In 2003, when temperatures reached 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Europe claiming more than 70,000 lives – climate scientists struggled to link it to global warming.
Later, when a team of British researchers used environmental data and model simulations to establish a statistical link between climate change and the heat wave, they were able to raise some eyebrows.
Although they fell short of directly linking the heatwave to anthropogenic climate change, they found evidence that human emissions can double the risk of extreme weather.
Their results – a part of new field of study called “attribution science” where scientists use observations and models to try and figure out why extreme weather events happen.
Attribution Science at Work
Smithsonian.com talked to three scientists that use observations and models to study extreme weather and global climate. They say it’s still not an exact science, but things are moving in the right direction.
“The big challenge is that these kind of extreme events have always happened,” says Ken Kunkel, a climate scientist at North Carolina State University, who focuses on heavy storms that cause considerable damage in the United States.
“The difficulty of isolating a culprit behind extreme weather events is a similar to the diagnostic challenge that medical doctors face,” added Noah Diffenbaugh, an earth systems scientist at Stanford University.
He continued, “But when it comes to Earth, we don’t have the ability to do clinical trials on hundreds or thousands of similar planets. We only have one planet and one timeline.”
So, they use computer models to mimic variables on Earth – which give them more Earths to look at.
Although the models work well for large geographic events like heatwaves, the technology is still primitive for localized events like tornados because of limitations on supercomputing power.
As technology catches up, scientists are busy gathering and running the data points they have to help strengthen these predictions. “We analyze every variable that we can get our hands on,” says Adam Schlosser, a senior research scientist at the Center for Global Change Science.
So, the recent headline-grabbing (and often scary) extreme droughts, storms and floods has been a literal data gold mine for these scientists.
Ingredients of Extreme Weather
The terms you hear from your local meteorologist like wind speed, pressure fronts, temperature, humidity, and instability in the atmosphere are all ingredients in the cookbook of extreme weather.
“Anytime we see these ingredients come together, you’re going to be in an environment for a storm,” says Schlosser.
Researchers now have greater confidence than ever when making assertions about the role of anthropogenic climate change in the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events.
“The consensus is getting stronger and stronger,” says Schlosser. “It doesn’t really matter what direction it goes, we just want to be confident about it.”
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