get into a wreck. Meanwhile, Trenberth is the safety expert pointing out that, as a rule, extra speed is dangerous.
“The human influence on weather and climate is a very slow but enduring influence,” says Trenberth. “Anything on a year-to-year basis is dominated by El Nio and other regional effects, but there is a small, significant, and growing anthropogenic component.”