Global warming means local (super) storming

The Earth Day rally was incredible.  Well over 100,000 people were in the crowd, well over 10x what the Tea Partiers delivered on tax day, so you can figure out which event the media fawned over.

I ended up spending a lot of time chatting with James Cameron, and I’ll do a separate post on what he’s like in person.   I also chatted with a few people in the know about inside-the-beltway climate politics who were relatively optimistic that the climate bill can be put back on track.  We’ll know more in a day or two.  New WashPost story here.

I’m hoping that the Earth Day folks put together individual video clips that I can post later.  I had been scheduled for three minutes and ended up with only getting a little over one minute, so I had to gut my carefully crafted talk.

But there was one science-meets-rhetoric riff that I mostly kept, which I thought was a useful rhetorical device:  Global warming means local storming.  Here’s what I had written:

Global warming means local storming.  Global warming makes storms like Katrina more fierce.  Record wild-fire-storms in the West, Record dust-storms in Australia, record snowstorms and rainstorms here on the East Coast.  Global warming set the table for those local superstorms.

Before the comments and emails come in on how one can’t scientifically attribute any single hurricane to global warming (duh), I’ll just quote from Dr. Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, back in 2005:

Sea temperatures have risen nearly 1 degree in the tropics over the last century, with most of the rise coming since 1970, and most of that increase can be attributed to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of coal and gasoline, he said.

NCAR researchers have correlated the rise from human influences to a 3.5 percent increase in the amount of water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere. That vapor and the heat it transports is sucked up by a storm as it intensifies.

By Trenberth’s calculation, global warming has raised the heat available to a major storm by about 7 percent.

“So, when a storm is over land, you are probably getting, on the relative order to the same storm in the 1970s, about 7 percent more water,” Trenberth said. “Maybe that is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Maybe that is the extra water that causes the levee to break.”

I am using the phrase “set the table” because that’s what Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist at the Weather Channel, used in making a comparable point about Georgia’s devastating September rainstorms.  Of course, Ostro pointed out there was no way to know if global warming had “caused” the record floods, but

Nevertheless, there’s a straightforward connection in the way the changing climate “set the table” for what happened this September in Atlanta and elsewhere. It behooves us to understand not only theoretical expected increases in heavy precipitation (via relatively slow/linear changes in temperatures, evaporation, and atmospheric moisture) but also how changing circulation patterns are already squeezing out that moisture in extreme doses and affecting weather in other ways.

It is the compounding of “typical” extreme weather events on top of human-caused climate change that creates the devastating, record-smashing “global-warming-type” events.  To re-excerpt the Must re-read statement from UK’s Royal Society and Met Office on the connection between global warming and extreme weather:

We expect some of the most significant impacts of climate change to occur when natural variability is exacerbated by long-term global warming, so that even small changes in global temperatures can produce damaging local and regional effects. Year on year the evidence is growing that damaging climate and weather events “” potentially intensified by global warming “” are already happening and beginning to affect society and ecosystems. This includes:

* In the UK, heavier daily rainfall leading to local flooding such as in the summer of 2007;
* Increased risk of summer heat waves such as the summers of 2003 across the UK and Europe;
* Around the world, increasing incidence of extreme weather events with unprecedented levels of damage to society and infrastructure. This year’s unusually destructive typhoon season in South East Asia, while not easy to attribute directly to climate change, illustrates the vulnerabilities to such events;
* Sea level rises leading to dangerous exposure of populations in, for example, Bangladesh, the Maldives and other island states;
* Persistent droughts, leading to pressures on water and food resources, and the increasing incidence of forest fires in regions where future projections indicate long term reductions in rainfall, such as South West Australia and the Mediterranean.

These emerging signals are consistent with what we expect from our projections, giving us confidence in the science and models that underpin them. In the absence of action to mitigate climate change, we can expect much larger changes in the coming decades than have been seen so far.

The UK’s Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of science, “the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence,” founded in 1660.  The Met Office, the UK’s National Weather Service (i.e. meteorological office), is within the Ministry of Defence.

The point of the phrase “global warming means local storming” is that one of the key ways people are going to experience climate change is through these blow-out, uber-extreme weather events.

UPDATE:  As always, the events I focus on here in this context are the record-smashing ones, usually ones that are regional in scope — the super storms:

In that sense, global warming means local (super) storming.  And that is precisely why the anti-science disinformers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather.  Don’t let them.

38 Responses to Global warming means local (super) storming

  1. Wit's End says:

    yes yes yes. Time to make the connections. The old days of scientific reticence and caution must end. This is a new day, and we are running out of time.

    Ocean acidification is one huge reason:

    and extreme weather events are another that will be critically important to lead the public to understand that climate change isn’t a remote, distant problem, it is a disaster on every doorstep:

  2. Wit's End says:

    worth reposting, the Natural Resources Defense Council video with S. Weaver narrating, a beautifully evocative film:

  3. Steven Brazil says:

    So the talk of heat and permanent droughts last year was wrong? I suspected it would be shifted.

    [JR: Not really one for links or actually reading the blog you comment on, are you? Heat and drought drive the wild-fire-storms and dust storms. The heat is at the core of the superstorms. Seriously. You conserva-bots need new talking points.

    Oh, I see you are posting under two names. That’s a no-no conserva-bot.]

  4. substanti8 says:

    I recall many attempts to tell people that “climate is not weather” – such as this video from Second City.  If public relations is like a high-stakes card game, then the increase of potential energy to storms is one of the weaker cards in our hand.

    [JR: Uhh, no.]

  5. I love this way of framing, Joe. Well done!

    One additional thought that you might work in somehow is Holdren’s nice phrase about climate setting the patterns within which weather occurs. And while we can’t say for sure that any one storm is caused or strengthened by climate change, we can say that increasing temperatures and the conditions that they cause (like more water vapor in the atmosphere, as per your point above) are essentially loading the dice, making the stronger storm outcomes more likely.

  6. substanti8 says:

    I should have offered more than a cryptic poker analogy.  While I certainly appreciate all the information compiled here by Joe, I think stronger arguments (with a general public that is scientifically illiterate) would be the change in growing zones, sea level increases from melting ice sheets, and the lurking positive feedback loops from melting permafrost.

    But I’ll add that I have not read Joe’s book yet, and I would be glad to be proven wrong about this.

    [JR: I think one pitches multiple, scientifically accurate messages. Temperature and heat waves, obviously. Same for melting ice, which, however, tends to be far from people. SLR is a lagging indicator. Positive feedbacks are hard to see.]

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    “We are under a pale green sky, and it has the smell of death and poison”

    Under a Green Sky, Peter M Ward.

    It would appear we will not accept the severity of global warming until the oceans enter a Canfield state.

  8. Andy says:

    OT Re: Louisiana rig fire – apparently the blow out protector had failed after all and oil is spewing freely from the sea bed. The 21″ well casing had been kinked and that had staunched the flow for a while, but the massive pressure is straightening it out and about 1,000 barrels a day are now leaking. At this rate it would take 8 months before it equaled the Valdez spill. But the pipe could be still unkinking, or could fail totally thus greatly increasing the spill flow rate. They are trying to activate the blow out protector with a submersible and may try to put an underwater collector on the pipe. I think this last bit indicates folks are getting desparate.

    “Drill baby drill” may well join “Mission Accomplished” on the Republican Party’s wall of shame.

  9. Mark Shapiro says:

    A clean energy economy will make us healthier, wealthier, safer, and more secure.

  10. Tim L. says:

    If the WhiteWash Post is any indication, the mainstream media seem to have ignored the 100,000+ attendees at today’s ED Climate Rally. Yet they report on a couple dozen teabaggers waving placards by the White House and call it a “movement.” Shame on the national media, again.

  11. Roger says:

    We were at the climate rally cheering for you, Joe! You were great!

    Bringing your daughter out on stage at the conclusion of your remarks was a fitting reminder of the children who are one of the reasons that many of us continue our work on the climate cause.

    We had some success at the rally in drawing attention to the need for US climate education and leadership with our roaming ‘polar bear’ and her large Earth ball being attacked by a ‘coal plant.’

  12. Roger says:

    Hey Leif,
    You missed a successful Citizens’ Climate Congress in front of the White House, and a superb climate rally today.

    Obama was kind enough to sent a video message to the rally, though we would have preferred that he come down to the mall in person, as Ed Markey and others did.

    You’ll have to plan on a trip east next year if possible. We should really work to get all of us who are concerned about the climate in one place at one time. That’s the language that our politicians understand

  13. Leif says:

    How much water does 3.5% extra water vapor in the atmosphere represent. A couple of months ago this topic came up and johna, #14 computed the answer. At the time we used 4% extra and that number equated to 1.5 times the volume of Lake Superior.

    If 3.5% is a more accurate number that the volume would be ~1.3 times the volume of Lake Superior. Still a significant amount of water to fall as heavy rain, floods or even snow in the winter, when you can expect cold temperatures. I would remind you that that extra water vapor is a recycled volume. Just because you might get heavy rainfall one day does not mean that that water is gone! The increased warmth quickly rebuilds to hold that volume again and reach equilibrium again. And each day holds more than the last. In thirty years the extra warmth will hold ~3 times the volume of Lake Superior. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

  14. Leif says:

    Hi Roger, #13: I am sorry to have missed the tribal frenzies but a cross country trip was just not in the cards for me this year. I must admit that it did this old farts heart good to see the crowd. I am quite sure that you lifted more than a few eye brows.

    Good show to one and all.


  15. Leif says:

    Joe: It is a mystery how I managed to double post. Delete the first one. I thought I lost it but perhaps my cat sent it as he likes to help at times.

    Thank you,


  16. Ryan T says:

    I guess the ‘bot doesn’t realize that both drought AND regional storm events are expected to intensify in a warming world. Globally, the two are not mutually exclusive.

    As for media coverage, I watched two evening newscasts and didn’t see anything on the rally. Still harping on about the Icelandic volcano showing us who’s “really boss”, though (not that humans are the boss: Just persistent agitators). Did I miss it, or are they more into pre-canned news on Sundays?

  17. Wonhyo says:

    When I put the various reports of altered weather patterns (including in-person interviews with Sierra guides and resort staff), it’s clear to me that weather patterns have been changing as early as the late 80’s. I was doing a local hike this afternoon and realized the creek that ran year round in the late 80’s is now bone dry in April.

    So far, it seems that the climate change related weather catastrophes are occurring one or two at a time, separated by time and distance. Eventually, I expect we will regularly experience multiple simultaneous climate related weather catastrophes, making it harder and harder to find refuge and relief.

  18. George Grisancich says:


    I’m getting continuously hassled by well-meaning friends telling me climate change – and all the scary stuff it’s supposed to cause is a hoax. Whenever I counter with the usual stuff I’ve heard, like hottest decade on record, or sea-level rise, or more storms, or more droughts, they always laugh at me and tell me these aren’t proof.

    If all this stuff isn’t proof, then what can I tell them that is definite proof of human caused global warming?

    Cheers and thank you.

    [JR: Uhh, it is evidence of warming. The fact that humans are the primary cause is pretty much basic physics. Spend some time on Skeptical Science.]

  19. Anne says:

    I like the slogan.

    Looks good on a t-shirt:

  20. Anne says:

    Can’t get the photo image to upload, here’s the link:

  21. John says:

    Hi everyone, please ignore George Grisancich, he’s a concern troll and a pathetic one at that.

    If you doubt me you may be interested in his own words:

    “Hey Clive, you reading this? Of course you are. I want you to know I am a climate change denier, and proud of it.”

  22. Sou says:

    We’re getting more torrential rain storms in my part of the world than ever before. More often it seems to be ‘when it rains it pours’, instead of a normal heavy shower or drizzle. This is going by my rain guage as well as by how often the gutters overflow causing the roof to leak. New big gutters with stormwater overflows is on my list of essential renovations.

    This started happening three or four years ago during the long drought that ended here late last year. It seems to be more frequent each year.

  23. David Smith says:

    How come I cant find one line of news about the rally yesterday at the usual online sources. I guess it didnt happen.

    By the way, great comments from the stage, Joe. Thank you.

  24. Amber (formerly of DOE) says:

    Thank you for making the climate-weather connection, and Rep. Markey for suggesting contacting Senators on the House bill. What a shame there was no consistent, planned message or plea for action from the many speakers and musicians–a wasted opportunity. Washing clothes in cold water was the only suggestion I heard more than once. What about supporting the greening of our communities and contacting our national leaders about climate policy, in addition to taking action in our homes?

  25. mike roddy says:

    I’m inclined to agree with Substanti8, that this line of argument is valid, but may not be a fruitful one. When there is a long spell of mild weather- or, for example, deniers point to a lack of Katrinas for a while- people like Pielke Jr. have a rare opening.

    Instead of the big telegenic storms, I’d like to see town hall meetings, where older folks are asked how the weather is different now compared to their childhoods. For the non Tea Partiers, there will be some revealing answers. In the Bay Area, where I grew up, the wet and foggy season lasted far longer, and we could usually go skiing in the Sierras by November. Now, winter arrives in December, and spring blossoms come in March instead of late April. Many creeks in the foothills are now just ditches, as the soil is too dry to hold moisture. I suspect there will be similar stories everywhere else.

  26. Berbalang says:

    @18: I saw this identical post by George Grisancich over on Deltoid.

  27. mike roddy says:

    Berbalong, #18,

    They aren’t very creative. Denier posts sound as if they come from a list, and we’ve heard them all before. It’s probably a bunch of retirees in Tulsa, pounding the keys for minimum wage. My personal favorite is “I used to believe in global warming, but now…”

  28. climate undergrad says:

    @ 25 Mike Roddy

    Agreed; I thought Richard Brenne’s post a couple months ago about how the winter olympics have changed over the years was really powerful.

  29. Berbalang says:

    Mike Roddy, #27,

    True, I was thinking the list is probably calendar based by now. We just passed the “Arctic ice extent has returned to near normal” that gets issued every year about this time. I wish the people who believe the deniers would take a mental step back, look and think about how the whole denial machine works.

  30. Timothy Chase says:

    I am writing this mostly simply to test formatting in the comments, but thought that I might try to make what I wrote a little interesting by sharing something I have thought about. A warning though: it is somewhat philosophical in nature.

    Both you and Stu Ostro take the position that, “Of course, Ostro pointed out there was no way to know if global warming had “caused” the record floods.” This is close to if not equivalent to the mainstream position that one cannot say that global warming caused a given storm but that it operates at the statistical aggregate level. However I would suggest a different way of viewing this.

    First, global warming is never the only causal factor for a given storm. There are always local conditions and moreover for any given event it is always possible to trace back the lines of causation at least until the big bang itself. Moreover, if anything were different within the past that at least potentially could affect a given storm then in all likelihood it does affect the storm to some degree — if only because it results in one or another subatomic particle being in a different state — resulting in a storm which is slightly different from another the storm as it would exist under some alternate history.

    However, the above analysis does not take into account the chaotic nature of the weather — and given the chaotic nature of the weather, if one goes back only a few weeks, in all likelihood a slight difference would be amplified such that the storm which we observed along our timeline would not exist. And although an almost different storm in a different place might very well exist it would be so different that we would have no reason for considering it the same storm.

    Now as global warming has been taking place at least since the industrial revolution, it most certainly has been a major factor in all of the weather that we have experienced since at least the middle of the twentieth century. And as such it most certainly has been a major factor in any given storm.

    However, one can never say that it was the only factor in any given storm. The view that there is one cause for any given effect is simply an illusion resulting from the limited nature of human cognition — which typically traces back the lines of causation for any given event only so far and in any given explanation is necessarily limited to a explanations that involve a finite number of elements as causal factors.


    On an entirely unrelated thread which has very little to do with me, people might want to check out:

    Climate TV

    [JR: I’m not sure what your point is, since you seem to be arguing against a position I don’t advance. In any case, I try to focus on the record-smashing superstorms or the statistical aggregation of temperature records. I would note, however, that hurricanes have a temperature threshold below which they don’t form. If we for instance the steady growth in South Atlantic hurricanes, it’ll be pretty clear what one of the major contributing factors is.]

  31. Aaron Lewis says:

    Why do the tornado guys mostly say that the increase in tornados in Tornado Alley is due to improved radar coverage and capability? In the old days a cowboy checking on his stock would see a tornado, tell the boss’s wife, and she would send a weather spotter’s report into the weather service. This was a very slow, but rather reliable system. I know this ritual went on at half a dozen breakfast tables within a dozen miles of my grandfather’s farm. Nobody is more motivated to spot a tornado than a cowboy out tending stock. I am pretty sure that every tornado that came through that part of Kansas was spotted for at least the period from 1928 to 1964 for which I have my grandmother’s journals. However, even 2 years ago, the tornado guys were telling me that ALL the increase in tornado frequency was due to better radar. Sheep dip. Some of the increase in tornado numbers is due to more available (latent) heat allowing more storm systems to be larger and more powerful.

  32. Timothy Chase says:

    Joseph Romm gave an inline response to comment 30, “JR: I’m not sure what your point is, since you seem to be arguing against a position I don’t advance.”

    Well, it really isn’t that important, but…

    I had stated that you had written, “Both you and Stu Ostro take the position that, ‘Of course, Ostro pointed out there was no way to know if global warming had ’caused’ the record floods.'”

    In contrast I would argue that you could say that, “For all intents and purposes global warming was a major factor in the recent record floods.” Or perhaps even strike the preamble, “For all intents and purposes”. Then again this might complicate a discussion or debate — if one of the other participants pushed to get you to explain what you meant.

    Incidentally, is a Mac somehow involved in the processing of text for the comments in this blog? The Quote and apostrophe strongly remind me of what you would get if the text were encoded on an (old?) Mac — and for some reason someone else found it problematic and would prefer the (web) standard vertical with ” with quot between an ampersand and semicolon and ‘ with the apos between an ampersand and semicolon — in terms of the underlying html. Personally I am just curious.

    [JR: Ah, I see. Many different ways to phrase this. Yours is on the strong side.

    Usually no Mac. Desktop is a PC. Laptop is Latest MacBook Pro.]

  33. Timothy Chase says:

    Joseph Romm wrote as an inline response to 32, “JR: Ah, I see. Many different ways to phrase this. Yours is on the strong side.”

    Essentially, yes.

    Technically speaking, the claim that “Global warming was a major factor in the recent record floods” would be a corrigible proposition, and as such later knowledge might count against it. For example, if a climate model were to later show that a given region or season is an exception to the rule and more severe floods or storms actually became less common, this should properly be regarded as disconfirmation for the proposition as it would apply to that region.

    As such one might wish to make the more conservative statement that, “Global warming was likely a major factor in the recent record floods.” But I would argue that the reluctance to state of a particular instance (whether it be a given storm, flood, extreme year or decade) that global warming was (likely) a major factor is a relic of the Cartesian standard that requires absolute certainty.

    I would probably go with “likely.” But in either case, we don’t normally apply the Cartesian standard to either common everyday or scientific propositions where later evidence may at least potentially count against one or another proposition. And I would argue that one really shouldn’t apply the Cartesian standard in this case, either. Perhaps a defensive move on our part in reaction to the “skeptics”?

    In either case more a matter of philosophy than anything else I suppose, and both the physics and politics of climate change are much more interesting.

  34. substanti8 says:

    Reading the dialogue between Timothy Chase and Joe Romm inspires an analogy – from Gaia to the human body.

    Determining the cause of a violent storm is analogous to determining the cause of a particular cancer.  In both cases, there are actually multiple causes.  The argument that global warming increases the probability of violent storms, is similar to the argument that a potent environmental factor (such as tobacco smoke) increases the probability of cancer.

    It seems only fitting, therefore, that the fossil fuel industry has adopted many of the same tactics as the tobacco industry – as historian Naomi Oreskes described so well.

  35. David B. Benson says:

    George Grisancich (18) — Stratospheric cooling suffices. For some others read

  36. David B. Benson says:

    And borehole studies demonstrate the recent super-warming:
    See Figure 2 for the last 2000 years.

  37. bill says:

    Tell your conserva-bot that I live in the land ‘of drought and flooding rains’. (Australia). Both of which are becoming more intense. And then there’s the fires…

  38. SAM says:



    [JR: Uhh, no shouting.]