Going to extremes

There are two new papers in Nature this week that go right to the heart of the conversation about extreme events and their potential relationship to climate change. This is a complex issue, and one not well-suited to soundbite quotes and headlines, and so we’ll try and give a flavour of what the issues are and what new directions these new papers are pointing towards.

Let’s start with some very basic, but oft-confused points:

  • Not all extremes are the same. Discussions of ‘changes in extremes’ in general without specifying exactly what is being discussed are meaningless. A tornado is an extreme event, but one whose causes, sensitivity to change and impacts have nothing to do with those related to an ice storm, or a heat wave or cold air outbreak or a drought.
  • There is no theory or result that indicates that climate change increases extremes in general. This is a corollary of the previous statement – each kind of extreme needs to be looked at specifically – and often regionally as well.
  • Some extremes will become more common in future (and some less so). We will discuss the specifics below.
  • Attribution of extremes is hard. There are limited observational data to start with, insufficient testing of climate model simulations of extremes, and (so far) limited assessment of model projections.

The two new papers deal with the attribution of a single flood event (Pall et al), and the attribution of increased intensity of rainfall across the Northern Hemisphere (Min et al). While these issues are linked, they are quite distinct, and the two approaches are very different too.

The aim of the Pall et al paper was to examine a specific event – floods in the UK in Oct/Nov 2000. Normally, with a single event there isn’t enough information to do any attribution, but Pall et al set up a very large ensemble of runs starting from roughly the same initial conditions to see how often the flooding event occurred. Note that flooding was defined as more than just intense rainfall – the authors tracked runoff and streamflow as part of their modelled setup. Then they repeated the same experiments with pre-industrial conditions (less CO2 and cooler temperatures). If the amount of times a flooding event would occur increased in the present-day setup, you can estimate how much more likely the event would have been because of climate change. The results gave varying numbers but in nine out of ten cases the chance increased by more than 20%, and in two out of three cases by more than 90%. This kind of fractional attribution (if an event is 50% more likely with anthropogenic effects, that implies it is 33% attributable) has been applied also to the 2003 European heatwave, and will undoubtedly be applied more often in future. One neat and interesting feature of these experiments was that they used the climateprediction.net set up to harness the power of the public’s idle screensaver time.

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