Scientists increasingly confident attributing extreme weather to climate change

A 2008 tornado in Iowa (Alberto Garrido/Creative Commons)
A 2008 tornado in Iowa (Alberto Garrido/Creative Commons)
KC McGinnis | March 15, 2016

After extreme weather events like the devastating floods of 2008 or the record precipitation Iowans have experienced so far in the winter of 2015, scientists are often asked if and how much these events can be attributed to climate change. In the past, caution not to blame severe weather on just one factor — taking into account natural fluctuations in temperature, moisture and other non human-caused factors — has been the standard. Now, however, scientists are increasingly confident attributing extreme weather events to human-caused climate change.

A study released earlier this month by The National Academy of Sciences concludes that scientists are more able to determine how climate change affects the intensity and likelihood of extreme weather events like floods and droughts. Extreme event attribution, a relatively new science according to the study, has made rapid advancements in the last ten years, “owing to improvements in the understanding of climate and weather mechanisms and the analytical methods used to study specific events.” These studies are able to use a combination of observational records of pre and mid-Industrial trends and advanced simulations of weather situations with and without factors like increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and higher temperatures. In Iowa, these methods have been undergoing constant improvement since University of Iowa researchers George P. Melanson and Marc P. Armstrong stressed the need for new simulation models in 1990.

Pinpointing the role of climate change in extreme weather is critical for governments and municipalities, who must face decisions over both mitigation of climate change and adaptations to its effects, such as relocation from coastal areas. While the focus of the new study is on observance of past weather events, scientists stressed the need to develop predictive models that can factor climate change into extreme weather.

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