Climate change and consequences on the ground

The link between extreme weather events, climate change, and national security is discussed in Extreme Realities, a new episode in PBS’ series Journey To Planet Earth hosted by Matt Damon.

The video features a number of extreme weather phenomena: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wild fires, and flooding. The discussion is about climate change and the consequences on the ground – or, how climate change may affect you.

It is important to ask what is the story behind the assertions made in the video. What scientific support is there for the link between such extremes and climate change?

Linking global warming to some of these extreme weather and climate phenomena has been tricky in the past. In some cases the record of past events may not be sufficiently complete to identify whether there is a dependency to the global state, mainly because many extremes are both rare and take place at irregular intervals. However, there has been substantial progress over the recent years.

Global climate models may provide a tool for studying such links, but they are designed to provide a picture of general large-scale features such as the greenhouse effect and how the air moves around, rather than local extreme phenomena. For some types of extremes such as heat waves, they can nevertheless provide valuable insight (Hansen et al., 2012).

Heat waves and droughts often extend over space and time, and the global climate models may provide a good representation of droughts and heat waves if they manage to predict the frequency and duration of high-pressure systems and the soil moisture associated with these events.

The way the air flows is in some circumstances difficult to predict, for instance where the storms move (storm tracks) and changes in the large-scale atmospheric circulation. The reason for this is described in earlier posts on chaos and climate, and was first discussed by Lorenz.

The climate models manage to reproduce the Hadley cell, El Nino Southern Oscillation, the Jet streams, the Trades, and the westerlies, but not tornadoes, derechoes, and thunderstorms. They do not provide the details needed to describe the local climate and many extreme phenomena affecting society and ecosystems.

Our knowledge about extremes and climate is based on more evidence than just climate model results. One elegant example is the recent paper in PNAS by Petoukhov et al., (2013) based on mathematics, physics, and measured air flow.

From physics, we know that different conditions such as soil moisture and cloud micro-physics both affect weather extremes, although different types and on different scales. Convective storms and tornadoes, as opposed to heat waves, have in the past gone undetected and tend to pass below the radar of the global climate models.

New studies, such as Petoukhov et al., (2013), are emerging in the scientific literature that provide additional support for a link between climate change and a wider range of extreme phenomena. These are based on our physical understanding, observational data, new ways of analysing data, and attribution studies (Coumou and Rahmstorf, 2012).

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References

  1. J. Hansen, M. Sato, and R. Ruedy, "Perception of climate change", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109, pp. E2415-E2423, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1205276109
  2. D. Coumou, and S. Rahmstorf, "A decade of weather extremes", Nature Climate Change, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1452