You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or a climatologist to realize this has been a killer weather year. Snowmaggedons in the east; deadly super cell tornados pummeling towns across the Midwest and South; record spring floods throughout the Midwest and Gulf; droughts and deadly fires racing through tinder-dry towns in Texas. Now we're on track to have a possible record-breaking number of hurricanes; three cyclones now spinning in the Atlantic and Gulf could threaten our rain-soaked coasts and waterways.
Welcome to the new normal, folks. And it’s only going to get worse, at least that’s what the experts say. That message was brought home in spades yesterday during a press teleconference held by a renowned group of climatologists and weather experts. They didn't waste time linking recent extreme weather events to human-induced climate change.
“All weather events are now influenced by climate change because all weather now develops in a different environment than before,” said Dr. Richard Somerville, a professor emeritus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and science director of Climate Communication that organized the event. “Some types of extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and or severe due to climate change, heat waves, heavy rain, floods, and droughts among them. Climate change is increasing the odds that extreme weather will occur."
Politicians and pundits will debate this until the levee breaks. But just look at recent global weather events and you already find a frightening story. We are getting hammered like never before, according to Jeff Masters, co-founder and director of meteorology at the Weather Underground and author of the popular Wunderblog about global weather events. Masters told reporters that there have been a record 10 disasters costing $1 billion or more in the U.S. this year. And there are still four months to go.
National Weather Service, Sept. 8, 2011
The list of calamities is staggering. Some of the worst blizzards in history pounded New York and the northeast this winter. In April, an outbreak of hundreds of tornados ripped through the Midwest and South, killing more than 300 people and costing $5 to $10 billion. Then came devastating 100-year floods on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and the hottest summers on record in Texas and Oklahoma. Put it all together and you have a weather apocalypse of biblical proportions. But Masters said the worst is yet to come. ”We are loading the dice for more dangerous weather events."
Climatologist Gerry Meehl added to the meteorological horror. The senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research said dramatically changing temperature patterns across the US and the globe are producing a skyrocketing jump in the number of heat records versus cold.
There have been more than 1,400 record highs this year across the U.S., Meehl said. It's easy to understand what's going on when you look at the ratio of record highs to record low temperatures; Meehl said that ratio has increased increased from one to one sixty years ago to nearly three to one this year.
In other words, the number of high temperature records are being smashed three times as much as low temperature records. Meehl said that as we continue to pump record amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, those ratios will increase to 20 to 1 by mid-century and 50 to 1 by 2100.
That's great news if you want to fry eggs on the hood of your car, but catastrophic if you want a sustainable planet. Our world simply isn't used to adapting to this kind of breath-taking change. All of us rich and poor will suffer the dangerous consequences of weather run amok, scientists say.
“Small global average temperature raises lead to big changes in extreme weather,” Meehl said. “As a result, we’re now seeing extreme heat events that were once rare occurring more frequently. Continued emissions of heat-trapping gases will lead to even more frequent and intense heat extremes.”
According to a new report by Climate Communication, heat waves are getting hotter, more frequent and now last longer. And as we are witnessing in Texas, dry areas are getting even more parched. Across the globe, very dry areas have doubled in size since the 1970s.
That's what climatologist Kevin Trenberth told reporters too. Trenberth, a senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, connected extreme weather patterns and rising sea temperatures across the globe to weather disasters such floods in Pakistan and droughts in Russia. "There is now a pervasive human influence in all climate events,” said Trenberth said.
The vast majority of scientists agree. NRDC’s Dan Lashof also explained it eloquently in a blog earlier this summer:
Scientists are always cautious about attributing any specific extreme event to pollution-driven climate change, but new research is beginning to tease out how global warming contributes to extreme weather. We are not just loading the dice, we are upping the ante, or as Steve Sherwood puts it in an excellent three-part series published by Scientific American, "it is more like painting an extra spot on each face of one of the dice, so that it goes from 2 to 7 instead of 1 to 6. This increases the odds of rolling 11 or 12, but also makes it possible to roll 13." In the same series, Deke Arndt of NOAA explains the link between climate and extreme weather this way: "Weather throws the punches, but climate trains the boxer."
And that weather boxer is getting stronger and nastier. As climate science evolves and improves, the predictions are becoming even more dire. But this really isn’t all that new. Here’s what the government’s U.S. Climate Change Science Program, was predicting three years ago during the Bush Administration, according to MSNBC:
"Heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity," the report stated. "Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights."
Of course, this isn’t breaking news to most Americans. A majority of people know climate change is real, according to a new report from George Mason University. A majority understand some of the dangers we face and want the government to take action. But there is still plenty of interference from the fossil fuel lobby. Politicians continue to parrot oil and gas industry talking points, trying to prove 98 percent of the world’s climatologists are wrong. But we know where their bread is buttered.
Maybe we need to find a new way to get people’s attention. How about sports? Yesterday during the press conference, climatologist Gerry Neal comparing trends in climate change to the Barry Bonds' steroid controversy. Bonds hit 30-40 homers over most of his seasons, Neal said, but it wasn't until he allegedly took steroids that he started breaking home run records. Still, Neal said you can’t look at just one year and say steroids gave him the extra juice to hit 73 home runs. But you can make a better argument if you look at the seasonal trends over his career. The same holds true for weather and climate. “Greenhouse gases are the steroids of climate change,” said Neal.
Climate expert Richard Somerville put it this way at the end of the teleconference:
Climate change is happening now, it’s real, its serious, its mainly human caused and so the world faces choices. Mankind can reduce the severity of future climate change if mankind limits global emissions of heat trapping gases. But the science tells us that this has to happen soon the reductions must be large they must be global and must start very soon….we are observing the warming in many ways; air temperatures are going up, so are our ocean temperatures, glaciers are melting, sea ice in arctic is being reduced, sea level rise is accelerating and so on. So these are not any longer predictions of our computer models, they are measurements of our observations of the real climate system changing.
Those changes are happening before our very eyes. Yet like athletes stuck on a performance-enhancing drug high, we are having a hard time kicking the habit. Like steroids, we know greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous. But we are running out of time. We need to change our game to survive, and we need to do it now. Just look at what’s happening around us. I doubt this is the new normal we all want.
Climate scientists are telling us if we don’t switch to clean energy solutions our weather will get much, much worse. Politicians like to talk about the weather, but who’s really doing anything about it?
Follow Rocky Kistner on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rockyatnrdc