Climate Change: U.S. Heat Waves, Wildfires And Flooding Are 'What Global Warming Looks Like'
WASHINGTON — Is it just freakish weather or something more? Climate scientists suggest that if you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, take a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks.
Horrendous wildfires. Oppressive heat waves. Devastating droughts. Flooding from giant deluges. And a powerful freak wind storm called a derecho.
These are the kinds of extremes experts have predicted will come with climate change, although it's far too early to say that is the cause. Nor will they say global warming is the reason 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in the month of June.
Scientifically linking individual weather events to climate change takes intensive study, complicated mathematics, computer models and lots of time. Sometimes it isn't caused by global warming. Weather is always variable; freak things happen.
And this weather has been local. Europe, Asia and Africa aren't having similar disasters now, although they've had their own extreme events in recent years.
But since at least 1988, climate scientists have warned that climate change would bring, in general, increased heat waves, more droughts, more sudden downpours, more widespread wildfires and worsening storms. In the United States, those extremes are happening here and now.
So far this year, more than 2.1 million acres have burned in wildfires, more than 113 million people in the U.S. were in areas under extreme heat advisories last Friday, two-thirds of the country is experiencing drought, and earlier in June, deluges flooded Minnesota and Florida.
"This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level," said Jonathan Overpeck, professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona. "The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about."
Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in fire-charred Colorado, said these are the very record-breaking conditions he has said would happen, but many people wouldn't listen. So it's I told-you-so time, he said.
As recently as March, a special report an extreme events and disasters by the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of "unprecedented extreme weather and climate events." Its lead author, Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University, said Monday, "It's really dramatic how many of the patterns that we've talked about as the expression of the extremes are hitting the U.S. right now."
"What we're seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like," said Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer. "It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this kind of environmental disasters."
Oppenheimer said that on Thursday. That was before the East Coast was hit with triple-digit temperatures and before a derecho – a large, powerful and long-lasting straight-line wind storm – blew from Chicago to Washington. The storm and its aftermath killed more than 20 people and left millions without electricity. Experts say it had energy readings five times that of normal thunderstorms.
Fueled by the record high heat, this was among the strongest of this type of storm in the region in recent history, said research meteorologist Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storm Laboratory in Norman, Okla. Scientists expect "non-tornadic wind events" like this one and other thunderstorms to increase with climate change because of the heat and instability, he said.
Such patterns haven't happened only in the past week or two. The spring and winter in the U.S. were the warmest on record and among the least snowy, setting the stage for the weather extremes to come, scientists say.
Since Jan. 1, the United States has set more than 40,000 hot temperature records, but fewer than 6,000 cold temperature records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Through most of last century, the U.S. used to set cold and hot records evenly, but in the first decade of this century America set two hot records for every cold one, said Jerry Meehl, a climate extreme expert at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. This year the ratio is about 7 hot to 1 cold. Some computer models say that ratio will hit 20-to-1 by midcentury, Meehl said.
"In the future you would expect larger, longer more intense heat waves and we've seen that in the last few summers," NOAA Climate Monitoring chief Derek Arndt said.
The 100-degree heat, drought, early snowpack melt and beetles waking from hibernation early to strip trees all combined to set the stage for the current unusual spread of wildfires in the West, said University of Montana ecosystems professor Steven Running, an expert on wildfires.
While at least 15 climate scientists told The Associated Press that this long hot U.S. summer is consistent with what is to be expected in global warming, history is full of such extremes, said John Christy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He's a global warming skeptic who says, "The guilty party in my view is Mother Nature."
But the vast majority of mainstream climate scientists, such as Meehl, disagree: "This is what global warming is like, and we'll see more of this as we go into the future."
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on extreme weather: http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/
U.S. weather records:
Seth Borenstein can be followed at http://twitter.com/borenbears
An American beech tree lies on Capitol Hill grounds in Washington, Saturday, June 30, 2012, in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, background, after a powerful storms swept across the eastern U.S. Friday evening. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Frances Lukens looks at the tangle of boards and tree limbs piercing her living room ceiling in Lynchburg, Va. on Saturday, June 30, 2012 after a huge oak tree fell directly on the house during a storm the previous night. (AP Photo/The News & Advance, Parker Michels-Boyce)
In this Friday, June 29, 2012 photo, a car sits damaged from where a brick wall fell on it from the second story of a store in Columbus Grove, Ohio. The bricks fell on and crushed two vehicles as strong winds tore through the region Friday afternoon. (AP Photo/The Lima News, Jay Sowers)
A tree sitting atop a vehicle offers free firewood in Falls Church, Va., Monday, July, 2, 2012, as cleanup continued after Friday's storm, Around 2 million utility customers are without electricity across a swath of states along the East Coast and as far west as Illinois as the area recovers from a round of summer storms that has also caused at least 17 deaths. (AP Photo/Karen Mahabir)
A utility pole is cracked in half by a downed tree on a residential street in Arlington, Va., Sunday, July 1, 2012. Severe storms swept through the area leaving many homes and businesses without electricity. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Marcia McCloud (right) and her great-granddaughter Makayla Milton, find some comfort together at the Red Cross cooling shelter at Sandusky Middle School in Lynchburg, Va., July 1, 2012. Milton was visiting her great-grandmother Friday when the storm hit and the two were forced to find other shelter. McCloud explained, "It's like a vacation, vacation away from home!" (AP Photo/The News & Advance, Parker Michels-Boyce)
Joe Tiago takes pictures of a downed utility pole and electric transformer on Old Keene Mill Road, Sunday, July 1, 2012 in Springfield Va. A severe storm late Friday knocked out power to approximately one million residents, traffic signals and businesses in the region. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Residents of the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, navigate underneath a downed tree, Sunday, July 1, 2012. A severe storm late Friday, June 29th knocked out power to approximately one million residents, traffic signals and businesses in the region. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
A worker uses a chainsaw to clear a tree that fell onto the 14th fairway at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., Saturday, June 30, 2012, after a strong storm blew through overnight. The AT&T National golf tournament was postponed to allow workers to clear the course. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
A van and boat sit crushed by fallen trees, as crews work to restore power Saturday, June, 30, 2012, in Northfield, N.J. Severe thunderstorms packing heavy rain, lightning and strong winds that gusted up to 70 mph hit the state Saturday, knocking out power to hundreds of thousands and killing at least two. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Using crutches, Cooper Scott talks about the car where he and his mother were trapped in Lynchburg, Va. Saturday, June 30, 2012 after a large oak tree fell on them during the storm the night before. Both spent most of the night in the hospital but were back at home by Saturday morning. (AP Photo/The News & Advance, Parker Michels-Boyce)
Marilyn Golias, right, looks at the remains of a utility pole which fell across the street from her house in Falls Church, Va., Saturday, June 30, 2012. Millions across the mid-Atlantic region sweltered Saturday in the aftermath of violent storms that pummeled the eastern U.S. with high winds and downed trees, killing at least 13 people and leaving 3 million without power during a triple-digit heat wave. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Lighting flashes Saturday morning, June, 30, 2012 in Hebron Md.. Violent storms swept across the eastern U.S., killing at least nine people and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands on a day that temperatures across the region are expected to reach triple-digits. (AP photo by Salisbury Daily Times, Kristin Roberts)
Cesar de Jesus,
Cesar de Jesus, 4, from Riverdale, Md., play peek-a-boo from under a Red Cross blanket at a Red Cross shelter at Northwestern High School gym Saturday, June 30, 2012 in Hyattsville, Md. near Washington. Violent evening storms following a day of triple-digit temperatures wiped out power to more than 2 million people across the eastern United States. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
In this photo taken Friday, June 29, 2012 shows a trampoline smashed into the side of the garage in Lima, Ohio. Violent storms swept across the eastern U.S., killing at least 10 people and knocking out power to millions of people on a day that temperatures across the region are expected to reach triple-digits. The storms were blamed for the deaths of six people in Virginia; two in New Jersey; one in Ohio; and another in Maryland. (AP Photo/The Lima News, Gretchen White)
Larry Pellino repairs the site of the AIDS Memorial Quilt display damaged by a powerful storm that swept across the Washington region Friday, at the National Mall in Washington Saturday, June 30, 2012. Organizers of the quilt display are planning to put the exhibit back on Sunday. Violent storms swept across the eastern U.S., killing at least nine people and knocking out power to hundreds of thousands on a day that temperatures across the region are expected to reach triple-digits. Officials said about 500,000 people were without power in West Virginia. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
A tree lies on top of a storage building at the home Saturday, June 30, 2012 in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)
A passing storm brought a halt to rides Friday, June 29, 2012 at the 26th annual Italian-American Festival being held this weekend at the Stark County Fairgrounds in Canton, Ohio. A wave of violent storms sweeping through the mid-Atlantic following a day of record-setting heat in Washington, D.C., has knocked out power to nearly 2 million people. The storms converged Friday night on Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency after more than 500,000 customers in 27 counties were left without electricity. (AP Photo/The Repository, Bob Rossiter)
A tree toppled by severe storms sits atop a car in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood on Saturday, June 30, 2012 in Washington. More than two million people across the eastern U.S. lost power after violent storms and two people died, including a 90-year-old woman asleep in bed when a tree slammed into her home, a police spokeswoman said Saturday. (AP Photo/Jessica Gresko)
Clouds roll over Mundelein, Ill., as a storm moves through the area Friday, June 29, 2012.(AP photo/Daily Herald, Steve Lundy)
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