The subject of extreme weather is of great importance because it provides a tangible illustration of climate change. The average person understands that the increasing number of record-breaking heat waves and tornadoes are more than isolated weather events, they reflect a changing climate.
This point was born out in a recent study, which showed that more Americans are accepting the reality of climate change. According to a Brookings Institute poll, extreme weather is one of the most compelling reasons why more Americans are accepting climate change. The poll indicated that of those who believe in global warming, almost half said that they were primarily convinced by personal observations of warmer temperature or weather changes.
Extreme weather events help people to visualize climate change. The environmental organization 350.org understands the importance of drawing attention to the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events, which is why they are organizing an event on May 5, 2012, called “Connect the Dots.”
“This is no longer something that’s theory or conjecture or something that comes out of computer models,” said Dr. Richard Somerville. “We’re observing the climate changing. It’s real. It’s happening. It’s scientific fact.” Extreme weather helps people to see that this is not a prediction for the future, it is happening here and now.
The number of extreme weather events has been growing for years. The year 2010 was amongst the hottest and wettest year on record. The 2010 State of the Climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicated a steady rise in ocean temperatures around the world. The same report sites clear evidence that the period between 2000 and 2010 was the the warmest on record.
The August 2010 floods that devastated Pakistan swamped one-fifth of the nation and left twenty million people homeless. Thousands died and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said there is no doubt that warmer ocean temperatures in the Atlantic were a contributing factor to the disaster.
Last year was a record-setting year of extreme weather events. 2011 is now considered to be one of the warmest on record. In 2011, the U.S. experienced widespread record-breaking heat waves that affected almost every state. According to NOAA, the summer of 2011 was the 2nd hottest on record in the U.S. In the first month of the summer of 2011, a total of 1,966 high temperature records were tied or broken and 4,376 highest minimum temperature records were broken.
As Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, explained at the time, “this heat wave is exceptional not only for its strength, but also for its breadth and duration.”
There has been a host of bizarre weather events that people cannot help but notice. In January 2011, New York City was freezing over while the Arctic was melting. Last year was one of the worst tornado seasons ever, with nearly 1,700, which is more than 400 more than the statistical average of 1,300 per year. What makes people stand up and notice is not only the number of tornadoes, but where they are occurring.
On the first of June 2011, Massachusetts was hit by several deadly tornadoes, which is one of the most bizarre weather events in the state’s history. The Massachusetts tornadoes came after an outbreak of dozens of tornadoes that killed 314 people in five states on April 27 and a massive twister that killed 138 in Joplin, Missouri on May 22. These two events represent the one of the deadliest days and one of the deadliest single tornadoes since modern record keeping began in 1950. Further, May 24th 2011 was one of the largest geographical regions of high tornado risk in American history. Three previous high risk days spawned at least 52 tornadoes.
Extreme weather events like Hurricane Irene, which struck landlocked Vermont in August 2011, graphically demonstrate just how anomalous extreme weather is becoming.
This year, much of the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. are smashing heat records in numerous locations. In the first quarter of 2012, we have seen extreme warm weather from Texas and the Midwest all the way to the East Coast. While the east was experiencing a heat wave, on March 19, parts of Arizona were buried under snow as an anomalous late-winter storm paralyzed travel and closed schools. Both Arizona and Texas are but two examples of states that have experienced violent late winter storms.
In March 2012, heat waves set records across the U.S. EcoWatch reports that the daytime high temperatures are close to 40°F above average in some places.
In mid-March, the NOAA reported that more than 1,200 temperature records were set. During the first half of March, more than 2,000 daily record-high temperatures have been set in the U.S.
On March 15 alone, 593 record daily high temperatures were set or tied, along with 445 record warm low temperatures. In Chicago, temperatures have soared past 80°F for many days in a row. This is the earliest that has ever occurred in Chicago and it broke a record set in mid-April, 1896.
The National Weather Service issued a statement saying: “It is extraordinarily rare for climate locations with 100+ year long periods of records to break records day after day after day.” The National Weather Service released a statement saying that Chicago and Rockford are on pace to “not only break… but shatter” their records for the warmest March.
Here are some noteworthy records set on March 15-17:
- Minneapolis: 79°F on March 16, the warmest it’s ever been this early in the year, and 39°F above average.
- Rockford, Ill.: 82°F on March 15, breaking the old record of 73°F set in 1995. This was the earliest 80-degree reading on record for this location. Rockford set another daily record on the 16th with a high of 80°F, and on the 17th, with a high temperature of 82°F.
- Chicago: 81°F on March 15, breaking the old record of 74°F set in 1995. Chicago has been running nearly 12 degrees above average for the first half of March. On March 16 and 17, Chicago hit 82°F, which was the earliest it had ever been that warm. The previous record was set on March 27, 1945, and 82°F is the typical record high for June 24, the National Weather Service reported.
- Bismarck, N.D.: 81°F on March 16, the warmest all-time March temperature on record. (H/T Jeff Masters.)
- Madison, Wisc.: 82°F on March 15, breaking the old record by 13 degrees, tying the record for the warmest temperature on record during the month of March, and setting the record for the earliest 80-degree day, beating the old date by nearly two weeks.
- Williston, N.D.: 68°F on March 15, beating the old record of 67°F set in 1996.
- Minot, N.D.: 64°F on March 15, exceeding the old record of 62°F set in 1938.
- International Falls, Minn.: 71°F on March 16, which was their earliest 70°F reading. The temperature reached 77°F on March 17, which set an all-time monthly record, beating the old monthly record by 4°F.
- Moline, Ill.: 81°F on March 15, the warmest it’s ever been there so early in the year. This broke the previous record of 80°F on March 12, 1990.
- Dubuque, Iowa: 78°F on March 15 and 16, the warmest it’s ever been there so early in the year, going back to 1874. This record was short-lived, however, since it was toppled on March 17, when the temperature reached 81°F
- Cedar Rapids, Iowa: 75°F on March 15, 79°F on March 16, and 82°F on March 17, which was the earliest 80-degree reading on record.
- Sioux Falls, S.D.: on March 16 it was in the 70s, which is about 30 degrees above normal.
As reported in a Christian Science Monitor article, on March 18, Winner, S.D., hit 94 degrees. According to the director of meteorology for the Weather Underground, Jeff Masters, this is the earliest date the Northern Plains has posted a 90-degree day. International Falls, Minn., registered a record-setting 79 degrees. St. Patrick's Day weekend came to Houghton, Mich., with back-to-back 76-degree days, which is 44 degrees above normal. On Sunday, Boston posted a high of 74, 28 degrees above normal for the day and Chicago has had five consecutive days above 80 degrees.
This extreme heat has increased severe thunderstorms and kicked off an early start to the tornado season. Masters said the March tornadoes near Detroit was the earliest that such a powerful tornado had occurred in the state since reliable records began in 1950. On March 2, in southern Indiana, 13 people died after an F4 tornado caused massive destruction. Most recently south-central Texas was hit by a tornado on March 19. Tornadoes are not uncommon in the area but the rapid succession in which they came was anomalous. The tornado was part of a weather system that has affected sections of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana.
As reported in another Christian Science Monitor article, a warmer than normal spring has spawned a spate of recent tornadoes in Indiana, Alabama, and Kentucky. In February 2012, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 57 tornadoes were reported, nearly twice the 1991-2010 average of 29.
The major storm system that moved through the central and much of the eastern US on March 18 and 19 created ideal conditions for violent weather, including severe thunder storms and tornadoes. On March 18, storm systems triggered severe thunderstorms over the Great Plains, with reports of tornadoes touching down in five communities in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. According to Masters, this is due to the unusually warm, unusually moist air in the central US.
“I don't think we've seen such a moist and warm air mass in March over the center of the US,” Masters says. He points out that sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are among the five warmest on record for the month. Those record moisture levels extend as far north as Minnesota, he notes.
National Weather Service forecasters wrote, “our historic and unprecedented stretch of record-breaking temperatures generally looks to continue.” The US Global Change Research Program has also warned of more extreme weather events in the future as the planet gets warmer.
Taken together, these anomalous weather events make a convincing case for climate change. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere may be hard to see but extreme weather is readily observable by everyone. One day of record-breaking heat or one tornado cannot be construed as evidence for climate change, but a large number extreme weather events are hard for the average person to ignore.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: Earthtimes.org