According to the Conversation’s article, “Extreme heat waves in a warming world don’t just break records – they shatter them”, the summer is not quite over yet in the northern hemisphere. Still, we already see several extreme events worldwide; the record-breaking heatwaves hit the Pacific Northwest in June 2021, bringing high temperatures of 116 °F (46.67°C) in Portland, 9 degrees above its record before the heatwave.
In July, we have these extreme weather events:
- intense flooding in Germany and Belgium that killed more than 200 people,
- the massive wildfires in Oregon,
- enormous flooding in Central China, and
- severe floods in New Zealand due to very heavy rains.
A leading publisher of research-based news and analysis, Conversation mentions:
“A couple of things are important to understand about climate change’s role in extreme weather like this.
First, humans have pumped so much carbon dioxide and other planet-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that what’s “normal” has shifted. A new study, published July 26, 2021, for example, shows how record-shattering, long-lasting heat waves – those that break records by a wide margin – are growing increasingly likely, and that the rate of global warming is connected with the increasing chances of these heat extremes.
Second, not every extreme weather event is connected to global warming.
A study published in July 2021 shows that record-breaking heatwaves will become more frequent due to global increases in temperatures.”
The article talks about the bell curve that is shifting. According to the article, like many other things, temperatures also follows a bell curve shift. The bell curve or “normal distributions” is also happening.
“The most frequent and likely temperatures are near the average, and values farther from the average quickly become much less likely. All else being equal, a little bit of warming shifts the bell to the right – toward higher temperatures. Even a shift of just a few degrees makes the really unlikely temperatures in the extreme “tail” of the bell happen dramatically more often.”
Does climate change have a role in these extreme events?
Does climate change have a role in these extreme events that have occurred recently?
Scientific research has listed down extreme events that are most affected by human-caused climate change and at the top of the list are heatwaves, followed by coastal flooding, drought, wildfires, reduced spring snowpack, very heavy rainfall, hurricanes and tropical storms, extremely cold weather, severe thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes.
Are these extreme events telling us that climate change is happening faster than expected?
According to an article in Grist, climate scientists had examined thousands of years of climate simulations to find unprecedented events and found that record-shattering heat this summer is caused by the burning of coal, oil and gas.
They find that the extreme heat this year would not likely happen a generation ago, will likely occur more often in the next few decades and is associated with the increases in GHG emissions. It will only decrease when fossil fuel emissions fall.
Is climate change happening fast?
Michael Wehner, an extreme weather researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, described his reaction to the Pacific Northwest heatwave in June as “astonished”.
Researchers expected this type of event to happen later this century. Wehner is a climate researcher who believes that this kind of heatwave would not occur without anthropogenic climate change.
When asked whether climate change is happening faster than expected, Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles says answered in the negative. Talking to the Grist, he says that “we’ve underestimated the impacts on some of the changes that were actually fairly well predicted.”
In a Q&A with Grist, Swain was asked whether these extreme events align with what climate scientists have been predicting.
He says that climate scientists have long been predicting that extreme events will happen due to climate change, and it’s the magnitude of these events that has surprised some of them but overall, these events are not completely scientifically surprising. He added:
“Although the 1 to 1.3 degree of warming might not seem a lot to planetary scientists and those who study extreme events, this represents an enormous shift in the mean state of things. Adding that this shift in temperature could bring significant changes in other places like the Arctic, tropics, island nations, or the middle of a big continent.”
Did climate models fail to capture the extreme events?
According to Swain, global climate models tend to do very well at simulating global climate but sometimes fail to capture regionally-specific events like the heatwaves in Oregon and British Columbia “because the underlying physical processes are evolving on temporal and spatial scales that are finer than these models are intended to represent”.
Swain added that although global climate models fail to predict these regional and localized events, the weather models used daily to predict the weather did an excellent job in forecasting a week in advance the scorching temperatures that will hit Seattle, Portland, and British Columbia as well as the extreme flood events before it hit Western Europe.
Swain said that for most people except for folks who really understand the dynamics of these nonlinear Earth systems interaction, the one or two degrees increases in temperatures might not seem a lot, but this represents a tremendous shift in the system. This lack of imagination of what could potentially happen, and the magnitude of extreme events coming from this tiny shift in the system, can take most of us, and even scientists by surprise, “and we’re adding a lot of extra energy to the system,” he said.
Denning, S. (2021, July 24). Extreme heatwaves in a warming world don’t just break records – they shatter them. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/extreme-heat-waves-in-a-warming-world-dont-just-break-records-they-shatter-them-164919
Watching the Land Temperature Bell Curve Heat Up (1950-2020). (2021 May 14). NASA Climate Change. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YigIVWMPHM&t=30s
Teirstein, Z. (2021, July 23). Is Climate change happening faster than expected? A climate scientist explains. Grist. Retrieved from https://grist.org/article/is-climate-change-happening-faster-than-expected-a-climate-scientist-explains/
NASA Earth Observatory image of temperature anomalies on 27th June 2021 by NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens – https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/148506/exceptional-heat-hits-pacific-northwest, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107121230
Flood and damage in Tilff, Belgium on 16 July by Régine Fabri – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107637907