PBS Covers Link Between 2011’s “Mind-Boggling” Extreme Weather and Global Warming: It’s Like “Being on Steroids”

Mainstream news outlets spent a lot of time in 2011 covering the record-breaking year for extreme weather in the U.S. But only a few of them spent much time exploring the link between those events and global warming (see With No End in Sight for Texas Drought, ABC News Explains: “Every Farmer in the World Will Be Affected by Climate Change” and links below).

So PBS deserves a special mention for a segment that aired yesterday looking at how global warming is influencing extreme weather events. As Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground (and periodic contributor to this blog) explained in the piece: “They all tend to get increased when you have this extra energy in the atmosphere. I call it being on steroids … for the atmosphere.”

Watch the full segment:

Watch How 2011 Became a ‘Mind-Boggling’ Year of Extreme Weather on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.


And here’s the transcript:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of the biggest stories of 2011 involved extreme weather that wreaked havoc in many states and cities. As the year comes to a close, it’s sparking plenty of discussion in the world of science about the causes and meaning of those events.

Hari Sreenivasan explores all that following some background.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From snow to floods to tornadoes, it has been a year of record-breaking weather across the U.S. mainland, more, in fact, than any year since modern record-keeping began.

It started in late January with paralyzing blizzards that dumped heavy snow on 22 states. Chicago was buried under nearly two feet of snow, and the Windy City ground to a near standstill.

RAPHAEL GUZMAN, resident of Chicago: For the past ten hours, I have traveled 0.9 miles. So, now, when the fire department finally came to see if I wanted to leave my car, I saw the tow truck four cars back, and I was like, I will just wait for it. That was two hours ago.

MAN: This is amazing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Spring brought the start of an especially deadly tornado season, with three of the largest twister outbreaks in American history in just six weeks, killing more than 550 people and causing $25 billion in damage.

More than 300 were killed over three days in late April in Central and Southern states. Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was the hardest-hit.

MATT WILSON, resident of Tuscaloosa: It was horrifying. It was coming towards us, so we ran to the back, and got under a metal structure back in the back. And that’s, honestly, what saved us.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Then, in late May, a tornado with winds topping 200 miles an hour leveled the town of Joplin, Mo. It was the single deadliest U.S. tornado since 1947, killing nearly 160 people.

MAN: I actually was planning on helping where it was really torn up, but there’s nothing really to help. It’s just flattened. There’s — I don’t know. There’s probably three-quarters-of-a-mile of nothing.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That same storm system brought triple the normal amount of rainfall to the Ohio River Valley. The rain, coupled with snowmelt, caused both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to flood.

In August, Hurricane Irene drenched the Eastern Seaboard. It triggered record flooding in New Jersey, New York State and Vermont, and cost more than $7 billion.

WOMAN: Once the water started coming through the front door. I mean I knew things were getting bad. And then the walls started to break and the molding started to pop, and I knew I was really in trouble.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Southern Plains and Southwest could only hope for some of that rain. Texas suffered through its worst one-year drought, as losses reached $10 billion in crops, livestock and timber.

The tinder-dry conditions in Texas also fueled wildfires that burned a million acres. The Bastrop fire over Labor Day weekend was the state’s most destructive on record. Overall, it was the hottest summer Texas has ever seen. Wichita Falls had more than 100 consecutive days of 100-degree readings.

Nationwide, more than 6,000 heat records have been broken this year. On average, the U.S. has three or four events every year that are considered major natural disasters. But, this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration counted at least a dozen such events. Based on reports to date, damages are expected to exceed $52 billion.

Weather around the world showed equal extremes. Australia was hit with record flooding, followed by one of its worst tropical cyclones ever. Floodwaters also ravaged parts of Thailand and China, while the Horn of Africa suffered its worst drought in decades.

We have more on this with two experts who watch the impact of weather closely.

Kathryn Sullivan is the deputy director of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an oceanographer and former astronaut. She helps oversee NOAA’s work on weather observation and climate sciences. And Jeff Masters, who’s a meteorologist with the Weather Underground website, he joins us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

So thanks for being here.

Ms. Sullivan, I just rattled off what seemed like an exceptional year of weather, but put this in perspective for us. How rare is this?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Well, the prior record-breaking year was nine significant events, well above the three to four that are typical. That was 2008.

So, we went a third again in the number of events each of which had greater than a billion dollars, many other events, of course, that just fell below that billion-dollar threshold through the course of that year, quite a remarkable string, quite a remarkable array.

I came aboard NOAA as the deputy administrator early in May, and the preceding month of April, in one month alone, we had record-breaking flood, wildfire, tornado outbreaks, just all within one single month. It was certainly unprecedented in my experience.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Jeff Masters, you’ve said in your blog that you have never seen a year like this. What else stands out to you?

JEFF MASTERS, Weather Underground: In one year, we had three of the most remarkable extreme weather events in history of the U.S.

I mean, we talk about the Dust Bowl summer of 1936. Well, this summer pretty much matched that for temperature, almost the hottest summer in U.S. history. We also talk about the great 1974 tornado outbreak. Well, we had an outbreak that more than doubled the total of tornadoes we had during that iconic outbreak. And, also, we talk about the great 1927 flood on the Mississippi River. Well, the flood heights were even higher than that flood this year.

So, it just boggles my mind that we had three extreme weather events that matched those events in U.S. history.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Jeff, how do we tie this in with any particular cause? We can’t say that a temperature warming or a global temperature increase causes a tornado or this hurricane. But what can we say? What does the data show us?

JEFF MASTERS: That weather has natural extremes.

We all know that you can have extreme years and not very extreme years. Certainly, this year was a very naturally extreme year. But I argue that when you have a naturally extreme year occurring within the context of global warming, okay, now you’ve put more heat in the atmosphere. That means you have more energy to power stronger storms and more energy also to give you more intense heat waves and droughts.

So, in particular, we look at heat waves, droughts, and flooding events. They all tend to get increased when you have this extra energy in the atmosphere. I call it being on steroids kind of for the atmosphere.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Explain that, being on steroids. What do you mean?

JEFF MASTERS: Well, normally, you have the everyday ups and downs of the weather, but if you pack a little bit of extra punch in there, it’s like a baseball hitter who’s on steroids.

You expect to see a big home run total maybe from this slugger, but if you add a little bit of extra oomph to his swing by putting him on steroids, now we can have an unprecedented season, a 70 home run season. And that’s the way I look at this year.

We had an unprecedented weather year that I don’t think would have happened unless we had had an extra bit of energy in the atmosphere due to climate change and global warming.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kathryn, you were in Joplin yourself. What are some of the longer-term impacts, some of the costs that we’re not seeing here as we just total up the dollar signs?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: It is a really sobering and heart-wrenching experience to be on the ground in some of those tornado-ravaged areas.

The casualties, of course, the injuries and loss of life take precedence over everything. But the scale — the scale of the damage and the pervasiveness of it really just boggle my mind. The figure I heard that day out in Joplin was there were 1,800 acres of debris. And debris hardly begins to describe it. Things that had been businesses and homes and a large first-class hospital were little more than toothpicks.

Fabulous large trees with trunk diameters up to 18 to 24 inches were maybe 10- or 12-foot-tall stubs with not a shred of bark left on them, just amazing, the power and fury that had ripped through that community in such a really brief period of time.

So, you think about rebuilding a house, but, you know, first to clear some portion of 1,800 acres of debris, it’s just a massive undertaking, then to deal with the administrative mechanics of whatever you might have, insurance and a builder. And for it to be that pervasive over that large of a swathe of a community just means it’s all going to take such a long time to come back.

Small businesses affected, larger, major stores affected with major building damage, firehouses, schools, and then one of the primary hospitals all destroyed. So the fabric of the community is really affected in an experience like this. And that also makes it harder for the community itself and its citizens to rebound, so a very long train of consequences well beyond the media moments that we tend to pay attention to.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jeff, also, what sorts of economic or geopolitical consequences do you see when we have natural disasters like drought in different parts of the world?

JEFF MASTERS: Drought is my number-one concern for climate change because drought affects food prices.

We had a terrific drought in Russia last year that caused them to shut off their exports of wheat. Now global food prices spiked thereafter, and it’s thought that the Arab spring revolts that happened this year were due in part to the fact that food prices were so high due to the Russian drought. Those food prices were the highest we have seen since the early 1990s.

Had we had a drought of that magnitude this year in the U.S., there would have been very severe consequences for the global economy, the global food supply, and there would have been a large amount of political unrest, much higher than we saw, I think.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Kathryn, briefly, what kind of changes are you making at NOAA when it comes to modeling, and what are cities trying to do to plan for the possibility of more extreme weather?

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: Well, we always are working to advance the technology we use to observe the atmosphere in countless ways, as well as the computing infrastructure that runs the forecast models that give us our everyday three-, five-, seven-day outlook.

In addition, this season really has focused our attention even further, along with our partners in the private sector such as Jeff and his colleagues and emergency managers, on the really human part of the warning process. From the forecast information that NOAA puts out for everyone to work with, from there to the signal that triggers someone to take a response, how can we do better on that?

What combination of communication improvements or better understanding how people are accessing information these days, of how people make high-impact decisions, almost the social science side of completing the full warning process certainly will have heightened attention from us in the years ahead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alright, Kathryn Sullivan from NOAA, Jeff Masters from Weather Underground, thank you both for being here.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN: It was a pleasure.

Related Posts:

“Scientists: Climate Change No Longer a Theory, It’s Happening”

The pictures today from around the world of dramatic rooftop rescues from raging waters, makes it seem as though natural disasters are becoming an everyday occurrence. But they’re not all that natural; climate scientists say man-made global warming is the sudden force behind the forces of nature.

ABC news contacted 10 climate scientists to ask their take, if the extreme winter like the one we’re having is the way of the future.  The consensus:  global warming is playing a role by shifting weather patterns in unpredictable ways.  Many say the forecast for the future calls for record-breaking precipitation and extreme temperatures year-round.

25 Responses to PBS Covers Link Between 2011’s “Mind-Boggling” Extreme Weather and Global Warming: It’s Like “Being on Steroids”

  1. thanes says:

    PBS aired a terrific NOVA last night, too, “Secrets Under the Ice,” which document research in Antarctica and the implications these paleoclimate studies have for our current trends of carbon emissions (alot about the Pliocene of 3 million years ago).
    Really wild thing was, one of the big sponsors was the David H. Koch Foundation. Go figure. Maybe if you have that much money you just can’t help doing something good, just by accident?
    I’m a little nervous to even mention it, for fear he’s not aware and will pull the support.

  2. Very interesting video. I’m glad to hear the media talk about the (record) weather events and make the link to climate change. People need to hear that connection.

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Interesting hypothesis about Koch accidentally doing good. Certainly is possible.

  4. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Three of this morning’s articles are highly interrelated. The Debunking segment and Kermit’s excellent comment on Rush Limbaugh both make it clear that denial is not just a matter of facts or evidence but who and what people identify with.

    People are social or group animals and must experience a sense of belonging to some group, gang or tribe if they are to keep themselves intact. That takes priority over petty things like facts: something we see with cults which are simply highly specialized, minority groups.

    The majority of deniers will do fine as long as there are multiple sources to reinforce their sense of self (which is one of the reasons the Kochs etc set up multiple fronts). But as reality Rushes on (sorry) and more and more outlets like the ABC and PBS turn from neutral to disconfirming sources, many deniers are going to become conflicted.

    Forget the ‘hard core’ – they will assume cult status. But for the rest, the near future is going to be very hard and we are going to see a lot more highly disturbed people as they gradually lose their sense of belonging and become more insecure. I’m sure most will gently succcumb to the ever growing majority view but you can expect some climate related ‘incidents’, ME

  5. fj says:

    Hopefully, the reporting on accelerating climate change will also continue to accelerate driving home the inevitable conclusion that we must be moving to slow it down and eventually bring it under relative control at wartime speed.

    There’s no other option.

  6. fj says:


    a switch by koch industries to work with the people of the world to stop climate change, will be major

    for the future of mankind!

    truly historic!

    an extraordinary legacy

  7. Joan Savage says:

    Thanks for the heads up about the program as it can still be watched on-line.

    On the PBS web page for NOVA is the note, “Did you know? Viewers like you are our largest single source of support.” That may be part of the answer about sponsorship.

  8. fj says:

    Just want to imagine the global sigh of relief and partying in the streets should Koch Industries decide to embrace the human family’s greatest adventure stopping accelerating climate change crisis at wartime speed.

  9. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It’s probably reached ‘arse-covering time’. You know, when the smarter Rightwing robopaths start confecting alibis for their dirty work. There’s probably a couple of Koch bothers look-alikes ready to take the fall, too, as in Saddam’s fashion, or- dare I say it- Osama bin Laden.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Right operates more in terms of what they hate and fear. They have been brainwashed by the business owned MSM to hate and fear Greens, who are secret, ex-Communists, intent on taking away their plasma TVs and SUVs. Material possessions having replaced inner, spiritual, wealth a ways back, the Rightwinger reacts to threats to his ‘stuff’ with vigour. Manipulating this type is simplicity itself. Just create a bogey-man, (Saddam, Iran, Greens etc) and denounce anyone who does not join in the group hate session as a subversive, a ‘bleeding heart’ or a ‘do-gooder’ and you’re off to the races. Reversing this paradigm is pretty difficult, if not, frankly, impossible. When the disasters come, they’ll just rely on the target audience’s amnesia, and blame some other patsy-the Chinese and Indians I would imagine, although India looks to be falling into a great big hole. The Chinese fit the bill, nicely.

  11. Mike Roddy says:

    Won’t happen. The Kochs are sick to all of that money.

  12. Robert Nagle says:

    I will note that PBS Newshour no longer receives funding from Chevron.(That ended very recently). Perhaps that will lead to more balanced coverage about climate change.

  13. thanes says:

    Wartime saved the US economy in 1941. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do WWII mobilization, save the world, save the middle class and not have to go kill anybody?
    Wartime full speed ahead.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Right like the killing method too much to give it up.

  15. Patrick Linsley says:

    Where is this?

  16. Spike says:

    In the UK the Met Office reports it was the second warmest year ever recorded, which marks a return to a trend of warmer than average annual temperatures – all the UK’s top seven warmest years happened in the last decade, with 2006 leading the list. Scotland had its wettest year ever, and eastern and central England amongst their driest.

  17. Mike Straub says:

    The only way to slow climate change is push forward innovations that change the path of our worst environmental offenders, i.e., coal burning power plants. So keep your eyes on Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. Base-load power plants, creating emission free power out of the temperature difference in deep and shallow water. Plus, the only byproduct is clean drinking water. Truly world-changing technology for millions of people. The Bahamas signed a deal to build 2 OTEC plants, and they are really starting a trend.

    Here’s all the info on the Bahamas deal…

  18. Colorado Bob says:

    Climate: Record high temp recorded at South Pole
    A short-lived heat wave of sorts brought a record high temperature of 9.9 degrees to the South Pole on Christmas day, according to a report in the Antarctic Sun, the newspaper of the U.S. Antarctic Program.

    The old record of 7.5 degrees was set Dec. 27, 1978. Several other stations nearby also climbed into the teens, breaking previous record highs that were in the single digits.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You are describing what I called the ‘hard core’ Mulga but many deniers are not in that category. They are just a subset of humanity at large who change their minds about things all the time. Are you denying that social change happens? ME

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No, of course not, Merrelyn. I’ve witnessed enormous social change throughout my life, almost entirely for the worse (from my point of view, of course). A lot of this change for the worse is presented by the MSM as change for the better, but I suppose I’ve made plain my belief that the MSM are paid disinformers. The only people who have benefited from this destructive change are the elite. The rest of us, even the millions supposedly lifted out of poverty (the numbers are habitually exaggerated for propaganda purposes)have seen our planet’s life-support systems destroyed, and that is a cold, hard, fact.

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Yes, it is a cold hard fact as is the growing gap between rich and poor and more and more people are seeing through the smokescreen and recognizing reality for what is is, ME

  22. opit says:

    Do dare. I’m sick of that ridiculous charade that wasn’t even solid enough to sell to a willing Taleban as grounds for extradition. Not that the IPCC scam is more solid. Miss the note ?

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I appreciate fj’s opinions and wish him every wellness, but with this ‘Kochs as the friends of humanity’ theme, I fear for the balance of his mind. Either that or I’d like some of what he’s been smoking.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And the working-class and the underclass-shall we save them, too?