News / Science & Technology

Extreme Weather Linked to Climate Change

  • Heavy rains in southeastern Brazil caused a dam in the town of Campo de Goytacazes to burst and flood the area, January, 2012. (Melissa Martins Casa Grande)
  • Days of heavy rainfall in what is typically one of the driest months of the year in Australia forced 13,000 people to evacuate their homes, March 2012.
  • Cattle decompose under the Saharan sun outside the town of Ayoun el Atrous in Mauritania. The food and nutrition crisis facing countries in West Africa’s drought-prone Sahel region continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate, May 2012.
  • Two weeks worth of rain fell in one day in Manlia, submerging half of the Philippines capital, July 2012.
  • Extreme drought conditions in the United States sparked more and extensive wild fires, like this one in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest, July 2012. (U.S. Forest Service)
  • Corn plants weakened by the drought lie on the ground after being knocked over by rain in Bennington, Nebraska. The U.S. Drought Monitor said the rainfall came too late to help already damaged corn crops, September 2012.
  • Super Typhoon Jelawat made landfall over Japan and affected the Korean peninsula with heavy rains and floods, September 2012.
  • For the third consecutive year, monsoon floods hit Pakistan's Sindh and Balochistan provinces, damaging more than 450,000 hectares of agricultural land. Almost 400,000 houses were partially or completely destroyed, September 2012. (Jean-Luc Siblot)
  • Vast stretches of Nigeria were hit by floods. Flood waters submerge a vehicle in the Patani community in Nigeria's Delta State, October 2012.
  • Wreckage on the coast of New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy, October 2012. (Credit: spleeness)
  • Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City streets, October 2012. (David Shanbone)
  • The United Nations requested $65 million to provide lifesaving aid to survivors of Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines, December 2012. (OCHA)
  • The United Nations Convention on Climate Change met in Qatar in December for annual talks to address the impact of climate change. (UNFCCC)
  • In 2012 polar ice sheets melted at an accelerating rate. In this photo surface melt water rushes along the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet through a supra-glacial stream channel. (Ian Joughin)
Extreme Weather Events in 2012
Rosanne Skirble
No evidence has linked extreme weather events to climate change, until now. New research suggests devastating floods, droughts and storms were exacerbated by human-induced climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels in our cars, factories and homes.

The new report, released by British and American climate agencies, analyzes a dozen extreme weather events which occurred worldwide in 2012.

“What they find is [with] about half of the events," said Thomas Karl, director of the NOAA National Climatic Data Center, "the analyses reveal compelling evidence that human-caused change was a factor contributing to the extreme event.”  

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre edited the report. Co-editor and NOAA scientist Thomas Peterson says natural weather patterns and human induced climate change are factors in the intensity and evolution of events.

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While last year’s spring and summer heat waves in the United States are attributed to normal atmospheric dynamics, climate scientists found that is not the entire story.

“They estimated that human caused climate change contributed about one-third of the magnitude of that warmth," Peterson said. "Or in terms of risk, greenhouse warming had already made very large seasonal departures from normal, like the temperatures in the spring in the Eastern U.S. about 12 times more likely to occur.”

The report also blamed human-caused climate change for the warmer ocean and atmosphere that drove the loss of sea ice in the Arctic.

That was not the case with Hurricane Sandy, the devastating storm that hit New Jersey and New York last October. Karl says the rare event might have occurred anyway.

“What the analysis was saying with the added increase of sea level, that just makes that kind of event incrementally worse," Karl said. "And in some of these events that is the kind of result that we are seeing.  However, in a number of these other events we could not detect a human influence.”

High rainfall in Britain, the United States, China and Japan were mainly due to natural variability, while the report detected a warming-climate connection in precipitation in Australia and New Zealand.  

“We are making great strides in our ability to understand these events," Karl said. "We attribute this to increased computational resource [and] improved quality of data sets. With these tools we continue to gain more insights into the many factors that affect the frequency and intensity as well as the spatial and temporal patterns of the extreme events.”  

And, Karl adds, the more accurate information collected by climate scientists can help policy makers and the public better understand and manage the impact of climate change.

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