On July 27th, Dr Friederike Otto, a climate modeller at the University of Oxford, UK and her colleagues provided a preliminary analysis of the current heatwave oppressing Northern Europe, and unusually, the Arctic. Three days of computer modelling suggests that climate change made the heatwave twice as likely to occur. Moreover, it is expected that these heat waves―and other natural disasters―will continue to make even more frequent regular appearances as a result of global warming.
This type of rapid analysis―based on complex computer algorithms―may be routinely provided by weather services in the near future. According to a recent article in Nature, Germany’s national weather agency is set to become the first in the world to offer rapid assessments of global warming’s connection to particular meteorological events. By 2019 or 2020, the agency may be posting its conclusions on social media channels almost immediately. Full reports would then be released one or two weeks following the event. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading, UK, is also hoping to start providing this information by 2020. Moreover, a routine EU attribution service could be set up across all of Europe.
Since the first study, published in 2004, attributing an individual extreme weather event to climate change (1), more than 170 reports spanning 190 events around the world have been published between 2004 to mid-2018, according to an analysis by Nature. The consolidated findings suggest that a large portion (around two-thirds) of the events were more likely to occur or were more severe than usual owing to human-induced climate change. Some studies have even gone so far as to boldly state that the events would not have occurred without the effects of climate change, including the 2016 heatwaves in Asia (2) and warming on the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea between 2014–16 (3).
While these attribution models provide important insights, the bigger challenge may be figuring out how to make this information useful. As greenhouse gases continue making changes to the atmosphere, severe heat waves, mega-droughts, and extreme rainfall are becoming more frequent. Europe is currently sizzling during yet another record-breaking heat wave, with wildfires running rampant.
Overall warmer temperatures mean additional water vapour in the air, which contains more energy. Moreover, altered temperature gradients are disrupting large-scale atmospheric air circulation patterns. Although some extreme weather can also be attributed to natural phenomena like El Nino, researchers believe that identifying the human influence on climate change may be able to help us better assess the risks and predict potential natural disasters, such as floods and droughts, before they occur so we can be better equipped to cope with them.
Attribution models certainly won’t fix climate change, but they may help policymakers, engineers, and even property owners understand the increased risk of certain types of extreme weather events. Furthermore, confirming the link between particular events and global warming could encourage more people to adopt climate change policies.
(1) Stott P.A., Stone D.A., and Allen M.R. Human contribution to the European heatwave of 2003. Nature (2004). DOI: 10.1038/nature03089.
(2) Imada Y. et al. Climate Change Increased the Likelihood of the 2016 Heat Extremes in Asia. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (2018). DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-D-17-0109.1
(3) Walsh J.E. et al. The High Latitude Marine Heat Wave of 2016 and Its Impacts on Alaska. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (2018). DOI: 10.1175/BAMS-D-17-0105.1