Droughts, heatwaves and floods: How to tell when climate change is to blame

Jul 30, 2018

By Quirin Schiermeier

The Northern Hemisphere is sweating through another unusually hot summer. Japan has declared its record temperatures a natural disaster. Europe is baking under prolonged heat, with destructive wildfires in Greece and, unusually, the Arctic. And drought-fuelled wildfires are spreading in the western United States.

For Friederike Otto, a climate modeller at the University of Oxford, UK, the past week has been a frenzy, as journalists clamoured for her views on climate change’s role in the summer heat. “It’s been mad,” she says. The usual scientific response is that severe heatwaves will become more frequent because of global warming. But Otto and her colleagues wanted to answer a more particular question: how had climate change influenced this specific heatwave? After three days’ work with computer models, they announced on 27 July that their preliminary analysis for northern Europe suggests that climate change made the heatwave more than twice as likely to occur in many places.

Soon, journalists might be able to get this kind of quick-fire analysis routinely from weather agencies, rather than on an ad hoc basis from academics. With Otto’s help, Germany’s national weather agency is preparing to be the first in the world to offer rapid assessments of global warming’s connection to particular meteorological events. By 2019 or 2020, the agency hopes to post its findings on social media almost instantly, with full public reports following one or two weeks after an event. “We want to quantify the influence of climate change on any atmospheric conditions that might bring extreme weather to Germany or central Europe,” says Paul Becker, vice-president of the weather agency, which is based in Offenbach. “The science is ripe to start doing it”.

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3 comments on “Droughts, heatwaves and floods: How to tell when climate change is to blame

  • Droughts, heatwaves and floods:
    How to tell when climate change is to blame?

    Once the previously rare extreme weather conditions, which deniers claim are just one-off freak events, repeat year after year, it becomes rather obvious!

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  • The problem – as with so much else these days – is that the information people are prepared to accept has become utterly tribal. Data can’t change it. The evidence of people’s own eyes can’t change it. Experts certainly can’t change it. It all boils down to identity and partisanship.

    This article in yesterday’s Guardian captured the problem well:


    ‘“Experience is an important part of determining one’s belief on climate change, but not necessarily the determining one,” said Christopher Borick, director of the National Surveys on Energy and Environment, which has carried out long-term studies on attitudes to climate change and other environmental issues.

    ‘But he said partisan affiliation was still a more powerful influence on beliefs about climate. “If you gave me one factor to explain someone’s belief, I’d ask you what party they belong to,” he said. “Among Republicans, about half think there’s evidence of climate change, but only a third think it’s anthropogenic in its roots.”’

    And even when people can be persuaded that there really is a problem, persuading them that there’s also a real solution is still another matter altogether:

    As smoke lingered in the air in central Redding, a passerby named Voyd Fleming approached the bridge and said he didn’t need science to tell him about climate change.

    It’s “obvious”, he said. “Look at the trees around you right now. The leaves are falling out of the trees when they shouldn’t be. The environment is changing, and it’s changing everywhere.”

    But that doesn’t mean he thinks he, or anyone else, can do anything about it.

    “The good Lord has to fix it. We’re not capable of it.”

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  • When we look at temperature records, it is worth looking at some of the natural peaks and physical “targets” which represent “red-lines”, as likely points of no return!
    We are governed not only by average global temperature, but also by local maxima and minima!


    In India, for instance, each dry season brings near-intolerable temperatures and a wave of heat-related deaths. Death tolls have been particularly punishing in recent years – at least 2,500 people are thought to have died during a 2015 heatwave, when temperatures in the hottest regions came within a hair’s breadth of 50C.

    In 2016, a weather station in north-west Kuwait recorded a figure of 54C, the highest outdoor air temperature ever measured on earth.

    While these measurements were made at low altitudes and temperature GENERALLY drops with increased altitude, air does blow around the planet!

    Because of the reduced air-pressure the boiling point of water is lower at altitude.


    Water boils @29000 feet, 8839m @161.5 °F 72.0°C

    Should ANY tropical air reach this temperature at these altitudes, and blow over the 29,000 feet peak of Mt Everest, the snowfields will not only melt! They will boil!

    Of course even at sea-level, air pressures can also drop dramatically by around 15% during intense storms!

    We are some way off that at present, but the narrow temperature range suitable for human life support, is worth bearing in mind!

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