The list of extreme weather caused by human-driven climate change grows

From droughts to deluges, scientists link 16 events in 2017 to global warming

food shortages in Somalia

DRY LAND  Human-caused climate change was responsible for extremely warm ocean temperatures off the Horn of Africa from March through June 2017. That marine heat wave, researchers say, dramatically increased the likelihood of drought on land, such as the devastating one that led to food shortages in Somalia (shown).

AMISOM Public Information/Flickr

WASHINGTON – A months-long heat wave that scorched the Tasman Sea beginning in November of 2017 is the latest example of an extreme event that would not have happened without human-caused climate change.

Climate change also increased the likelihood of 15 other extreme weather events in 2017, from droughts in East Africa and the U.S. northern Plains states to floods in Bangladesh, China and South America, scientists reported December 10 at a news conference at the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. The findings were also published online December 10 in a series of studies in a special issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

One study, of wildfires in Australia, was inconclusive on whether climate change influenced the event. And for the first time, none of the extreme events studied was determined to be the product of natural climate variability.

The findings mark the second year in a row — and only the second time — that scientists contributing to this special issue have definitively linked human-caused climate change with specific extreme weather events (SN: 1/20/18, p. 6). To the editors of the special issue, this latest tally is representative of the new normal in which the world finds itself.

“Many events were found to have appreciable climate change input; that’s not itself a surprise,” said Martin Hoerling, a special editor of the issue, at the news conference. “We are in a world that is warmer than it was in the 20th century, and we keep moving away from that baseline….”

“Nature is unfolding itself in front of our eyes,” added Hoerling, a research meteorologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colo.

Marine heat waves

Several marine heat waves have struck the Tasman Sea, located between Australia and New Zealand, in the last decade, including a severe heat wave during the Southern Hemisphere summer of 2015 to 2016. But the 2017–2018 event extended across a much broader area, encompassing the entire sea. At its most severe point, temperatures increased to at least 2 degrees Celsius above average in the ocean, devastating the region’s iconic kelp forests and contributing to record-breaking summer temperatures in New Zealand.

Climate change was also responsible for another marine heat wave off the coast of East Africa that lasted from March to June 2017, according to a separate study. That marine heat wave, which the researchers found could not have happened in a preindustrial climate, also may have contributed to a drought in East Africa that caused food shortages for millions of people in the Horn of Africa, including 6 million in Somalia alone. The hot sea surface temperatures, the researchers found, doubled the probability that such a drought would occur.  

“Any given extreme event might occur, but the severity of the events, that’s really what has changed. And it’s going to continue to change,” says Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford who is part of a research group that specializes in such climate attribution studies. Haustein is a coauthor on a study included in the collection that found that climate change dramatically increased the likelihood — by as much as 100 percent — of a six-day rainstorm that inundated Bangladesh in March 2017. The rainfall, which caused a flash flood, occurred before the onset of the monsoon season and proved devastating to farmers, Haustein says.

Legal liability

The new issue highlights how the field of climate attribution science overall has crossed a critical threshold when it comes to liability, Lindene Patton, a strategic advisor at the Earth & Water Law Group in Washington, D.C., who specializes in climate attribution, said at the news conference. Although climate change was not found to be definitively to blame in most of the studies, it very likely was responsible for or intensified the impacts of nearly every extreme event examined in the issue — and that level of statistical certainty is enough to be legally important, Patton said. “The sufficiency of certainty differs in a court of law and in science. Perfection is not required; you just need to know if it’s more likely than not.”

The threat of liability may not be the ideal way to achieve more environment-friendly policies — but there is a precedent for it, she noted. “We clearly saw the emergence of liability in the 1970s with pollution” as a precursor to pollutant legislation.

BAMS Editor in Chief Jeff Rosenfeld acknowledges that in a world where real-time attribution studies of events such as 2018’s Hurricane Florence are becoming more common (SN Online: 9/13/18), the detailed, retrospective analyses of the BAMS special issue that lag by a year may seem a bit slow. “The funny thing is, initially, we considered it fast response,” he says.

But he thinks the looming question of climate liability highlights why the slower, more deliberate BAMS studies will continue to remain relevant, even in the swiftly changing climate of attribution science. “The people who are decision makers want numbers. They want risk factors.”

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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