Almost a year ago, Amy Calder of the National Journal asked:
Are extreme weather events, when considered collectively, evidence that climate change is occurring? If not, what are the missing links scientists still need to study in order to make a more conclusive find? Could these weather events revive congressional efforts to pass comprehensive climate legislation?
My answer is still the same, even though I grapple with what my resonsibilities and moral obligations are as a scientist learning, a tenured professor teaching, and a citizen voting. Here it is:
No, climate does not cause weather, the balances of forces, masses, and energies in the atmosphere do. Furthermore, the atmosphere interacts with oceans, ice sheets, lands, and livings things. Ask an equally ill-posed question “Is climate change contributing to wild weather?” and my answer becomes yes, but with the caveat that butterflies flapping their wings in Tokyo contribute as well. There is more to the question than meets the eye.
Globally averaged air temperatures have increased by about 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade over the last 50 years. This warming is not uniform as it varies in both space and time. Some places cool, some places warm, some places cool or warm more than expected. Floods, droughts, mudslides, and calving glaciers always have and always will occur. Some weather events separated in space and time are physically linked via large-scale tele-connections such as Rossby waves in the atmospheric jet stream or the El Nino-Southern Oscillations.
So, how much of the currently observed extreme weather events are due to globally increasing air temperatures that also coincide with globally increasing ocean temperatures? Does global warming increase, say, the intensity of hurricane by 1% or 10% or 50%? These much tougher questions are at the forefront of both observational and computational work on environmental physics. The IPCC numerical models and new understanding of key physical processes, I feel, are the only way to attribute global warming effects on extreme weather events. Ice-ocean interactions around Greenland are one such physical process poorly incorporated in IPCC models. Another such process is the way that hurricanes may dominate the ocean heat flux towards Greenland.
Three weeks before Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 MIT professor Dr. Kerry Emanuel published that the power dissipation by hurricanes has increased by about 60% over the last 30 years and that this increase correlates with increasing sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic. Nevertheless, Dr. Emanuel himself stressed that nothing could be more absurd than stating that Katrina was caused by global warming. Furthermore, refining his methodology in 2008, he finds that “… global warming should reduce the global frequency of hurricanes, though their intensity may increase in some locations.” [Emanuel et al., 2008: Hurricanes and global warming, Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 89, 347-367.]
Just because a pattern of extreme weather events feels like evidence of global warming, it does not make it so. This scientific uncertainty, however, should not distract from the potential costs that a potentially man-made climate change will cause. Climate zones may shift, sea level may rise, volatile weather events may become more volatile, etc. All of this may cause additional political instabilities in marginally stable nation states ill-equipped to deal with either natural or man-made disasters.