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Heidi Cullen on tornadoes, extreme weather and ‘The C-Word’

By Joe Romm  

"Heidi Cullen on tornadoes, extreme weather and ‘The C-Word’"

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Heidi CullenOur guest blogger is climate scientist Heidi Cullen.  This was first published at HuffPost.  My comments are inserted in brackets.

UPDATE:   See the featured comment from Richard Brenne at the end.  And Cullen herself has posted in the comments section.

My phone tends to ring a lot more when the weather is bad. I often get calls from reporters and producers who usually ask me the same question a bunch of different ways. “Is this global warming?” “Is climate change to blame?” “Is the weather getting worse?”

These are big — almost existential — questions. I suspect they are a polite way of asking, “Is this our fault?”

Climate scientists approach the question a little differently. We want to test how global warming shifts the odds of a severe weather event. Just like medical researchers do with cigarette smoking and lung cancer. In fact, this line of climate research comes straight out of epidemiology. In essence, we’re doing autopsies on extreme weather events to find out what made them so bad-ass.

Depending on the type of extreme weather event, my answer can be short or long, straightforward or complicated. Keep in mind, all weather is now born into an environment that is warmer and moister because of man-made greenhouse gas pollution. But we don’t always know what influences (man-made or natural) will win out on any given day.

Events like droughts, wildfires, heat waves and heavy downpours get my short answer. We know they are going to become more frequent, more intense, and last longer. In fact, we can already see this playing out in historical data. (For a complete overview, check out the “Global Climate Change Impacts in the US” as well as some newly published research summarized here.)

[Joe Romm:  For a review of the recent scientific literature, see "Two seminal Nature papers join growing body of evidence that human emissions fuel extreme weather, flooding that harm humans and the environment."]

Tornadoes get the long answer. Will they become more frequent, more intense? Will Tornado Alley get bigger? Will the season last longer?

Jeff Masters and Andrew Freedman have both done a great job laying out the state of the research.

The bottom line is that two of the key ingredients that go into making a tornado are expected to change as a result of global warming — water vapor (moisture in the atmosphere) and wind shear (changing wind speed and direction with height). Thanks in part to warmer oceans, water vapor has already increased about 4% and it will continue to increase as the planet warms — providing more fuel for storms. But wind shear may decrease and that could mean fewer tornadoes. So which influence wins out — increasing water vapor or decreasing wind shear? We don’t know yet.

[Joe Romm:  For a longer look at the climate-tornado science, see "Tornadoes, extreme weather, and climate change."]

But even though we don’t have all the answers — and maybe never will — we do know enough to act. And that is really the bigger point, the one I try to bring home when the phone rings. The recent National Research Council’s “America’s Climate Choices” report advised Congress that we know enough to get started on preparing for climate change and preventing the most severe consequences, and we need to get started right away. Almost anything we do to protect ourselves in the future from this hotter world we’re creating, will also protect us right now from many of the extremes Mother Nature throws at us. We can’t afford to wait.

Yet, despite this recent report, and despite all we do know about climate change, the topic has become the C-word in Washington, D.C. Just as the term “global warming” fell out of favor, the term “climate change” is now one that few in our nation’s capital dare bring up in conversation, much less in legislation. Budgets for climate research have been threatened and now a nominee for Commerce Secretary is garnering opposition in large part because of his stance on environmental issues, including global climate change.

As the people of Joplin, Missouri begin the slow, painful process of rebuilding their lives — a new wave of extremes is making headlines. A state of emergency was declared in Massachusetts on Wednesday after rare and powerful tornadoes ripped through the city of Springfield and smaller towns nearby. At the same time, long-standing temperature records fell as a wall of heat blanketed the eastern half of the country — Washington, D.C. set a new daily record high of 98°F — busting the old record that dated back to 1895. Hurricane season also started this week and forecasters expect it to be busier than usual. And I’m here ready for the phone to ring again, so that I can tell you one more time that if we do nothing to adapt and reduce our greenhouse gas pollution, things will only get worse… and yes, it will be our fault.

Heidi Cullen is a climate scientist at Climate Central (www.climatecentral.org) — an independent, non-profit journalism and research organization. She is also a Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University and the author of The Weather of the Future.

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Featured Comment from Richard Brenne, a leading climate communicator and long-time commenter:

Well done Heidi! I especially like your comment about tornadoes. We’ve discussed that quite a bit here beginning with the April 27 outbreak in Alabama, with Joe’s link the most complete discussion I’ve seen.

Many of us try sample quotes here, and here’s mine: “Every weather event is now influenced by global warming in one way or another, and this trend is intensifying. In approximate order, record high temperatures of all kinds are increasing, as are heat waves, droughts and dramatic precipitation events of all kinds, including snow where and when it is cold enough to snow. Hurricanes and tornadoes are more complex, but when conditions are right higher sea surface temperatures alone are enough to intensify them. This combined with 4% additional water vapor in the atmosphere and far greater energy in the system has created storms like those we’ve seen within the last year in Pakistan and Australia that are unprecedented in the human written record. With 40% more water vapor in the atmosphere possible by 2100, this century would see storms no human can now imagine, dwarfing every storm of every kind we’ve seen so far.”

Brenne is an award-winning screenwriter who teaches a NASA-sponsored on-line Global Climate Change class, serves on the American Meteorological Society’s Committee to Improve Climate Change Communication, and produces documentaries and large-scale town meetings and panels about climate change that he moderates with humor and insight.

 

Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:

Mike Roddy

Nice to hear from you, Heidi, please drop by more often. Your clarification about wind shear and water vapor as predictors of tornadoes was especially welcome.

Things are getting awfully weird in Washington when a Commerce Secretary nominee faces vicious opposition because he dared to state that we have a problem with climate change. This is under a Democratic president with a majority in the Senate. Does this mean that the opposition will filibuster his confirmation? Then, of course, we also have the recent vote in the Senate, where every Republican Senator except the two Maine ladies voted to oppose reducing the oil companies’ tax breaks.

It’s clear that the oil, coal, and gas companies- with implicit support from the financial industry- have effectively achieved a coup d’etat of our great country’s government. Not much can be done until this issue is addressed, which would have to include the Democrats taking a stand and including it in their stump speeches. This is necessary, and I welcome ideas on how to make that happen

June 4 at 9:36am

Peter S. Mizla

Mitt Romney came out and said the ‘climate is warming’- this is heresy in the republican party.I guess the Koch Empire is calling his staff offices.

I always watched Hedi Cullen during her stint at the WC- always well informed.
It appears that no action with Emissions will be taken until chaos begins to change both our economy and society- and by then they will be scurrying about for solutions – most too late.

June 4 at 11:01am

Harleyrider Davidson

Climate scientists approach the question a little differently. We want to test how global warming shifts the odds of a severe weather event. Just like medical researchers do with cigarette smoking and lung cancer. In fact, this line of climate research comes straight out of epidemiology. In essence, we’re doing autopsies on extreme weather events to find out what made them so bad-ass.

Heidi your far left extremist nutcase…….

Epidemiology is more a voodoo science than scientific its comparing apples to oranges!

True science depends on toxicology studies that prove the end points and PROVE CAUSATION…….Correlatio​n is not causation and now you want to use another old trick to try and revive a dead agenda………

If that’s your next line of defence after the global warming emails destroyed your precious JUNK SCIENCE just like that second hand smoke myth your really scraping the bottom of the septic tank!

If I were you Id be looking for a new professional title as all this radical progressivism is going to end and those who have been preaching it as gospel will have comitted professional suicide by selling it……..

June 4 at 11:08am

Leif Erik Knutsen

I am loathed to feed the trolls but if you are looking for another branch of science that has become “voodoo science” under the spell Climatology you will want to “google” “ocean acidification.” The flip side of global warming and predicting Doomsville even sooner. Others might try it as well and get your own take. Be like a scientist, Read the evidence keep an open mind and draw your own conclusions.

June 4 at 1:24pm

Rick Covert

Heidi Cullen gives global climate destabilization to us straight. Thank you!

June 4 at 11:18am

Climate Portals

The largest water bomber in the world is flying to Alberta from British Columbia to help fight wildfires in the oilsands region.

http://www.facebook.com/pe​rmalink.php?story_fbid=151​377864931331&id=1394348227​41700

June 4 at 12:08pm

Climate Portals

Oh boy what a spot on headline…

http://www.facebook.com/pe​rmalink.php?story_fbid=166​319140099694&id=1394348227​41700

June 4 at 12:10pm

Richard Brenne

Well done Heidi! I especially like your comment about tornadoes. We’ve discussed that quite a bit here beginning with the April 27 outbreak in Alabama, with Joe’s link the most complete discussion I’ve seen.

Many of us try sample quotes here, and here’s mine: “Every weather event is now influenced by global warming in one way or another, and this trend is intensifying. In approximate order, record high temperatures of all kinds are increasing, as are heat waves, droughts and dramatic precipitation events of all kinds, including snow where and when it is cold enough to snow. Hurricanes and tornadoes are more complex, but when conditions are right higher sea surface temperatures alone are enough to intensify them. This combined with 4% additional water vapor in the atmosphere and far greater energy in the system has created storms like those we’ve seen within the last year in Pakistan and Australia that are unprecedented in the human written record. With 40% more water vapor in the atmosphere possible by 2100, this century would see storms no human can now imagine, dwarfing every storm of every kind we’ve seen so far.”

June 4 at 12:13pm

Joseph Romm

I’m going to make this our very first featured comment — and put it in the text!

June 4 at 1:10pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

Good going Richard, something we can all aspire to! Thank you Joe, for what appears to be a quick recovery from the “New Format Blues” The times have made us all a bit prickly.

June 4 at 1:40pm

George Ennis

The last sentence in your comment jumped out at me i.e. the 40% part. What does that mean compared to today. Does one simply draw a straight line extrapolation which by itself would be terrifying or could it even be worse i.e. the results may be non-linear.

My mind is spinning with the idea of such an increase in moisture. Even if we take an optimist case that is limited to 20% that still means a 5 fold increase from where we are today. I cannot even begin to imagine what extreme weather events would look like in that event compared to what we are already experiencing today.

· June 4 at 4:11pm

nikfromnyc

“Tornadoes get the long answer. Will they become more frequent, more intense?”

The NOAA’s official chart of strong tornadoes so far says no:

http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/i​mg/climate/research/tornad​o/tornadotrend.jpg

You’ve even lost Andy Revkin on that prophecy!:

http://dotearth.blogs.nyti​mes.com/2011/05/23/more-tr​auma-in-americas-tornado-h​ot-zone/

· June 4 at 6:55pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

I will leave it to Richard to defend his own posts but I would like to expand on the 4% if I might. About a year ago I asked the commentators on CP “just how much water did 4% increase represent?” A while later a commentator that appeared to have a grasp of the situation computed a volume of about 1.5x the volume of Lake Superior*. Of course, that is over the whole earth but one must recall that “weather” will/does concentrate available water vapor into fronts, atmospheric rivers, and assorted air mass to fall as rain or even snow in the winter. (One degree C warming will only raise your winter normal temperature 1C.) It is also important to note that once that 4% falls as rain or snow it is not GONE. The warmer atmosphere quickly evaporates an equal volume from ocean or ice cap. (Yes, Ice can evaporate without melting.) The 4% is now the new normal!

*{I have seen the 1.5x Lk. Sup. number branded about and If an atmospheric scientist would take a moment to peer review it would be cool. As far as I know it is just computed by one person, and big numbers can be tricky thou the math appeared straight forward.}

June 4 at 9:17pm

Climate Portals

“Either you’re a believer in climate change or you’re not, but I don’t think you can deny that the weather we’re seeing across the country is different,” said Serge Dupuis, manager of engineering for the city of Dieppe, N.B. “Believe it or not, it’s here and if you’re ready for the worst, it’s going to help.”.

June 4 at 12:27pm

Colorado Bob

Fukushima Radiation Jumps To Record Levels, As Tepco Warns That Heavy Rain Will Cause Toxic Pools To Overflow.

http://www.businessinsider​.com/fukushima-radiation-r​ecord-levels-2011-6

The typhoon put down 6 inches round Fukushima,….. ” the weather forecast for Fukushima is ominous: Thunderstorms tomorrow and rain throughout the week.”

June 4 at 1:33pm

Colorado Bob

Long-awaited rain eases drought in central, southern China.
On Friday, Xianning City received the largest volume of precipitation, totaling 163.4 mm,……………
http://news.xinhuanet.com/​english2010/china/2011-06/​04/c_13911123.htm

June 4 at 1:41pm

Colorado Bob

On Thursday, the House GOP passed a measure barring the Department of Homeland Security from working on a government-wide plan to prepare for climate change.

Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.) tacked an amendment onto the DHS budget bill for fiscal year 2012 that bars DHS from working with the Interagency Task Force on Climate Change Adaptation. The task force, created by the Obama administration, is charged with making recommendations about how to prepare for climate change.

http://motherjones.com/moj​o/2011/06/house-gop-tells-​dhs-stop-worrying-about-cl​imate-change

·June 4 at 1:53pm

Leif Erik Knutsen

Boy, the GOBP sure know how to double down don’t they. These doods must feel that if they get the majority “Reality” will be theirs to call. Bizarre.

June 4 at 5:45pm

Peter S. Mizla

So, the recent outbreak of tornadoes was ‘enhanced’ by global warming. After reading at CP and at News Organizations- I assumed the connection could not be made.

I found this conclusion perplexing. I live about 25 miles from the recent tornado in and around Springfield Mass. A are event there. But also last summer, the extreme damage from multiple tornadoes in Bristol and Bridgeport CT.

I guess my personal hunch, was that these events here in New England where in fact enhanced by that extra energy component in the atmosphere.

Does not this additional warming and water vapor make these events more powerful?

As Jim Hansen says at the end of ‘Storm of My Grandchildren’ the first decades of this century would see unprecedented violent storms- as the transition of our climate continues.

Dr. Cullen says it so well- as does Dr. Hansen- every weather event now is in fact influenced. I know why the weather last winter here in CT was so extreme with snow, ice, water- and that my house suffered so much damage. I am still waiting for the $8,000 check.

June 4 at 2:38pm

Josh Diamond

Great, concise breakdown for the non-trained scientists among us who have a passion and knowledge for climate change information. The 4% increase in water vapor that Miss Cullen highlighted is a crucial fact to help underpin the connection between heavy precipitation events and greenhouse gas pollution’s atmospheric consequences.

Now if we could only stop voting in Congresspeople who believe we should destroy the rainforest to prevent release of CO2….

June 4 at 2:42pm

Colorado Bob

Water vapor -
6-2-2011
WAKEFIELD 4 W CLAY KS 8.65 in.

5-23-2011
The mesonet site in Vinita, Oklahoma measured 7.48” of rain in only 5 hours.
Very heavy rain also occurred in northwest AR. 3.07” of rain was measured in 1 hour at the Fayetteville/Drake Field airport (KFYV) between 3 and 4pm on May 23. The NWS Prairie Grove COOP observer measured 6.62” during the 24-hour period from 7am 5/23-7am 5/24.

June 4 at 2:52pm

Heidi Cullen

Thanks guys. And my thanks to Joe for sharing the blog. I’m hoping we’ll see a stronger push at the local and state level. The C40 Cities – Climate Leadership Group gives me hope: http://www.c40cities.org/ I’d like to see Bloomberg testify before Congress and help plead the case for climate science and adaptation planning. By the way, I love the new website!

June 4 at 3:37pm

Joseph Romm

Thanks. And thanks for the comment.

June 4 at 4:47pm

Mark David Oliver

More discussion on the unusual drought and warmth in England this spring in todays media.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/​uk/2011/jun/05/uk-hot-weat​her-arctic-ice-cap

June 5 at 6:51am

Rob Honeycutt

Beautifully written, Heidi.

June 5 at 12:21pm

Tenney Naumer

Heidi, your writing rings with authenticity, and your voice carries this information to us in an easy to comprehend manner, as always.

June 5 at 7:22pm

Ervand Peterson

Terrific. I got this via a “frienemy” on climate: http://www.firstthings.com​/article/2011/05/the-truth​ -about-greenhouse-gases And he is a Princeton – What’s up with the same ol’, same ol’? And how does he relate to Climate Central? Thanks.

June 5 at 10:57pm

Matthew Tanner

We seem to see the same deaf, blind and dumb monkeys act on the part of the media accompanying severe weather events (except in conjunction with heavy snowfall which can also be shown to be an eventuality of global warming) that accompany the absence of discussion accompanying spree shootings as to whether every blithering idiot on the street needs to own a firearm.

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