What is Causing Weather Extremes in 2010?

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Massive rains in Pakistan, China and Iowa in the US. Drought, heat and unprecedented fires in Russia and western Canada. 2010 is going down as the year of crazy, extreme weather. Is this just a wacky year or a trend of things to come? According to meteorologists, unusual holding patterns in the jet stream in the northern hemisphere are to blame for the extreme weather in Pakistan and Russia. But also, the World Meteorological Organization and other scientists say this type of weather fits patterns predicted by climate scientists, and could be the result of climate change.

“All these things are the kinds of things we would expect to happen as the planet warms up,” said Tom Wagner, a NASA scientist who studies the cryosphere, during an interview on CNN on August 11. “And we are seeing that the planet is warming about .35 degrees per decade. Places like Greenland are warming even faster, like 3.5 degrees per decade. And all these events from heat waves to stronger monsoons, to loss of ice are all consistent with that. Where it gets a little tricky is assigning any specific event to say, the cause of this event is definitely global warming, that is where we get to the edge of the research.”

“This weather is very unusual but there are always extremes every year,” said Andrew Watson from the University of East Anglia’s Environmental Studies. “We can never say that weather in a single year is unequivocal evidence of climate change, if you get many years of extreme weather then that can point to climate change.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long predicted that rising global temperatures would produce more frequent and intense heat waves, and more severe rainfalls. In its 2007 report, the panel said these trends have already been observed, with an increase in heat waves since 1950, for example.

NOAA measurements show that the combined global surface temperatures for June 2010 are the warmest on record, and Wagner said there are larger conclusions to be drawn from the definite global warming trend. “We are seeing things that haven’t really happened before on the planet, like warming at this specific rate. We think it is very well tied to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the late 1800’s caused by humans.”

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Source: NOAA)

Graphs on NASA’s climate website show an undeniable rise in global temperatures, sea levels, and carbon dioxide levels. See more of these graphs here.

“Not just over 10 years, but we have satellites images, weather station records and other good records going back to the late 1800’s that tells us all about how the planet is warming up,” Wagner said. “Not only that but we have evidence from geologic records, ice cores, and sediment cores from ocean cores. All of this feeds together to show us how the planet is changing.”

Asked if the cycle can be reversed, Wagner replied, “That is the million dollar question. One thing we have to think about is that the planet is changing and we have to deal with that. Ice around Antarctica and Greenland is melting. Sea level is rising right now at 3 millimeters a year. If you just extrapolate that to 100 years, it will rise to at least a foot of sea level rise. But there is the possibility it could be more than that. These are the types of things we need to think about and come up with mitigation strategies to deal with them. We’re doing the research to try and nail down these questions a little more tightly to see how much sea level is going to rise, how much temperatures are going to rise and how are weather patterns going to change.”

Reducing emissions is one thing that everyone can do to help protect the planet and the climate, and climate experts have been saying for years that there needs to be sharp cutbacks in emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that go into the atmosphere from automobiles, power plants, and other fossil fuel-burning industrial and residential sources.

In the news this week was the huge ice chunk coming loose from a Greenland glacier. Not only is this an indication of warming water, but other problems could develop, such as the large ice chunks getting in the way of shipping lanes or heading towards oil rigs. The high temperatures and fires in Russia are affecting big percentage of the world’s wheat production, and could have an effect on our food supply this coming year.

Not only that, but the wildfires have created a noxious soup of air pollution that is affecting life far beyond just the local regions, JPL reports. Among the pollutants created by wildfires is carbon monoxide, a gas that can pose a variety of health risks at ground level. Carbon monoxide is also an ingredient in the production of ground-level ozone, which causes numerous respiratory problems. As the carbon monoxide from these wildfires is lofted into the atmosphere, it becomes caught in the lower bounds of the mid-latitude jet stream, which swiftly transports it around the globe.

Two movies were created using continuously updated data from the “Eyes on the Earth 3-D” feature, also on NASA’s global climate change website. They show three-day running averages of daily measurements of carbon monoxide present at an altitude of 5.5 kilometers (18,000) feet, along with its global transport.

And in case you are wondering, the recent solar flares have nothing to do with the wildfires — as Ian O’Neill from Discovery space deftly points out.

Sources: CNN, AP, JPL , SkyNews

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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