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Extreme weather: Is climate change always to blame?

, October 16, 2023, 0 Comments

As extreme heatwaves, storms and wildfires increase in severity and frequency, a comparatively new kind of research called weather attribution studies determines whether they are linked to human-caused climate change.

From prolonged periods of extreme heat in South America, coast-to-coast Canadian wildfires and biblical flooding in Libya, catastrophic  weather events have dominated global headlines over recent months.

And as the planet heats due to still-rising greenhouse gas emissions, many weather disasters are blamed on climate change.

“The dog days of summer are not just barking. They are biting. Climate breakdown has begun,” said Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, after it was revealed that June to August 2023 were the hottest months ever recorded in the Northern hemisphere. Since then, this September has gone down in history as the hottest ever on record.

But how much of a heatwave or massive storm is down to global heating, and how much is just natural weather variability?

South American heatwave 100 times more likely

During August and September, large parts of South America endured a 50-day extreme heatwave. Temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay, and wildfires took hold in several countries.

Research conducted by the UK-based academic initiative, World Weather Attribution (WWA) to determine the role of human-driven climate change found that climate change made the heatwave 100 times more likely and increased temperatures by between 1.4 and 4.3 degrees Celcius.

They also found that climate change was a much greater contributing factor than El Nino, a natural phenomenon connected to higher temperatures in South America and other parts of the world.

Canadian wildfires twice as likely due to climate change

When wildfires spread from the Canadian east to west coast in the summer of 2023, they burned nearly twice as much area than the previous record.

Focused on the province of Quebec, the WWA concluded that climate change helped create dry, “fire-prone” weather about 20 to 50% more intense than average. It more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in eastern Canada.climate-change-marketexpress-in

The Canadian wildfires of 2023 were up to 50% more intense due to global heating
Image: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP/picture alliance

The hotter and drier weather caused snow to melt more rapidly, for example, bringing forward the start of the fire season and increasing its duration.

WWA says that advances in climate modeling and better access to weather data have improved the confidence and precision of studies that gauge the probability of extreme weather events, with or without climate change.

Italian floods: Climate not responsible

The climate crisis can’t always be directly blamed for extreme weather events.

In May 2023, in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, three rainstorms sparked widespread landslides and flooding that were said to be the worst in a century.

But while the high waters align with rising incidences of climate-driven extreme weather globally, researchers concluded this was an isolated event.

After analyzing rainfall records dating back to 1960 in Emilia-Romagna, scientists, including Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Imperial College London and co-founder of the WWA, found that spring rainfall is neither becoming more nor less intense with climate change in the region.

The researchers found that this particular 21-day period of rainfall — a one in a 200-year event with only a 0.5% chance of happening annually — could have occurred with or without climate change.

The flooding was caused by highly unique and unusual weather conditions “driven by an unprecedented sequence of three low-pressure systems in the central Mediterranean,” said Davide Faranda, an Italian researcher at the Institute Pierre-Simon Laplace and an author of the study.

Libya and Greece floods: Climate impact can be ambiguous

After Storm Daniel triggered flooding that caused two dams to burst and killed thousands in Libya in early September, a WWA study found that human-induced planetary heating made the torrential rainfall up to 50 times more likely. Massive flooding in central Greece spawned from the same storm was up to 10 times more likely.

Following a summer of record heatwaves and wildfires with a “very clear climate change fingerprint, quantifying the contribution of global warming to these floods proved more challenging,” said Otto.

To figure out if temperature rise had spurred heavier rain in the region, scientists compared weather data from the pre-1880s climate with the current climate that has warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) since then.

The report acknowledged that “large mathematical uncertainties” were built into the analysis as the weather patterns covered relatively small areas, and “most climate models do not represent rainfall on these small scales well.”

However, it added that “studies project heavier rain in the region as temperatures rise” and that local weather station data in Greece, for example, showed a trend toward heavier rain.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, so from 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming alone, “we would expect a 10% increase” in rainfall intensity, said Otto.

Record summer heatwaves in 2023 have marks of climate change

As opposed to rainfall, the link between temperature extremes and global heating is much clearer.

WWA published a study showing that extreme heat in the US, Mexico region and southern Europe in July “would have been virtually impossible to occur … if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels.”

During July 2023 more than 6.5 billion people were exposed to one or more days of heat made at least three times more likely by climate change, according to attribution analysis by Climate Central, a US-based climate think tank. That’s around 80% of the world’s population.