The focus on climate change over the past couple of decades has led many people to wonder if extreme weather events, such as droughts, hurricanes or heat waves are a direct cause of climate change. This is a tough question to answer as bouts of extreme weather have always been a part of the natural world.
However, many climatologists believe that the incidents of extreme weather events will increase as the planet’s temperature rises. To answer this, scientists have turned to a new field of research called “attribution science” to help determine what is ‘normal’ and what could be the result of climate change.
Attributing certain weather events to climate change can be difficult, often leading different professionals to varying conclusions. Because of this, scientists working in the field have created a sort of rule-of-thumb to keep in mind: You cannot attribute any single weather event to climate change. It could simply be weird weather.
Rather than looking at isolated events, these scientists search for patterns indicative of a relationship between a type of extreme weather, the area that it is located and the impact of climate change. Some events, such as a number of big floods in Colorado, appear to be normal and unrelated to climate change. However, some events appear to have been directly influenced by changes in the climate, such as a series of intense heat waves in the Southern Pacific in 2013.
Others, like the ongoing drought in California, have elicited mixed responses. While multiple research teams have already concluded that these droughts are not due to climate change, recent research regarding atmospheric conditions in the northern pacific shows otherwise. An atmospheric ridge is a likely cause of the drought, as it diverts moisture away from California. These “ridges”, while rare, will likely become more common as the earth continues to warm. The hope of scientists now is that, in the near future, we will be able to more accurately predict the occurrence of extreme weather events in a warmer world.