We are in the middle of yet another atypical hurricane season. Between hurricane Florence in America and typhoon Mangkhut in the Philippines and China, both hemispheres have been hit almost simultaneously by unusually strong storm systems. As a result, many people are again pointing a finger at climate change. This is not an unreasonable response, but it is one that we should be cautious about, because it is very easy to fall victim to the same logical blunder that often ensnares climate change deniers: confusing weather with climate. What we really need to know is whether there is a consistent pattern of increasing extreme weather events (spoiler alert: there is), so that is what I want to look at in this post (I’ll return to the topic of individual storm systems at the end). I’m going to briefly discuss the literature on extreme weather events to see if there is evidence that climate change is increasing their frequency and/or intensity. For the sake of brevity, I’ll just focus on three major categories of extreme weather: heatwaves, precipitation (both droughts and floods), and hurricanes (aka cyclones, aka typhoons; they are all the same type of storm, the names just differ in different parts of the world, but since most of my readers are American, I will refer to them all as hurricanes throughout).
Before I begin, I want to point out that this is a very important topic for understanding the consequences of anthropogenic climate change, because the extremes are potentially the most dangerous aspect of climate change. If you think about heatwaves for a second, this should make sense. Summers are already hot, but for the most part, they are bearable. They only really become a problem when we have consecutive days of abnormally hot weather (i.e., heatwaves). Thus, having a summer where the temperature is consistently 1°C above normal is inconvenient, but not critical (strictly in terms of the heat itself). However, having a summer with heatwaves that are more frequent and more intense is a far more serious dilemma. That type of summer is far more likely to cause heat strokes and various other problems. Similarly, having an average increase in rainfall (with low variation) is not nearly as problematic as having an increase in the number of massive, flash flood-inducing downpours. So, if we are going to talk about the potential damage and cost (economically, physically, and environmentally) of climate change, it’s important to discuss the extremes.
I’d also like to briefly state that the evidence is extremely clear that we are the primary cause of the current warming. Discussing that evidence is beyond the scope of this post, but I have previously done so here and here, as well as debunking most of the common arguments to the contrary here. Please read those posts before commenting with an argument that it’s not our fault.
Let’s start with the easy one. As its name suggests, global warming is resulting in a planet that is, on average, warming. Currently, the four hottest years on record are 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 (not in that order), and if current trends continue, 2018 will join their ranks, meaning that all five of the top five hottest years will have occurred in the past five years. Based on these increases in mean temperatures, it is hardly surprising that in many areas heatwaves have also been increasing and that increase is linked with global climate change (Klein Tank and Konnen 2003; Della-Marta et al. 2007; Tanarhte et al. 2015; Habeeb et al. 2015). Indeed, Perkins et al. (2012) found that, globally, the intensity, frequency, and duration of heatwaves is increasing. In other words, heatwaves are becoming hotter, we are experiencing more of them, and they are lasting longer (Habeeb et al. 2015). Further, other research has found that not only are heatwaves increasing, but the areas that are affected by them are expanding (Russo et al. 2014).
All of that is really bad, because despite common perceptions to the contrary, heatwaves are actually the most dangerous natural disaster in terms of human mortality. According to the CDC, in the US, heat kills more people than tornadoes, floods, lightning, or hurricanes. Indeed, the death tolls during large heatwaves can be staggering. For example, during 2003, Europe experience a record-breaking heatwave (far beyond expectations for natural weather patterns; Schar et al. 2004; Stott et al. 2004) that resulted in over 70,000 deaths (Robine 2008), with nearly 15,000 deaths in France alone (Argaud et al. 2007)! Let that sink in for a minute. This heatwave was so bad that it killed nearly 15,000 people in a single country.
To be clear, none of this is fearmongering, speculation, or “liberal propaganda.” These are simple facts. People are dying as a direct result of climate change, and the situation will continue to get worse if we don’t take action (Meehl et al. 2004; Luber et al. 2008; Lelieveld et al. 2016).
One of the things that people often find confusing about climate change is that the effects are different in different areas. Indeed, some areas are expected to experience increased precipitation (to the point of flooding), while others are expected to experience increased drought. Sometimes people jump on this fact and claim that climate scientists are simply making things up and claiming that everything is climate change no matter what weather we experience. but such claims are untrue. If you actually read the literature and look at the models, they clearly predicted beforehand that the patterns of change will not be uniform (i.e., some areas will have droughts while others have floods; though the net effect should be increased precipitation globally). Further, we aren’t running around arbitrarily claiming that changes in precipitation are due to climate change. Rather, we are very carefully studying the changes in wind currents, evaporation rates, etc. so that we understand the underlying mechanisms that are driving the changes. Finally, despite common claims to the contrary, our observations are actually pretty consistent with models’ predictions (Dai 2012; more sources and details here).
Describing these mechanisms in detail is far beyond the scope of this post, but two major patterns seem to be at play. First, many areas will experience more of the extremes of their typical weather patterns (Dai and Trenberth 1998). In other words, if you live in a fairly wet area, it is probably going to become wetter, and if you live in a fairly dry area, it is probably going to become drier. Again, this situation of exaggerated extremes is problematic. Dry areas already struggle with not having enough water, while wet areas already struggle with having too much of it, and climate change is expected to make both of those situations worse. The second pattern, which is related to the first, is that, in many cases, more precipitation is expected at high latitudes, while less precipitation is expected in the arid sub-tropics (Trenberth 2011).
So, what are we actually observing? In short, there is a net increase in precipitation globally (Alexander et al. 2006), and some areas are experiencing more extreme downpours (Dai and Trenberth 1998; Groisman et al. 2005; Trenberth 2011), while dry areas are experiencing more droughts (Dai and Trenberth 1998; Dai 2010; Trenberth 2011). These downpours and droughts in turn are resulting in increased floods and wildfires (respectively), increased damage to crops, increased damage to ecosystems, increased damage to property, increased loss of human life, etc. (Rosenzweig et al. 2001; Milly et al. 2002; Flannigan et al. 2009; Carnicer et al. 2010; Schlenker and Lobell). Further, I want to make it clear again that scientists aren’t running around arbitrarily blaming climate change for these events. We have carefully studied the underlying mechanisms of these precipitation extremes and found that the current trends are unlikely to be natural and are linked to human-induced increases in temperature (Held and Soden 2006; Allan and Soden. 2008; Min et al. 2011).
These storm systems are probably the ones that get the most attention in the press and general public, but they are, unfortunately, some of the hardest to study. This is because they are infrequent (resulting in small sample sizes per year) and because record keeping for them has been surprisingly inconsistent, making it difficult to look at long-term patterns. Having said that, we have sufficient data from the past few decades to draw some conclusions. Before I get to those though, I want to talk about scientists’ expectations, because most models don’t actually predict an increase in the total number of tropical storms (in some cases they actually predict a slight decrease). Rather, the prediction is that the storms will increase in intensity, and really intense storms will become more common. In other words, the total number of hurricanes per year should stay the same or go down slightly, but we expect more of those hurricanes to be very large, powerful storms (e.g., category 4 and 5 hurricanes). As with everything else that I have talked about thus far, that is problematic because the extremes are where most of the damage comes from. Having the same total number of hurricanes but more category 4s is worse than having a greater total number of hurricanes with mostly category 1s and 2s.
So, with all of this in mind, let’s once again look at what we have actually found. Walsh et al (2016) published a fairly recent review of this topic, so I recommend reading them for more details and sources, but in short, what we’ve found is that there is a general increase in both storm intensity and the proportion of storms that are really powerful (e.g., 4s and 5s), but the total number of hurricanes has not increased (Emanuel 2005; Elsner et al. 2008; Holland and Bruyere 2014). Also, the trends are more pronounced in some areas than others, with the North Atlantic basin (i.e., the one that affects the US) showing the strongest patterns. Another interesting and alarming result is that hurricanes are moving further away from the tropics and towards the poles (Kossin et al. 2014). In other words, as the planet warms, the tropics are expanding north and south of the equator, and, as a result, powerful hurricanes can strike further north and further south than they could previously. Thus, cities that have never had serious hurricane problems may now be faced with strong storm systems.
Update 2019: There is increasing evidence that hurricanes are also “stalling” more frequently. In other words, they are staying in one area for longer, thus resulting in increased damage (Kossin 2018; Hall and Kossin 2019).
As a final note, the damage caused by these systems is also increasing not only because the storms are becoming more intense, but also because sea level rise is resulting in increased storm surge and flooding.
The influence of climate change
Before I conclude this post, I want to return briefly to the topic of blaming particular storm systems on climate change, because that situation is actually more complex than most people give it credit for. In short, we can never say with 100% probability that climate change caused a particular extreme weather event, but, based on all of the data that I have discussed, we can confidently say that climate change is making these events more likely, and for any particular event, it is likely that climate change played a role.
Let me use smoking as an example. If a regular smoker is diagnosed with cancer, you can never say with 100% certainty that smoking caused the cancer. It is always possible that they would have developed cancer even if they never smoked. However, because we know that there is an overarching causal relationship between smoking and cancer, we can say that smoking very likely contributed to their cancer and that, in general, smoking rates contribute to cancer rates. The same thing is true with climate change and storms. Because of the known causal relationships between temperatures and extreme weather events, for many extreme events, we can state that climate change likely played a role in them and that, in general, increased climate change is resulting in increased extremes.
Additionally, in the case of climate change, we can often go even further. By examining natural trends, our influence on the climate, and the causes of particular storm systems, we can often calculate the probability that a given system would arise absent our influence (and, conversely, how likely it is that our actions played a role). Indeed, several of the studies that I have cited throughout this post have done that. For example, as I mentioned earlier, when scientists examined the 2003 heatwave in Europe, they found that it was unlikely based on natural patterns (Schar et al. 2004) and that our actions have doubled the risk of such events (Stott et al. 2004). So, while we should be cautious about blaming everything on climate change, there is often very good evidence that particular events were probably influenced by our actions.
In short, there is very clear evidence that extreme weather events are increasing, and that increase is linked to climate change (which we are causing). Heat waves, floods, and droughts are all on the rise, and they bring with them heavy economic, environmental, and health burdens, with thousands of people dying as a result of them. Further, the intensity of these events is increasing as well as their frequency. Similarly, for hurricanes, storms are becoming more intense, and the strongest, most dangerous categories are becoming more common. This is a very real and dangerous consequence of our actions.
Again, this is not fearmongering or “liberal propaganda,” it’s not something that will only happen in the distant future, and it certainly isn’t a Chinese hoax. This is real, and it is happening right now. People are already dying as a direct result of what we are doing to the atmosphere, and those death tolls will only become worse if we don’t immediately take action to stop the climate from changing any further. I rarely include calls to action in my posts (other than encouraging people to fact check and think critically), but this topic is far too important for me to end the post without one. We need to start taking climate change seriously and stop relying on fossil fuels, even if it costs some jobs, increases taxes, etc. The cost of not taking action will be far, far higher than the cost of taking action, both economically and in terms of human lives. Thousands have already died because of climate change, and thousands more, probably millions more, will die if we don’t change our actions. We have the technology right now to make a huge difference, we just need to invest in it, and that means that you need to take personal responsibility in your daily choices and, perhaps most importantly of all, you need to contact your governmental representatives and tell them that this needs to be a priority. Then, you need to vote accordingly.
Note: In all likelihood, switching energy sources would actually result in a net increase in jobs and net increase in the economy, but even if that wasn’t true, the jobs of a few coal miners and bank accounts of rich oil CEOs aren’t worth the lives of the thousands of people who will die because of climate change.
- 25 myths and bad arguments about climate change
- Basics of Global Climate Change: A Logical Proof That it is Our Fault
- Global warming hasn’t paused
- Global warming isn’t natural, and here’s how we know
- Yes, there is a strong consensus on climate change
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