Science

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.

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Climate Change at Kili

Glaciers on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

I recently returned from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania for a great cause, and I was reminded why I left engineering to work on climate change. Mount Kilimanjaro, or Kili, is the tallest peak in Africa, and its summit is covered with beautiful glaciers (see the picture to the right). But those glaciers are rapidly disappearing, and scientists estimate Kili’s summit will be ice free by 2022. This trend is a prime example of forced adaptation to climate change and provides a serious warning of things to come unless we work together to reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions. The action we need has to come from government at all levels, businesses, and individuals as we explain in our Climate Change 101 series.

July 2011 Extreme Weather Newsletter

Click here to view our July 2011 newsletter

The Pew Center's July 2011 newsletter explores how climate change and extreme weather are connected, highlighting our new extreme weather map, a series by Scientific American on extreme weather, and updated science Q&As.

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)

Introduction:

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.

 

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Water Resources and Climate Change: A Key Area of Concern

Although much of the discussion about climate change impacts has focused on increases in temperature and the rise in sea level, changes that impact our nation’s water resources could have the greatest impact on society. A quick glance at recent newspaper headlines—heavy spring rains leading to massive flooding of the Mississippi River, historic drought covering large parts of Texas, and extensive wildfires spreading across Arizona—provides more than enough evidence of how vulnerable we are to water-related extreme events. 


While these events have led some to ask whether they are caused by climate change, this question misses the mark. Individual weather events are not “caused” by any single phenomenon—and climate change’s contribution to individual events 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, all weather events now form under different conditions than they used to, and this change is increasing the probability of extreme weather events happening. 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. We would be better served by learning more about what is at risk from extreme events and what we can do to better manage and minimize those risks.


A recent interagency draft report, National Action Plan: Priorities for Managing Freshwater Resources in a Changing Climate, highlights both the extensive economic and social risks that we face as a nation from the impact of climate change on water resources and the critical steps we need to take to begin facing up to these challenges. 

Source: US Global Change Research Program: Climate Change Impacts in the United States

The report documents the changes in our climate system that are already evident and are likely to increase over time. Warmer air and sea surface temperatures and rising sea levels are only part of the picture. Total precipitation has increased by about 5 percent over the past 50 years, and the amount of precipitation that occurs during the heaviest downpours has increased by 20 percent. However, regional variations appear likely with increased precipitation in the northern part of the country while areas in the south, particularly in the southwest, are likely to get drier. The strengthened hydrologic cycle puts wet areas at risk of getting wetter while dry areas are at increased risk of drought. Areas dependent on water from melting snow packs may also face substantial changes as more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow and as earlier snowmelt changes the timing and quantity of water availability.


The implications of these changes cut a wide swath across our economy and environment. Water availability is critical in sectors as diverse as agriculture, electricity generation (hydroelectric, but also fossil fuel generation and nuclear power), heavy transport, mining and mineral exploration, and storm water management. Beyond economic factors, water is also critical to ecosystem wellbeing, wildfire management, and public health.


In order to more effectively manage these risks, and to enhance the resiliency of our water resource  systems,  the report sets out six general recommendations and 24 specific actions that should be undertaken by federal agencies and their partners. It calls for a more formal planning process, highlights the need for improved information, enhanced capacity building, better integration across related issues, and better tools for assessing vulnerabilities, and recommends expanded water use efficiency.


These actions are by no means a cure-all for the challenges we face in managing the increasing demands on our water resources in a changing climate. Nor are they a substitute for slowing the rate and magnitude of climate change through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. The most effective risk management strategy is to avoid the risk all together. But with climate change already underway, we are too late to avoid some changes, and adaptation will be critical to reducing economic and environmental costs. We need only to look at the costs and suffering from recent extreme weather events to understand the risks we face.


Comments on the draft plan are being accepted until July 15, and can be submitted to: http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/adaptation/freshwater-plan
 

Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis

Claussen Reacts to Authoritative Study on America's Climate Choices

Today the National Academies released the final report in its most comprehensive assessment of climate change entitled America’s Climate Choices.

Statement of Eileen Claussen
President, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

May 12, 2011

I applaud the National Academies for providing policymakers and the public with this comprehensive and authoritative study to advance the country’s response to climate change. America’s Climate Choices reaffirms the overwhelming scientific evidence – climate change is real and the case for action is clear.

Left unchecked, climate impacts pose significant risks to our economy and security. If we continue to ignore and delay acting to minimize these very real risks, we are inviting more severe impacts and greater costs. Meaningful action will increase certain costs, but clear-headed analyses show those costs will be manageable and far outweighed by the economic, security, and environmental benefits.

In the year since the first installments of America’s Climate Choices were published, extreme weather events have affected millions of lives and cost billions of dollars in the U.S. and across the world. Current flood damage along the Mississippi River and drought-induced wildfires that have ravaged more than 2 million acres this year in Texas are the latest reminders of the risks we will face and the need to act to address our growing vulnerabilities.

We also agree with the National Academies that more studies and scientific findings alone will not advance sensible energy and climate solutions. Straight-forward answers about the risks and growing costs we face from inaction and the economic costs and opportunities from advancing innovative energy solutions must be effectively communicated to broader audiences in a clear and honest way.

From Washington, to Wall Street, to Main Street, Americans need a fair shake on the energy-climate debate. They need a clearer understanding of our climate and energy challenges and what it means to them. We look forward to building on the work of America’s Climate Choices to advance this conversation so the choices America makes enhance our security, grow our economy, and protect our environment today and for generations to come.

Pew Center Contact: Tom Steinfeldt, 703-516-4146

Related Resources

Changing Planet Series

Changing Planet is a three-part series of town hall events intended to encourage student learning and dialogue about climate change by gathering scientists, thought leaders, business people, and university students to discuss the facts of climate science, the dynamics of its impact and to brainstorm solutions. The series is prodiced in partnership between NBC Learn (the educational arm of NBC News), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Discover magazine.

The first town hall event, Changing Planet: The Impact on Lives and Values, was hosted at Yale University and moderated by NBC News Special Correspondent Tom Brokaw. The discussion explored themes of human health, national security, economic opportunity and competitiveness, moral or religious values, environmental justice, and what climate change means for youth. The panelists were Linda Fisher, Dupont’s chief sustainability officer; Rajendra Pachauri, director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute and a Nobel Prize laureate; Billy Parish, founder and coordinator of the youth-oriented Energy Action Coalition; and Katherine Hayhoe, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University and an expert on the intersection between Christian fundamentalism and climate change.

NBC Learn/Weather Channel Make an Impact highlight

A second Changing Planet: Clean Energy, Green Jobs and Global Competition town hall was hosted at George Washington University on April 12, and focused on the economic advantages of climate change solutions, including clean energy policies and technologies and creation of market green jobs. Tim Juliani, Director of Corporate Engagement, was a panelist and provided our  perspective on the clean energy debate. Other panelists included: Ken Zweibel, a professor at GWU, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins (head of Green for All),  and Chris Busch (director of Policy and Programs at the Apollo Alliance). NBC News reporter Anne Thompson moderated this event.

Read Discover Magazine's story on Building a Green-Collar Economy with a full transcript of the Changing Planet: Clean Energy, Green Jobs and Global Competition town hall.

The third town hall will be held at Arizona State University in the fall of 2011, and its suggested focus will be “Keeping It Fresh: Our Water Future,” impacts of  how communities are adapting, or preparing to adapt to, changing availability of fresh water..

In addition to the Changing Planet town halls, NBC Learn and NSF worked together to produce a series of 12 online video reports looking at the impact of climate change in various locations around the world. From Bermuda’s tropical seas to the Arctic Ocean, each story follows scientists in the field who are studying the dramatic impacts of rising temperatures in the air, in the water, and on land. The series is narrated by Anne Thompson, Chief Environmental Affairs Correspondent for NBC News. Watch the full video series here.

Maryland an Early Mover on Climate Adaptation

The State of Maryland released a new report earlier this year recommending a course of action to adapt to our changing climate. This report is the latest in a series that began in 2007 when Governor Martin O’Malley issued an executive order to establish the Maryland Commission on Climate Change. The commission was charged with addressing the causes of climate change and adapting to the most likely impacts. In 2008, the Maryland Climate Action Plan was released, addressing impacts, mitigation, and economic concerns. 


Among the impacts highlighted in the Climate Action Plan was sea level rise, projected to be more than a foot by mid-century and as much as 3 feet by 2100. If the highest rates are realized, most tidal wetlands would be lost and about 200 square miles of land would be inundated. The bay would also suffer additional stresses as restoration goals become more difficult to achieve. Aquatic species composition will change and increased nutrient runoff into the bay will make water quality goals much harder to meet. Impacts are projected to occur inland as well with heat waves greatly increasing the risk of illness and death. The average year will have 24 days above 100°F by the end of the century. Ground level ozone, formed under prolonged, high temperatures will increase, resulting in more respiratory illnesses, especially among vulnerable populations.


The Action Plan addressed the adaptation needs of coastal regions but only highlighted the need to pursue the development of adaptive strategies for other affected sectors. In response, work began on a report specifically for adaptation in these other sectors. Earlier this year, the culmination of this effort was released as the Comprehensive Strategy for Reducing Maryland’s Vulnerability to Climate Change, Phase II: Building societal, economic and ecological resilience. The report provides the basis for guiding and prioritizing state-level activities with respect to both the climate science and adaptation policy within short to medium-term timeframes.
 

Key Recommendations

  • Human Health: Conduct vulnerability assessments to gain a better understanding of risks and inform preventative responses by assessing potential health threats and the sufficiency of Maryland’s response capacity. The impacts to food safety and availability must also be evaluated.
  • Agriculture: Increase crop diversity, protect against incoming pests and disease, and intensify water management through research, funding and incentives. Enhance existing Best Management Practices (BMPs) and land conservation targets including revising targets for agricultural land preservation. BMPs that are geared toward protecting water quality in the Chesapeake Bay are likely to be significantly shifted as changes in seasonality and precipitation occur.
  • Forests and Terrestrial Ecosystems: Expand land protection and restoration and revise targeting priorities. This includes integrating climate data and models into existing resource assessments and spatial planning frameworks as well as developing adaptation guidance for local government planning. Management practices to reduce existing forest stressors should also be adjusted. High elevation forest species such as the red spruce or Eastern hemlock will likely disappear from Maryland as will the Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly and ecosystem management plans must reflect these future changes.
  • Bay and Aquatic Ecosystems: Restore critical bay and aquatic habitats to enhance resilience. It is recommended that the state be proactive in the design and construction of habitat restoration projects due to their importance in enhancing the resilience of aquatic ecosystems. Dam removal projects on Octoraro Creek in Cecil County and Raven Rock Creek in Washington County have resulted in reduced stream temperatures and moderated stream flow, boosting connectivity between habitats and resilience of fish and other transient species.
  • Water Resources: Ensure long-term safe and adequate water supply for humans and ecosystems. Reduce the impacts of flooding and stormwater by removing high-hazard water supplies and preventing inundation and overflow of on-site disposal systems. On-site disposal systems already lead to raw sewage leakage in Maryland are likely to worsen with increases in extreme precipitation. These failing septic systems must be improved or replaced.
  • Population Growth and Infrastructure: Plan for precipitation-related weather extremes and increase resilience to rising temperatures by identifying investment needs to prepare for weather emergencies and improving stormwater management strategies. Urban tree canopy should also be increased to provide urban heat reduction, stormwater reduction, and air filtration.
     

Not every state has an adaptation plan, and Maryland is one of only two states (Virginia) in the Mid-Atlantic region to have completed one or made progress. However, both North Carolina and South Carolina have Climate Action Plans that call for an adaptation report and more states are moving towards producing adaptation plans. Maryland is at risk from a variety of ill-effects due to climate change and the identification and implementation of key adaptation measures will ensure the state minimizes the impacts and costs of climate change in the long run. Other states would do well to take heed, and move to minimize their costs as well.


Dan Huber is Science & Policy Fellow

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