Jan 3, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Extreme weather could get even worse in 2022

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Scientists say there's reason to expect even more menacing extreme weather disasters in 2022, after a year in which extreme weather and climate events, from the Pacific Northwest heat wave to the Texas cold snap, affected us all.

Why it matters: Extreme weather events are the most tangible, expensive and often deadly ways in which we're experiencing global warming. This past year brought the uncomfortable realization that even scientists' worst-case scenarios don't fully capture what the climate system is already capable of.

Threat level: Some scientists who study extreme weather and climate events see a concerning trend: extremes seem to be outpacing their predictions.

  • "It seems as if models do underestimate those extremes and particularly these scenarios are really hard to predict and also to prepare for," Kai Kornhuber, a climate scientist at Columbia University, told Axios. "That's kind of a key issue in these discussions."
  • "The past year kind of showcased that very extremes, like extreme extremes, are already occurring on a global scale, [and they are] beyond anything people would have expected," Kornbhuber said, pointing to the Pacific Northwest heat event.

Driving the news: Scrolling through the list of 2021's billion dollar disasters in the U.S. reads like a tour through the Book of Revelation. There were wildfires so intense and extensive in the West that the sky turned a milky white and orange in New York City.

  • Hurricanes defied the odds and intensified right up until landfall.
  • Heat waves shattered records and killed hundreds. And in New York City, a global financial capital, dozens died from heavy rains flooding basement apartments.

Those disasters have galvanized climate activists into pushing for governments to take action to slash emissions of greenhouse gases, but so far that has not translated into success.

  • In the U.S., the most comprehensive and ambitious climate bill to date is stuck unless President Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin revive their talks and cut a deal.
  • Globally, negotiators at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow made frequent mentions of extreme events, but the Glasgow Climate Pact produced no major breakthroughs. It did, however, leave the door open by a sliver to limiting warming to the most ambitious warming scenario.
  • We will get more insights into the state of our climate when the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases three new reports, which are currently slated for September, February and March. While these do not focus specifically on extreme events, they are highly relevant for moving the science forward.

What's next: With carbon dioxide and other planet-warming gases continuing to build up in the atmosphere, it's unlikely this year will feature more tranquil and less impactful conditions.

  • Studies, including a landmark report from the IPCC last year, make clear that where we are today is not the "new normal," but rather a transition to a new, even more perilous future.
  • In addition, there may be mounting concerns that while climate change may ultimately be limited to the lower to middle end of the range compared to projections from just a few years ago, the impacts that come with those warming levels will be more punishing than expected.
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