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The severe influence of climate change we are affected by today

Alan Majchrowicz Getty Images Advertisement As floodwaters from the swollen River Thames crept closer to the walls of Myles Allen's south Oxford home in the United Kingdom, he was thinking about climate change—and if scientists could figure out if it was affecting the climbing water outside. It was January 2003, and as Allen—a climate expert at the University of Oxford—monitored the rising waters from the safety of his house, a voice on the radio was telling him that it couldn't be done.

But ascertaining anything more concrete was out of reach. At the time, the Thames River Basin had seen some of its greatest rainfall in decades, and by early January, the flow in some parts of the river was the highest it had been since 1947. In 2003, that was the predominant view in the scientific community: While climate change surely has a significant effect on the weather, there was no way to determine its exact influence on any individual event.

  1. Certain types of events lend themselves to analysis better than others. Water resources Recent trends and future projections for water resources include.
  2. And perhaps more immediately, the young field of research could be capturing the public's attention in ways that long-term projections for the future cannot. Climate change Over the last 50 years, human activities — particularly the burning of fossil fuels — have released sufficient quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to trap additional heat in the lower atmosphere and affect the global climate.
  3. Certain types of events lend themselves to analysis better than others.
  4. For a brief time, scientists were bemused—the two sets of findings had to be at odds with one another.
  5. It's still unclear what such a service might look like, but one could imagine receiving an email or smartphone notification each time an extreme heat wave or flood rolls through, explaining its connection to climate change. Climate change Over the last 50 years, human activities — particularly the burning of fossil fuels — have released sufficient quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to trap additional heat in the lower atmosphere and affect the global climate.

There are just too many other factors affecting the weather, including all sorts of natural climate variations. But Allen wasn't so sure. He wrote that it might not always be impossible to attribute extreme weather events to climate change—just "simply impossible at present, given our current state of understanding of the climate system.

Scientists Can Now Blame Individual Natural Disasters on Climate Change

His hunch held true. Nearly 15 years later, extreme event attribution not only is possible, but is one of the most rapidly expanding subfields of climate science.

It's gone from zero to 60, basically. And as the science continues to mature, it may have ramifications for society. Legal experts suggest that attribution studies could play a major role in lawsuits brought by citizens against companies, industries or even governments.

They could help reshape climate adaptation policies throughout a country or even the world. And perhaps more immediately, the young field of research could be capturing the public's attention in ways that long-term projections for the future cannot. The paper, which examined the contribution of climate change to a severe European heat wave in 2003—an event which may have caused tens of thousands of deaths across the continent—concluded that "it is very likely that human influence has at least doubled the risk of a heat wave exceeding this threshold magnitude.

  • According to Christidis, the Met Office scientist, extreme event attribution is not only a matter of scientific advancement but a public obligation;
  • So this is the very important challenge that we are called to face;
  • Now, more than 12 years after Katrina, with a growing stack of studies pointing to the link between climate change and damaging weather events, experts are warning that these types of lawsuits may become more commonplace;
  • Scientists have cautioned that the findings don't necessarily overturn the existing narrative that no single event can be attributed to climate change;
  • The plaintiffs said the emissions had contributed to climate change, which intensified the hurricane's effects.

Until 2004, much of the work had focused on investigating the relationship between human activity and long-term changes in climate elements like temperature and precipitation. More recently, scientists had been attempting to understand how these changes in long-term averages might affect weather patterns in general. The breakthrough paper took the existing science a step further. Using a climate model, the researchers compared simulations accounting for climate change with scenarios in which human-caused global warming did not exist.

They found that the influence of climate change roughly doubled the risk of an individual heat wave. The key to the breakthrough was framing the question in the right way—not asking whether climate change "caused" the event, but how much it might have affected the risk of it occurring at all. Despite a reluctance to attempt this type of research, the response from other scientists was "not particularly controversial," according to Allen.

Instead, he said, "much of the reaction was more along the lines of that it was kind of obvious. According to last year's National Academy of Sciences report, "An indication of the developing interest in event attribution is highlighted by the fact that in 4 years 2012-2015the number of papers increased from 6 to 32.

So in order to actually get one to crop up in a simulation, models need to accurately represent the physical factors that help these extremes occur, and researchers need to be able to run them over and over again. The development and improvement of climate ensembles—large groups of slightly different climate models—have improved scientists' ability to simulate weather events under different conditions.

Climate change in Alberta

Asking the right questions In 2010, a record-breaking heat wave swept through Russia, driving temperatures in some places above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. According to some estimates, the extreme temperatures contributed to the deaths of more than 50,000 people.

Two separate studies attempted to quantify the influence of climate change on that event and appeared to come to very different conclusions, inspiring a confusing series of headlines in the news. For a brief time, scientists were bemused—the two sets of findings had to be at odds with one another. The first study, they found, explored the extent to which climate change had affected the heat wave's magnitude, or severity, and concluded that natural climate variations were mainly accountable.

The second had investigated global warming's influence on the heat wave's overall probability of occurring. It's possible for climate change to have a significant effect on one factor, but not the other, for the same event, Otto and her colleagues pointed out.

Today, scientists still generally agree that it's impossible to attribute any individual weather phenomenon solely to climate change. Storms, fires, droughts and other events are influenced by a variety of complex factors. And they're all acting at once, including both natural components of the climate system and sometimes unrelated human activities. For instance, a wildfire may be made more likely by hot, dry weather conditions, and by human land-use practices.

Generally, researchers do this with the help of climate models, which allow them to run simulations accounting for the influence of climate change alongside simulations that assume that climate change did not exist.

Climate change and health

Then they compare the outcomes. The focus is typically on highly unusual or even unprecedented events where the influence of human-caused climate change, as opposed to natural climate variability, is likely to be clearer.

Certain types of events lend themselves to analysis better than others. For instance, researchers have high confidence when investigating heat waves, droughts or heavy precipitation. But they have less confidence when it comes to hurricanes and other more complex phenomena. Still, scientists are investigating all kinds of weather events. It also contained some surprises: Scientists have cautioned that the findings don't necessarily overturn the existing narrative that no single event can be attributed to climate change.

Even events that would not have been possible without warming are still influenced by the Earth's natural climate and weather systems. But the research does make it clear that the planet has reached a new threshold in which climate change has become not only a component of extreme weather events but an essential factor for some.

As scientists continue to investigate the weather and climate events that reflect the changing planet, the two questions asked by the Russian heat wave studies—one focusing on probability, and the other on magnitude—have emerged as two main approaches used in attribution studies.

The probability approach is perhaps most significant from a policy perspective, Otto suggested, because it helps identify the types of events that might become more common in the future and where they may occur. The second method, sometimes called the "anatomy of an extreme event," advances scientists' understanding of the components that cause these events, and how changes to the climate system may affect them.

Both approaches are strengthening the body of evidence that climate change can influence the kinds of damaging weather events formerly thought of as "natural" disasters. As a result, some experts now believe that extreme event attribution could be the cutting edge not only of climate science but of climate litigation, as well.

New frontiers In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Mississippi and Louisiana shorelines in 2005, residents of the U.

Gulf Coast felt that Mother Nature wasn't the only one to blame for the damage. Murphy Oil, against a group of oil and energy companies for releasing greenhouse gas emissions. The plaintiffs said the emissions had contributed to climate change, which intensified the hurricane's effects. After an unusual series of legal maneuverings, including dismissals, appeals, reversals and recusals, the case was ultimately dismissed GreenwireJune 1, 2010. It never went to trial.

But the message was clear: The public is paying attention to the links between climate change and harmful extreme weather. Allen, the Oxford scientist, had hinted at such litigation two years before Hurricane Katrina occurred. Attribution studies could help to apportion the blame, he noted. In the future, attribution studies could become evidence in cases against governments or private companies for failing to protect property, or public infrastructure, against extreme weather in a warming world.

Citizens have already sued other parties for failing to protect them from natural disasters, even if they don't specifically blame climate change. In another post-Katrina case, for instance, a class-action case claimed that the U.

Army Corps of Engineers, and other parties involved in the planning and construction of Louisiana's levees, should be held accountable for the levees' failures. In that case, a settlement was reached—and as with the case brought against the energy companies, it's unclear how the lawsuit might have panned out had it gone to court.

Now, more than 12 years after Katrina, with a growing stack of studies pointing to the link between climate change and damaging weather events, experts are warning that these types of lawsuits may become more commonplace. The idea is that if decisionmakers are aware that climate change can make certain events more frequent or more severe, they may be held legally responsible for failing to prepare for the worst.

As a general rule, extreme event attribution studies don't predict the likelihood of a future event. They focus on how climate change has affected events that have already happened. Even the National Academy of Sciences report warned, "Attribution studies of individual events should not be used to draw general conclusions about the impact of climate change on extreme events as a whole.

There's no standardized method for conducting all attribution studies, he noted. Different research groups tend to use different models, ask different questions or use different criteria for selecting the events they investigate, making individual analyses difficult to compare.

And here, it's not clear that we're at the point yet where we have those established methodologies. Some scientists hope to eventually launch a kind of standardized extreme event attribution service, similar to a weather forecasting service, that would release immediate analyses—with the same uniform methods used for each one—for every extreme event the severe influence of climate change we are affected by today occurs.

It's still unclear what such a service might look like, but one could imagine receiving an email or smartphone notification each time an extreme heat wave or flood rolls through, explaining its connection to climate change.

The Met Office is already working on such a project, although it's in early stages. In the meantime, though, individual studies are expected to keep rolling out. This last summer alone, a wave of unusual events across the world—from Hurricane Harvey in the United States to devastating floods in Southeast Asia—sparked renewed interest in the link between extreme weather and climate change.

Scientists the severe influence of climate change we are affected by today already tackled some of them. Two separate studies published in December both found that climate change had influenced Harvey's record-breaking rainfall ClimatewireDec. As for the 2003 flood that sparked Allen's interest, its exact connection to global warming may remain in question. Future floods are less likely to go uninvestigated. According to Christidis, the Met Office scientist, extreme event attribution is not only a matter of scientific advancement but a public obligation.

If we the experts don't do this, then there will be people who are not qualified who will go and fill in the gaps. So this is the very important challenge that we are called to face.

  • And perhaps more immediately, the young field of research could be capturing the public's attention in ways that long-term projections for the future cannot;
  • They focus on how climate change has affected events that have already happened;
  • Alberta emissions profile Letter;
  • There are just too many other factors affecting the weather, including all sorts of natural climate variations.