Extreme Weather is Linked to Global Warming, a New Study Suggests

by Shannon Hall on August 26, 2014

In 2013, a blocking pattern over Alaska caused a record-breaking heat wave. Credit: Photo by Jesse Allen and Jeff Schmatltz, using data from theLand Processes Distributed Active Archive Center(LPDAAC) and theLANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response

In 2013, a blocking pattern over Alaska caused a record-breaking heat wave. Credit: Earth Observatory

Extreme weather is becoming much more common. Heat waves and heavy rains are escalating, food crops are being damaged, human beings are being displaced due to flooding and animals are migrating toward the poles or going extinct.

Although it has been postulated that these extreme weather events may be due to climate change, a new study has found much better evidence.

The research shows blocking patterns — high-pressure systems that become immobile for days or even weeks, causing extreme heat waves and torrential rain — may have doubled in summers over the last decade.

“Since 2000, we have seen a cluster of these events,” lead author Dim Doumou told The Gaurdian earlier this month. “When these high-altitude waves become quasi-stationary, then we see more extreme weather at the surface. It is especially noticeable for heat extremes.”

It was a blocking pattern that led to the heat wave in Alaska in 2013, and to the devastating floods in Colorado last summer.

These blocking patterns are associated with the jet stream, the fast flowing winds high in Earth’s atmosphere at latitudes between 30 and 60 degrees. Sometimes the flow weakens, and the winds can dip down into more southern latitudes. These excursions lead to blocking patterns.

And the jet stream is becoming “wavier,” with steeper troughs and higher ridges.

The climatologists analyzed 35 years of wind data amassed from satellites, ships, weather stations, and meteorological balloons. They found that a warming Arctic creates and amplifies the conditions that lead to jet stream excursions, therefore raising the chances for long-duration extreme events, like droughts, floods, and heat waves.

That said the climatologists were unable to see a direct causal link between climate change and extreme weather. Ordinarily we think about “cause” in a simple sense in which one thing fully brings about another. But the Colorado floods, for example, were partially caused by moisture from the tropics, a blocking pattern, and past wildfires that increased the risk of runoff.

So there is a difference between “direct causation” and “systematic causation.” The latter is not direct, but it is no less real. In this study, the team noticed that the rise in blocking patterns correlates closely with the extra heating being delivered to the Arctic by climate change. Statistically speaking, the two seem to go hand in hand.

But the team does hypothesize a direct causal link. The jet streams are driven by the difference in temperature between the poles and the equator. So because the Arctic is warming more quickly than lower latitudes, the temperature difference is declining, providing less energy for the jet stream and causing it to meander.

Although the study shows a correlation — not causation — between more frequent blocking patterns (and therefore extreme weather) and Arctic warming, it is a solid step forward in understanding how the two are related.

The article has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS).

To see why Universe Today writes about climate change, please read a past article on the subject.

About 

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

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