What do extreme weather events tell us about climate change?

“Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.”

That famous quotation from science fiction great Robert A. Heinlein captures the difficulty climate scientists have when trying to share the science behind global warming to the general public through the media.

Thanks to a link shared by my friend and collaborator UGA Meteorology prof Marshall Shepard about a special issue of Earthzine that he edited, we can get a peek into the thinking of climate scientists who are striving to make those media communications work well.

In an article entitled “Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather” By Christine Shearer and Richard B. Rood, the authors point out that under some circumstances, extreme weather events can indeed be linked to climate change.

In particular, two recent European heat waves cannot easily be dismissed as just weather, but should be recognized as strong supporting evidence of potentially dangerous global warming.

To quote the article:

Focusing on European heat waves, Barriopedro et al. [22] determine that the 2003 and 2010 European heat waves are the hottest of the past 510 years. That is, there have been two 500-year events in the past decade. These heat waves are determined to be more than four standard deviations from the 1970-1999 mean, extreme by any measure. Barriopedro et al. are confident in attributing more moderate heat waves (two to three standard deviations) to changes in a shift of a mean summer temperature, i.e. climate change. The more extreme events they link to enhanced variability, with such variability both consistent with the predictions from climate change models and becoming more likely in the next 40 years. Therefore, a definitive climate-change signal will emerge for these most extreme events.

Before commenting, I recommend that you read the complete article.

For a collection of book reviews on this subject, see the Science Shelf Book Review Archive weather and climate section.

3 thoughts on “What do extreme weather events tell us about climate change?”

  1. I do indeed see climate change linked to weather extremes… but which is the chicken or egg? Anyway, the unspoken wild card missing from Shearer and Rood, IMHO, is the possibility and effect of deliberate weather manipulation. And if so, what that may tell us about both climate change and extreme weather anamolies. If deliberate weather manipulation is occurring its effects may be profound but unrecognized.

    • Lynnea, if you’re talking about a covert manipulation of the weather, I can’t imagine that there would be any way to hide it. There would be what scientists would call a clear “signature” of human interference.

      If you look at some of my past postings on this blog, I am more concerned about reaching the point where we NEED to try deliberate geo-engineering (massive technological intervention in earth-systems such as injecting large amounts of sulfur dioxide or sulfuric acid droplets into the upper atmosphere) to undo the effects of our unintended geo-engineering produced by too much burning of fossil fuels.

      Geo-engineering will definitely have some unintended consequences that may be as risky as the conditions the geo-engineers hope to mitigate. In other words, let’s hope we don’t need that kind of medicine, because the side effects may be as serious as the disease.

      Fred Bortz

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