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June 28, 2011

The New Normal? Extreme Weather and Climate

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When will we connect all these recent extreme weather events we keep seeing with human-caused climate disruption? It's a serious question considering all that's been going on since the beginning of last year.

Check out this exhaustive and in-depth take by Dr. Jeff Masters on the startlingly high number of extreme weather events of the past year-and-a-half. Frankly, last year for our planet was like no other in modern times. "Never in my 30 years as a meteorologist have I witnessed a year like 2010 -- the astonishing number of weather disasters and unprecedented wild swings in Earth's atmospheric circulation were like nothing I've seen," he writes.

Last year tied 2005 for the hottest since official records began, which is weird because 2010 also indicated "the deepest solar energy minimum since satellite measurements of the sun began in the 1970s."

The atmosphere above the Arctic in particular was out of whack: "High pressure replaced low pressure over the Arctic, and the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times, with a clockwise flow of air replacing the usual counter-clockwise flow of air. This unusual flow pattern allowed cold air to spill southwards and be replaced by warm air moving poleward." This explains why the Midwest and East Coast experienced such a deep and relentless freeze during the winter months. Climate deniers continued to spin regardless. But the scientific evidence was all there: climate disruption precipitates extreme weather -- hot and cold -- and last year encompassed this fact.

Masters's column then delves into specific events from around the globe: extremely low Arctic ice and rapid melting in Greenland; a radical shift from El Nino to La Nina; an Amazonian drought; a bizarre period for tropical cyclones and monsoons; floods, heat waves, record rainfalls across the world; the strongest non-coastal storm in U.S. history; and a long list of countries that set record high temperatures.

Masters writes:
The pace of extreme weather events has remained remarkably high during 2011, giving rise to the question--is the "Global Weirding" of 2010 and 2011 the new normal? Has human-caused climate change destabilized the climate, bringing these extreme, unprecedented weather events? Any one of the extreme weather events of 2010 or 2011 could have occurred naturally sometime during the past 1,000 years. But it is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work. The best science we have right now maintains that human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2 are the most likely cause of such a climate-altering force.

All of this brings to mind this snarky and effective Washington Post op-ed penned last month by 350.org's Bill McKibben:

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections. When you see pictures of rubble like this week's shots from Joplin, Mo., you should not wonder: Is this somehow related to the tornado outbreak three weeks ago in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or the enormous outbreak a couple of weeks before that (which, together, comprised the most active April for tornadoes in U.S. history). No, that doesn’t mean a thing.

It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advisable to try to connect them in your mind with, say, the fires burning across Texas — fires that have burned more of America at this point this year than any wildfires have in previous years. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they've ever been — the drought is worse than that of the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if they're somehow connected.

(h/t skepticalscience. Image from October 26, 2010, via NASA. )

-- Brian Foley

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