extreme weather

Press Release: Pew Center on Global Climate Change Chief Scientist Wins Prestigious Scientific Organization Award

Press Release
July 19, 2011

Contact: Rebecca Matulka, 703-516-4146

Pew Center on Global Climate Change Chief Scientist Wins
Prestigious Scientific Organization Award


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Pew Center on Global Climate Change Senior Scientist, Dr. Jay Gulledge, is this year’s recipient of the Charles S. Falkenberg Award for his work communicating climate change science to decision-makers and the public. The award is presented jointly by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the Earth Science Information Partnership (ESIP).

Since joining the Pew Center in 2005, Dr. Gulledge, who directs the Center’s science and impacts program, has worked to build public awareness of climate change science. In this role, he has communicated both an understanding of climate science and the need for urgent action to a diverse audience of non-scientists including policy-makers, the business community, and the media. Dr. Gulledge’s recent work uses a risk management framework to help explain that uncertainty over climate science is not a reason for inaction, rather it is a reason to act now to minimize both the risk that comes with climate change and the cost of mitigating it.

“He has the unique ability to translate scientific uncertainty into useful information for decision-makers and the public,” said Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “Jay often says, ‘Uncertainty is information.’ For the public, that notion is nothing short of revolutionary.”

In December Dr. Gulledge will be honored for his achievements at the 2011 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco. Established in 2002, the Falkenberg Award honors a scientist under age 45 who has contributed to the quality of life, economic opportunities, and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information, and to the public awareness of the importance of understanding our planet.

Dr. Gulledge manages the Pew Center’s efforts to assess and communicate the latest scholarly information about the science and environmental impacts of climate change. In Pew Center reports, on the Climate Compass blog, and in numerous media interviews, Dr. Gulledge connects the dots between climate change and extreme weather, explains scientific developments in accessible terms, and delivers straight answers that increase public understanding of climate change.

Dr. Gulledge has also forged new ground in his work on the relationship between climate change and national security. As a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, he has co-authored influential reports, including The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change.

Dr. Gulledge is a Certified Senior Ecologist with two decades of experience teaching and conducting research in the biological and environmental sciences. He earned a PhD from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was a Life Sciences Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University. He has held faculty posts at Tulane University and the University of Louisville.

“The ability to effectively communicate Earth science to a wide range of audiences is rare, and Jay ranks among the very few who possess that skill,” said Claussen. “His dedication to transparency and accuracy and his unflagging defense of the scientific process in the face of political shenanigans have earned him the respect of his peers.”

For more information about global climate change and the activities of the Pew Center, visit www.c2es.org.



The Pew Center on Global Climate Change was established in May 1998 as a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization dedicated to providing credible information, straight answers, and innovative solutions in the effort to address global climate change. The Pew Center is led by Eileen Claussen, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Scientific American Series on Extreme Weather, Climate Change, and the Risks We Face

Scientific American published a three-part series authored by award-winning science journalist John Carey and commissioned by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change that reports on the link between extreme weather and climate change. Editorial control was held by the author and Scientific American.

The series details the impacts of extreme weather events, the science behind extreme weather and global warming, and the risks and how to respond to the increase in extreme weather. Through enterprising reporting, this series provides an in-depth and accessible account of extreme weather affecting communities across America, why it’s happening, and what can be done about it.

Part One - Storm Warnings: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change

More violent and frequent storms, once merely a prediction of climate models, are now a matter of observation.

In North Dakota the waters kept rising. Swollen by more than a month of record rains in Saskatchewan, the Souris River topped its all time record high, set back in 1881. The floodwaters poured into Minot, North Dakota's fourth-largest city, and spread across thousands of acres of farms and forests. More than 12,000 people were forced to evacuate. Many lost their homes to the floodwaters.Read more.


Part Two - Global Warming and the Science of Extreme Weather

How rising temperatures change weather and produce fiercer, more frequent storms.

Extreme floods, prolonged droughts, searing heat waves, massive rainstorms and the like don't just seem like they've become the new normal in the last few years—they have become more common, according to data collected by reinsurance company Munich Re. But has this increase resulted from human-caused climate change or just from natural climatic variations? After all, recorded floods and droughts go back to the earliest days of mankind, before coal, oil and natural gas made the modern industrial world possible. Read more.


Part Three - Our Extreme Future: Predicting and Coping with a Changing Climate

Adapting to extreme weather calls for a combination of restoring wetland and building drains and sewers that can handle the water. But leaders and the public are slow to catch on.

Extreme weather events have become both more common and more intense. And increasingly, scientists have been able to pin at least part of the blame on humankind's alteration of the climate. What's more, the growing success of this nascent science of climate attribution (finding the telltale fingerprints of climate change in extreme events) means that researchers have more confidence in their climate models—which predict that the future will be even more extreme. Read more.


Climate Change: How Much Does It Really Cost?

Undoubtedly, it’s a different climate for talking about climate change this year. Extreme weather events have replaced legislative proposals as the big hook for discussing the issue. What hasn’t changed much is that we are still talking about it, and much of the talk still centers on the costs.

When climate legislation was before Congress last year, much of the discussion focused on the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This year we are seeing a new set of headlines. Story after story describes communities across our country being hit by extreme weather events – the floods in the Mississippi, Missouri and Souris rivers, the drought in Texas, and the wildfires in Florida and Arizona.  We see vivid photos of temporary levees being built around nuclear power plants and wildfires threatening stored plutonium in New Mexico. The increasing number of extreme weather events is a wake-up call of the costs we will incur if we fail to address climate change.  

Pew Center, Scientific American Team Up to Explain Climate Change, Extreme Weather Link

We are teaming up with Scientific American to explain the link between climate change and extreme weather. In a new three-part series featured on Scientific American.com, award-winning science journalist John Carey dissects the science, impacts, and actions to take regarding the record-breaking floods, heat waves, droughts, storms, and wildfires experienced across the United States and the world in the past year. The first installment appears today.

A Climate of Extreme Weather Events

A Climate of Extreme Weather Events

A white paper on U.S. impacts and vulnerability

June 2011

Download the full white paper (pdf)


Much of the discussion of climate change focuses on slow changes in average temperatures and precipitation over time. But this focus masks the larger changes in weather variability and extreme weather events that will accompany modest changes in averages. Damages aren’t typically associated with average rainfall events or gradual increases in temperatures but are driven by extreme flooding events, periods of extended drought or prolonged, intense heat waves.  

Extreme weather events have always been an important part of our climate history. The Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s, the 1927 Mississippi River flood, and the 1980 Heat Wave that blanketed much of the Midwest are just a few examples of extreme events that are etched in our nation’s history. By its very nature our climate system produces variable weather including an occasional extreme event. By increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however, we are loading the dice toward more favorable climate conditions for extreme weather and are very likely to experience more frequent extreme events over time. 

A large body of scientific evidence suggests that droughts, floods and heat waves are likely to become more frequent and/or intense. Recent data suggests we are experiencing this trend already.[1] For example, the amount of rain that falls during intense precipitation events has increased by 20 percent in the United States over the last century.[2] Over the past decade, record high temperatures now occur about twice as often as record lows; the ratio was about one-to-one in the 1950s (Figure 1).[3] Recent floods in Tennessee, the lower Mississippi and North Dakota, droughts and wildfires in the southwest, and intense, humid heat waves in the Midwest, illustrate the high costs of extreme weather events. These types of changes are fully consistent with what scientists have long warned would be the consequences of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere. A large body of scientific evidence makes it clear that the risk of such events has increased and should be expected to continue to increase as the climate warms.

The events we have experienced in recent years provide important information about our vulnerability to extreme weather, the human and economic costs that could result, and most importantly, actions we can take today to minimize the risks of more frequent extreme weather events. This information is useful regardless of why any particular event happened and whether climate change made it worse or not. The often asked question about whether climate change caused a particular weather event cannot be answered definitively. Individual events are caused by the interaction of many factors and efforts to isolate the role of climate change will not be resolved cleanly in the years to come. What virtually all climate scientists agree on, however, is that the climate is already changing, that all weather events now form under different conditions than they used to, and that this change is increasing the probability of extreme weather events happening. Moreover, scientists agree that severe heat and heavy downpours are already more frequent and intense than they used to be. Since the rising risk of extreme weather is well established, it makes sense to learn what we can from actual events and avoid getting caught up in an irresolvable debate about why a particular event happened.

For more on the relationship between extreme weather and climate change, visit our Extreme Weather web page, where you'll find our extreme weather events map, along with other reports and C2ES resources.

[1]Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.). Cambridge University Press, 2009. (p.32)

[2] Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, op. cit.  (p.44)

[3] Meehl, G. A., C. Tebaldi, G. Walton, D. Easterling, and L. McDaniel (2009), Relative increase of record high maximum temperatures compared to record low minimum temperatures in the U.S., Geophys. Res. Lett.36, L23701, doi:10.1029/2009GL040736.



Minimizing the Costs of Extreme Weather

To see the economic costs of extreme weather you don’t have to look all the way to Russia where last summer’s heat wave caused extensive wildfires and crop losses roiled world markets for wheat.   Nor do you have to look as far as Europe where in the summer of 2003, a 1-in-500 year heat wave caused at least 35,000 premature deaths.  No, extreme weather events have recently occurred within the United States. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, extensive flooding in the region in 2008 caused damage estimates of $8-10 billion. In Nashville, Tennessee, in May 2010, a 1-in-1000 year storm caused floods resulting in more than $3 billion in damage.  

Whether you think these are just isolated incidents or are part of the emerging pattern of climate change, there is one thing we can all agree on. These events result in significant economic loss and to the extent we can build greater resilience into our economy to minimize losses from extreme weather, we will all be better off.

Take a page from the military: Risk management could reboot climate change debate

Co-authored by Nick Mabey and originally appeared in The Hill's Congress blog

Once a serious issue becomes politicized and turns into a virtual weapon in the culture wars, it can seem impossible to move beyond partisan bickering and identify a reasonable and responsible course of action. But as those whose job is protecting national security have shown us time and again, it is important to chart a path forward --despite political battles-- when a situation is dangerous and the future is in doubt.

Defending the nation routinely requires making weighty decisions despite uncertainty, incomplete information, and limited resources. To do its job in these difficult situations, the military routinely uses an approach known as risk management. Risk management provides a systematic way to consider threats and vulnerabilities, “knowns and unknowns”, and to take steps to minimize risk.

2010 Ties for Warmest Year on Record

Every January, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center provides an expert analysis of the previous year’s climate. This puts the extreme weather of 2010 into a broader context. The record warmth of the past year adds to the huge body of evidence that the earth continues to warm.

Here are some of NOAA’s key finding:

Global average temperature

  • 2010 is tied with 2005 as the warmest year since 1880 when NOAA’s records begin. The temperature was 1.1°F above the 20th century average.
  • The Northern Hemisphere was the warmest on record while the Southern Hemisphere was the 6th warmest since 1880.
  • 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record are from 2001 and after.
  • Every year since 2000 is one of the 15 warmest years.
  • It is the 34th consecutive year that was warmer than the 20th century average.
  • NOAA scientist David Easterling said that the top ranking of 2010 reinforces the conclusion that the climate is continuing to warm because of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

10 Warmest Years on Record



°F above 20th Century Average































Other observations
  • Global snow cover was the lowest on record
  • Arctic sea ice reached its third-smallest summer minimum
  • In the United States, both land surface temperature and amount of rainfall were in the top third since 1880.
  • Although the eastern U.S. is having a cold winter, Canada and the Arctic are unusually warm, maintaining a globally warm condition.

Read more from NOAA: 



Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

Our Region at Risk

Front-Line City in Virginia Tackles Rise in Sea  --  The New York Times, Nov. 25

Last house on sinking Chesapeake Bay island collapses   --  The Washington Post,  Oct. 26

Flood Plan proposed to protect Washington Mall  --  The Washington Post, Nov. 15

Maybe climate change has fallen off the radar screen at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but these recent headlines from The Washington Post and The New York Times suggest that the issue hasn’t gone away. No, these stories aren’t straight out of some scary futuristic sci-fi movie (anybody remember the truly dreadful 1995 movie Waterworld starring Kevin Costner?). Nor are they based on some forecast for a distant future year spit out by a supercomputer. They simply report on real events, happening today, right here in our region. They provide a clear and present warning of the economic costs and human suffering that will increasingly be in the news if we fall to address climate change.

Lessons from Extreme Weather: A Minnesota Farmer Gets the Point

Throughout this year I have posted a number of blogs on the record-breaking extreme weather events of recent years, particularly 2010. Events ranged from unprecedented blizzards on the U.S. East Coast to the cataclysmic Russian heat wave and flooding in Pakistan. The key message I’ve tried to communicate is that, rather than debating whether these particular events are being caused by climate change – an interesting academic question that is unanswerable on a practical level – we should learn from these events about our individual and societal vulnerabilities and the real costs of climate change.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Jack Hedin, a Minnesota farmer, offers an excellent example of the type of practical learning I’m talking about:

“The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.”

Mr. Hedin’s family has farmed the soils of southern Minnesota since the late 19th century. Today he runs a small farm in Rushville, where an onslaught of extreme weather events over several years forced him to retreat to higher ground. This is an example of forced adaptation where abandonment was the best choice. But even in the new location, his farm lost $100,000 worth of crops to excessive soil moisture this summer.

Notice that Hedin doesn’t waste time worrying about whether particular weather events were caused by human-induced climate change:

“The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.”

Climate scientists know the climate is changing, that many mid-latitude locations are becoming wetter as a result (see figure below), and that we can expect that trend to continue. What does it matter whether a particular storm on a particular day in a particular year was caused by human intervention with the climate system? After all, it isn’t one particular event that has Mr. Hedin worried about the future of farming in America’s grain belt; it’s the preponderance of evidence that the climate is already shifting and the common sense realization that farming is getting harder because of that shift.

Please read Jack Hedin’s op-ed in The New York Times. He has the right idea about learning from extreme weather events. 

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

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