Science

The 2011 Texas Drought in a Historical Context

Texas climatologists have recently stated that the ongoing dry spell is the worst one-year drought since Texas rainfall data started being recorded in 1895. The majority of the state has earned the highest rating of “exceptional” drought and the remaining areas are not far behind with “extreme” or “severe” ratings by the U.S. Drought Monitor. So far, Texas has only received 6.5 inches of the 16 inches that has normally accumulated by this time of year.

Risk to Livestock during Heat Waves

Cattle deaths have been mounting in the central U.S. as the recent heat wave has pushed heat indices above 120 degrees in a number of states. Faced with dry pastures, rapidly depleting hay supplies and drought stressed surface water sources, ranchers in Texas are engaging in a significant  livestock sell-off, referred to in one press account as culling into “the heart of the herd.” The size of the U.S. herd is now at a record low as farmers liquidate, enticed by high beef prices and expensive feed. The situation is dire enough that the government has stepped in with low interest loans to ranchers and direct payments for farmers that lost animals due to the extreme weather. Under the Livestock Indemnity Program, cattle lost to extreme weather are reimbursed by the government at 75 percent of their value, a significant expenditure when cattle losses are counted in the thousands. Texans are already looking for ways to adapt to the drought and improve their climate resilience. Henderson County is hosting a training session on August 22 entitled “Managing the Effects of Drought for Beef Producers.”

Excessive Heat Across Eastern U.S.

Over the weekend, the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning across a huge swath of the country, putting 132 million people under a heat alert. This warning is only issued when a heat index of at least 105°F is expected for more than three hours per day on two consecutive days or when the heat index is expected to rise above 115°F for any length of time. Recently in Iowa, the heat index reached  131°F, a level normally found only along the Red Sea in the Middle East. Scientists warn that these types of events could become much more common in the future, thanks to climate change.

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.

 

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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.

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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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