Sep 19, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Pinpointing climate change's role in extreme weather

Photo illustration of a mountain range being interrupted by a tear revealing a wildfire raging in a forest

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: David McNew and George Rose

Climate scientists are increasingly able to use computer models to determine how climate change makes some extreme weather more likely.

Why it matters: Climate change's effects are arguably felt most directly through extreme events. Being able to directly attribute the role climate plays in natural catastrophes can help us better prepare for disasters to come, while driving home the need to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

Driving the news: The wildfires currently tormenting the West Coast are historic, but they're also part of a measurable surge in fires in recent years.

  • Compared to the 1980s, the acreage burned in Western states annually between 2010 and 2019 has more than doubled, according to analysis of government data by Climate Central, a climate science nonprofit.
  • Climate change clearly plays a driving role. Research has found that roughly half of the acreage burned since the mid-1980s can be attributed to warming temperatures caused by climate change, notes Matthew Hurteau, an ecologist at the University of New Mexico.

The backstory: It was long the case that scientists were hesitant to link any single event to climate change.

  • That's begun to change in recent years as computational power has fallen in price, allowing scientists to run climate models that compare what actually happens in our warming world to a hypothetical planet where climate change never occurred.
  • By comparing those models, scientists can determine how much climate change has loaded the dice to make an extreme event more likely.

A newer attribution research method, known as the storyline approach, works more like an autopsy, determining the causes of an extreme event like a storm and indicating whether climate change was one of those causes.

  • A study published in January used a storyline approach to examine Hurricane Florence, which struck the Carolinas in 2018, finding that the storm was over five miles wider because of climate change, with rainfall amounts increased by nearly five inches.
It would be a myth for us to say that climate change isn't playing a role in increasing the frequency of some of these billion-dollar disasters.
— Adam Smith, applied climatologist, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

The bottom line: Climate science has always been future focused, but attribution research allows scientists to see precisely how climate change is hurting us here and now.

Go deeper