While most scientists don’t dispute the link between global warming and extreme weather, the once skeptical public is now starting to come around especially following 2011, when floods, droughts, heat waves and tornadoes took a heavy toll on the U.S. According to a poll conducted by researchers at Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, four out of five Americans reported personally experiencing one or more types of extreme weather or a natural.
Higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation, including more loss of moisture through plant leaves. Even in areas where precipitation does not decrease, these increases in surface evaporation and loss of water from plants lead to more rapid drying of soils if the effects of higher temperatures are not offset by other changes (such as reduced wind speed or increased humidity).
As soil dries out, a larger proportion of the incoming heat from the sun goes into heating the soil and adjacent air rather than evaporating its moisture, resulting in hotter summers under drier climatic conditions.
- Heavy Downpours
Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased.
Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average. This increase has been greatest in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains more than 30% above the 1901-1960 average. There has also been an increase in flooding events in the Midwest and Northeast, where the largest increases in heavy rain amounts have occurred.
- Heat Waves
Heat waves are periods of abnormally hot weather lasting days to weeks. The number of heat waves has been increasing in recent years. This trend has continued in 2011 and 2012, with the number of intense heat waves being almost triple the long-term average.
The recent heat waves and droughts in Texas (2011) and the Midwest (2012) set records for highest monthly average temperatures. Analyses show that human-induced climate change has generally increased the probability of heat waves. And prolonged (multi-month) extreme heat has been unprecedented since the start of reliable instrumental records in 1895.
Flooding may intensify in many U.S. regions, even in areas where total precipitation is projected to decline. A flood is defined as any high flow, overflow, or inundation by water that causes or threatens damage. Floods are caused or amplified by both weather- and human-related factors.
Major weather factors include heavy or prolonged precipitation, snowmelt, thunderstorms, storm surges from hurricanes, and ice or debris jams. Human factors include structural failures of dams and levees, altered drainage, and land-cover alterations (such as pavement).
Worldwide, from 1980 to 2009, floods caused more than 500,000 deaths and affected more than 2.8 billion people. In the United States, floods caused 4,586 deaths from 1959 to 2005 while property and crop damage averaged nearly 8 billion dollars per year (in 2011 dollars) over 1981 through 2011.
The risks from future floods are significant, given expanded development in coastal areas and floodplains, unabated urbanization, land-use changes, and human-induced climate change.
There has been a substantial increase in most measures of Atlantic hurricane activity since the early 1980s, the period during which high quality satellite data are available. These include measures of intensity, frequency, and duration as well as the number of strongest (Category 4 and 5) storms.
The recent increases in activity are linked, in part, to higher sea surface temperatures in the region that Atlantic hurricanes form in and move through.
Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution. Quantifying the relative contributions of natural and human-caused factors is an active focus of research.
While there are many uncertainties in attribution studies, researchers have shown that human-caused climate change is nudging the temperatures up and increasing the odds of new extremes in heat and rainfall.