Gwynne Dyer: Do wild weather, heat waves, and torrential rains add up to climate change?

It was 42° C in St. Louis, Missouri, last weekend, about the same as in Saudi Arabia. Along the U.S. Atlantic coast, it was cooler, but not much: 41° C in Washington, D.C., just short of the city’s all-time record. And 46 Americans are already dead from the heat wave.

In Britain, it was incredibly wet. Almost six centimetres of rain fell on July 7 in parts of southern England, and there were over 20 flood warnings and 100 flood alerts in effect. The wettest April ever was followed by the wettest June (more than double average rainfall), and July has started the same way.

Russia had its hottest summer ever in 2010, with peat wildfires raging out of control—over 5,000 excess deaths in Moscow in July alone—but this summer, it’s wet in Russia, too. On July 6, an astonishing 28 centimetres of rain fell overnight in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia, and flash floods killed 155 people.

It is a big planet, and some local record for hottest, coldest, wettest, or driest is being broken somewhere or other almost every day. But these are records being broken over very large areas, in regions where records go back a long time.

As Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev said: "No-one can remember such floods in our history. There was nothing of the kind for the last 70 years."

There are very unusual events happening in winter too: last January only 14.7 percent of the United States was covered by snow, compared to 61.7 percent at the same time in 2011. At least 300 people died in a cold wave in northern India in the previous January.

One could go on, enumerating comparably extreme weather events in the southern hemisphere in the past couple of years. But that would just be more impressionistic evidence, and no more convincing statistically.

The events are too few, and the time period is too short. But it does feel like something is going on, doesn’t it?

The most recent opinion polls indicate that a majority even of Americans now accept that climate change is happening (although, being American, many of them still cling to the belief that it is a purely “natural” event that has nothing to do with human greenhouse-gas emissions). But opinion polls are not a good guide in these matters either. Can we really say that something serious is happening, and that it is evidence that the climate is changing now?

No, we can’t. It’s a statistical long shot, but it is possible that this is just a random collection of extreme events signifying nothing in particular. Occasionally a tossed coin comes up heads six times in a row. But usually it doesn’t.

The best way to approach the question is to ask what we would actually see if global warming had crossed some threshold and triggered big changes in weather patterns. The actual change in the average global temperature would be almost imperceptible: only one or two degrees Celsius, or the difference in an average day’s temperature between 9 and 10:30 a.m. What we would notice is that the weather is getting wild.

We never really experience the climate; what we feel is the daily weather that it produces. A climate that is changing will produce unfamiliar weather—and if it is getting warmer, it will be more energetic weather. Wilder weather, if you like.

That means hotter, longer heat waves and bigger storms that bring torrential rain and killer wind speeds. But it can also mean prolonged droughts as rainfall patterns change—and much more severe winters, like the “Snowmageddon” storm that hit Washington, D.C., in February 2010 and shut down the U.S. federal government for a week.

That last phenomenon confuses people who think colder winters prove that the climate isn’t getting warmer, but complex systems like the climate can produce strange local results. As an article by Charles H. Greene and Bruce C. Monger in a recent issue of Oceanography points out, the melting of the Arctic sea ice will cause colder winter weather in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.

“Since the dramatic decline of Arctic sea ice during summer 2007,” the authors point out, “severe winter weather outbreaks have periodically affected large parts of North America, Europe and East Asia. During the winter of 2011–12, an extended and deadly cold snap descended on central and eastern Europe in mid-January (with temperatures approaching -30 ° C)...By mid-February, the death toll had exceeded 550."

How does melting Arctic sea ice cause colder winters? Much of the solar heat absorbed by the ice-free parts of the Arctic Ocean in the summer is released into the air by evaporation in the autumn.

The higher atmospheric pressure in the Arctic weakens the Jet Stream, which allows cold Arctic air masses with a high moisture content to spill out into the middle latitudes.

Hence colder winters and more snow in the U.S., Europe, and northern Asia.

You can’t prove that all this means we are sliding into a new and steadily worsening climate right now—that the long-threatened future has arrived. The statistics aren’t good enough to support that conclusion yet. But if you have to put your money down now, bet yes.

Comments (28) Add New Comment
NoLeftNutter
Gwynne - you must get paid by the inch to write such crap. Warmistas have tailored their predictions so that every outcome "proves" global warming; hotter, colder, wetter, drier, lighter darker, you name it. Someone, somewhere has a pal reviewed paper that claims we are just 2 degrees away from disaster.
As for melting sea ice causing colder winters - how do you explain that the Arctic ice in the winter of 2011/12 returned to the 1979 - 2000 average, well above the 2007 amount?
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Goldorak
"The higher atmospheric pressure in the Arctic weakens the Jet Stream, which allows cold Arctic air masses with a high moisture content to spill out into the middle latitudes".

Now in the Gorespel according to Dyer, cold High Pressure air holds high moisture... Gwynne, go to school before lecturing on a subject you are an ignoramus.
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peter kratoska
hey how'd you lose your left nut? I guess we're just imagining the 15million hectares of pine beetle damaged forest here in BC (an area the size of the UK). Unprecedented, but due to a lack of a cold snap (of several days) that would normally wipe them out. Or we could look at renaming glacier national park something else, since there's not much of a glacier. But my favourite one for the deniers is the fact that none of the oil companies want to pay to fix the Alaska pipeline as it is deteriorating by the slowly melting permafrost it is built on. Because that would mean admitting there is a problem. In any case triple digit oil prices will do more for reducing green house gases than any carbon tax or caps.
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sicntired@mac.comterry mckinney
While at the same time the Canadian government is defunding anyone who dares to mention this.If you care about the climate you're a terrorist.The recent ad against Mulcair and the NDP stresses their opposition to the tar sands as if it's an insane position.Harper and his Tory government don't believe the climate changing is a problem.They are in total denial.If someone pointed out how much added cost the weather is putting on the Canadian people they would take their funding away and label them as well.That they have said that the Canadian public will never agree to the Gateway pipeline but that it is essential to Canada's economy says everything there is to say about Mr.Harper and his cabinet.
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Geeyore
My dear departed grandmother - a Canadian who emigrated to the States around 1930 - was firmly convinced that the weather had gotten much worse after the US and Russia started nuclear testing in the 50's and 60's. She stated this in the mid-1970's. Which was around the same time that the US Mid-Atlantic had a 17-20 inch snowfall that began melting the very next day with temperatures in the 50's and 60's. And for those not familiar with the "extreme" weather around DC: the British and Russian embassies (maybe others) used to provide tropical duty pay for DC postings... again in the 1970's. In 1980 I moved north from DC because it was so intolerably hot and humid. Returning in 1999 and 2000, we had a week or more both years of temperatures touching and exceeding 100F. Our memories of what's "extreme" are very much colored by our local experience and selective recollection, but the hysterical warmists will capitalize on any deviation from statistical norms to scare and frighten their fellows.


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JMW
NoLeftNutter...

when a system that has been in stable shape gets disturbed, it oscillates wildly out of control. You want a simple analogy? Spin a top. Then, once it's spinning normally, give it a light tap on the side. It will swing over in the direction you tapped it...then swing back past the point of its original equilibrium.

As for the sea ice, I haven't seen the data you mention - can you provide a helpful link to its source? However, the major problem with arctic sea ice lately hasn't that it has been getting smaller, but that it has been getting thinner - so it melts more quickly in summer. For example, see

http://nsidc.org/cryosphere/sotc/sea_ice.html

This paper points out that from 1980 to 2008, the average sea ice thickness declined from 3.64 metres to 1.89 metres - a decline of 1.75 metres, or 48%.

It also graphs the sea ice extent, and while 2007 was the minimum and sea ice has rebounded somewhat in 2009, it has resumed its decilne, and 2011's maximum was less than the minimums at any time before 1996 (going back to 1953, which is earliest time this study has data for).

Bottom line, we're still learning about an extremely complex system. New chains of cause an effect are discovered every week. But the broad conclusion is still reliable: humans are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and this means the atmosphere is retaining more heat, and it will change the planet as a result. Climatologists are still discovering the exact details of those changes.


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Former BelieverandLiberal
We gave Romney the White House on a climate change tray.
President Romney would like to thank us climate change believers in advance for alienating our own voting base to the Republicans because we didn't know when to stop threatening the voter's children with CO2 death threats.
Smooth move girls as the climate change blunder will do to us what Bush and "his" false war did for the neocons.
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Hazlit
I have read about this theory elsewhere (in the NYT, I believe). From my reading the "extreme weather" theory has good scientific evidence behind it.
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miguel
Melt water from the Arctic has affected the Gulf stream. The current is pushing water up against the eastern seaboard of N. America, rather than crossing to the northeast of the Atlantic.
That large a of a body of water has it's own climate, and it isn't getting to Atlantic Europe now, but staying close to America.
Miguel
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prenup
sure it equals climate change...if you'll admit climate change has been happening since the beginning off weather watching. Everything you describe has been happening for 100s of years.

Whats amazing to me is that this is already documented, yet people who believe in climate change reach and stretch for all sorts of wild conspiracies.
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Dale Andrews
The warming of the atmosphere causes the water in the oceans to evaporate at a higher rate than what they did say 100 years ago. This puts moisture in the air as well as more "energy". This increased energy then causes greater winds and storms and more often than not, greater rain. So, here on the west coast in the spring and summer, we get more unseasonable rain and less sun.
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Cityzen
Evil rears its ugly head once again. Climate-change denial is unethical, immoral - evil. There is more than enough evidence that the CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere and oceans is from human sources, and is increasing at unprecedented levels. The rate at which this is happening is unprecedented in geologic history, and is a clear and present danger to all life on this planet. Mr Dyer probably feels he lacks the expertise and facts to back up his growing anxiety about climate change, so doesn't express adequately the seriousness of our situation; but people like NoLeftNutter who troll and infect comment boards online trying to spread disinformation are on par with serial killers, eager to watch millions suffer. By the time climate change becomes so obvious only an insane few will deny it, it will be way too late to do anything about it. As it stands, our past emissions have yet to catch up with us, and climate change will get steadily worse. Mr Dyer, with his knowledge of war and global security, is right to worry about it because famine and water shortages will easily upset the fragile peace we currently value. Untold millions of climate refugees will quickly overwhelm secure borders and private property, even here in Canada. The question is: do we take responsible action now to eliminate our use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible and prevent the collapse of civilization, or do we listen to vile Republicans, Conservatives, NoLeftNutters and similar who profit from the oil/coal/gas industries and just watch unnecessary disaster unfold? Any parents who love their children can either rise up now and oppose the criminals running our countries, or they can live knowing their own apathy and inaction will lead to their children suffering a life of unimaginable hell.
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bcameron54
Right or wrong about the cause of climate change, here's what to do about it (again):

1. Plant forests of trees on a large scale. We cut them, now plant them. Afforest desertified land. http://www.groasis.com/en

2. Feed the fish in the sea. We ate them up, now restore the marine biomass. www.fisherycrisis.com

3. Build large solar updraft towers to desalinate water for intensive agriculture in deserts, and power cities without coal, gas and oil. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Updraft_Tower

Even if all this climate change stuff is hooey, we'd still get a way better ecology in which to live.
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JMW
Geeyore...

The problem isn't the extreme weather, and my understanding is that reputable climatologists tend to grind their teeth when people hysterically point to a single weather event and say, "This was caused by global warming!"

I'll ask you to remember the equation: weather + time = climate. The problem is not today's heat wave, or Snowmageddon that happened last winter or the winter before. It's the frequency of these extremes of weather.

Let's say, for example, that in the 1970s we got one or two or even ten of these local, freakish weather events in a year across the whole globe.

When we do a count of freakish local weather phenomenon this year, we find that across the whole globe, as Mr. Dyer suggests, a new one is starting up every day. Or, at best, every week.

That's when we can look at this and say, "Not sure yet, but it looks like this is an effect of a warming climate."

Of course, climatologists won't be able to nail it down for certain until they've had a chance to observe the trend over a number of years.

Perhaps you're not aware of flooding in Russia, or wild fires in Colorado, or extreme heat in the US midwest or Europe, because you don't live there. Perhaps you're only aware of the weather in your location, and it doesn't seem to have any more extreme events than it did 40 years ago. You're probably not wrong in that.

But today...it is happening far more frequently over the entire globe than it did 40 years ago.
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wonderwhy
I have noticed that drowning people often deny the danger they were in once they have been saved. Not sure if it is because they were embarassed by putting themselves at risk or that they really were not aware of how close they came. Perhaps it is our nature to deny deny deny until there is no other option.
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Sheeple
Yeah...
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GregG
That's exactly it. Until sooty black clouds waft into our living rooms every time we open the front-door, people will continue to claim that everything's fine.
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Sin Nombre
JMW great discussion, however all unusual weather observations were not recorded as effectively as today, 40 years ago. I remember in the fifties weather in Europe being incredibly cold in winter time unlike today but weather does go in cycles almost following sunspot activity.
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Argulion
There are many perspectives about climate change but little consideration for the real question; Should we throw all caution to the wind and risk planetary suicide to prove or disprove theory?

Personally, I'm inclined to the prevention side since the other theories require us to wait and see if Earth lives or dies.
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Gene Logan
@ Geeyore - Anecdotes are like opinions, everybody's got one. For something fact-based try googling 'floods' and see how much these severe weather-related events have increased over the decades. And note especially, the number of times a listing is followed by the description "worst flood in the history of ... (insert Queensland, Northern Brazil, Poland, Pakistan, etc).

As for wasting breath trying to sincerely explain climate change science to chicken-shit troglodytes like NLN and g'rak, why bother. Quite content to accept scientific theory when it provides them with safe drinking water, sewage disposal (for their copious wastes) or more horsepower for their Hummer, but positively foaming-at-the-mouth neanderthal if it means they might not be invited to this year's Koch brother's family BBQ; their allegiances are all too obvious.
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