Scientists have predicted for decades that burning fossil fuels would push average temperatures ever higher and conjure up dangerous extreme events, such as those seen in the current tropical heat in the UK. A new branch of science, called extreme event attribution, has emerged in the past 15 years, linking global warming and extreme weather episodes with a much greater level of specificity. Many individual heat spells, storms, floods, droughts and wildfires are now routinely linked to climate change.
How extreme weather such as Libya’s floods are linked to climate change
1. What extreme weather is most closely linked to climate change?
Heatwaves are the climate events most directly linked to human greenhouse gas pollution. Heat, along with drought and wind, fuel wildfires, which is why scientists have become so confident that climate change is making wildfires in the western United States, Australia and elsewhere much worse. (The US fire season is now two months longer than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.) Global warming is making tropical cyclones – also called hurricanes or hurricanes – more intense, but not necessarily more frequent. Warmer waters and moist air — two consequences of global warming — provide additional fuel for tropical cyclones and other storms.
2. How certain is the link?
It turns out that the vast majority of extreme weather events reviewed by the researchers since 2011 – 70% – were more likely to occur, or have become more severe, due to global warming. That’s according to a tally kept by CarbonBrief.org, a UK-based non-profit that covers developments in climate science.
3. How is cold weather related?
Climate change has made winters shorter, and blizzards and extreme cold less likely. The Earth’s poles are warming faster than anywhere else, with the Arctic warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the Earth over the past 30 years. This has led to a decrease in the contrast between the heat of the equator and the cold of the Arctic, and this has had consequences. The record cold that crippled Texas’ power grid in February 2021, for example, was the result of the polar vortex — a belt of winds that normally keep bottled cold in the Arctic — sending frigid air across much of the United States.
4. What are other recent examples of extreme weather?
At least 2,300 people were killed and 10,000 others went missing in Libya following the Mediterranean storm in mid-September. The June-July-August season was the warmest on record globally. Summer brought severe wildfires to Greece and neighboring countries, including the most destructive fires on record in the European Union. A wildfire on the Hawaiian island of Maui has killed at least 115 people. In July, at least 100 people died in India due to monsoon floods, a month after a heatwave killed nearly 200 people. In May, Tropical Cyclone Moka killed at least 145 people in Myanmar. Freddie, one of the longest tropical cyclones on record, claimed more than 1,000 lives in southeastern Africa in early 2023.
The world has warmed by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the mid-19th century, according to the most authoritative source on the matter, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the current pace, this increase will reach 1.5 degrees – the level at which global warming becomes most dangerous, in the view of climate scientists – by the 2030s. From there, the intensity of extreme weather increases dramatically, doubling if global warming reaches 2 degrees, and quadrupling at 3 degrees, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says.
6. What are the consequences?
More than 5 million people die each year globally due to extreme temperatures, and heat-related deaths in particular are on the rise, according to a study published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health. In addition to fundamentally changing living conditions, climate change affects many financial accounts, with large parts of the global economy, including agriculture, travel and insurance, facing weather-related risks. Insurers suffered $89 billion in catastrophic losses in 2020, the fifth costliest year for the industry based on data going back five decades, according to Swiss Re. The bulk of these costs were caused by natural disasters, including Hurricanes Laura and Sally. It is estimated that climate change added $4 billion to the damage brought to Japan by Typhoon Hagibis in October 2019, and that rising seas made Hurricane Sandy, which struck the United States in 2012, about $8 billion more expensive.
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