Climate Story Of The Year: Extreme Weather From Superstorms To Drought Emerges As Political, Scientific Gamechanger

Global Warming, Record Arctic Ice Loss Create Deadly ‘New Normal’ With Twenty-Five Billion-Dollar U.S. Weather Disasters In 2 Years

This year brought staggering weather extremes, record loss of Arctic ice and a growing body of scientific analysis linking the two. Those extremes, plus Superstorm Sandy, raised public concern about the immediate threat posed by climate change, providing a palpable debunking of the (mistaken) belief that climate change will impact only future generations or people in faraway lands.

The superstorm — which scientists explained was made far more destructive by manmade climate change — hit the media where it lives and may have been a game changer for many of them, as the Bloomberg Businessweek cover suggests.

Sandy “may have also reset the politics of climate change,” as the UK Guardian noted today (see, for instance, “Michael Bloomberg Endorses Obama, Citing Climate Change As Main Reason“). The official nomination today of climate hawk John Kerry for Secretary of State is a hopeful sign that the president will (finally) raise the salience of this most preventable of existential threats to modern human civilization.

The AP year-end wrap up explained that 2012 should not have been a surprise to anyone who has been listening to climate scientists:

In 2012 many of the warnings scientists have made about global warming went from dry studies in scientific journals to real-life video played before our eyes: Record melting of the ice in the Arctic Ocean. U.S. cities baking at 95 degrees or hotter. Widespread drought. Flooding. Storm surge inundating swaths of New York City.

All of that was predicted years ago by climate scientists and all of that happened in 2012.

Indeed, 2012 showed that the record-smashing weather extremes of 2011 weren’t a fluke, they were a pattern.

America’s heartland lurched from one extreme to the other without stopping at “normal.” Historic flooding in 2011 gave way to devastating drought in 2012.

“The normal has changed, I guess,” said U.S. National Weather Service acting director Laura Furgione. “The normal is extreme.”

Here is how meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters put it in his 2012 sum up:

It was another year of incredible weather extremes unparalleled in American history during 2012. Eleven billion-dollar weather disasters hit the U.S., a figure exceeded only by the fourteen such disasters during the equally insane weather year of 2011.

Even without including the 2012 disasters, Munich Re, a top reinsurer, found for the first time a “climate-change footprint” in the rapid rise of North American extreme weather catastrophes:

“Climate­-driven changes are already evident over the last few decades for severe thunderstorms, for heavy precipitation and flash flood­ing, for hurricane activity, and for heatwave, drought and wild­-fire dynamics in parts of North America.”

Many top climatologists agree with that assessment. Dr. Kevin Trenberth explained in his must-read 2012 paper “How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change“:

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether an event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

A growing number of climatologists are warning that we have undergone a “systemic change”:

These are “clearly not freak events,” but “systemic changes,” said climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute in Germany. “With all the extremes that, really, every year in the last 10 years have struck different parts of the globe, more and more people absolutely realize that climate change is here and already hitting us.”

A growing body of scientific research links this systemic change to global warming, in particular to loss of Arctic ice far more rapid than any climate model had predicted:

Human activity is utterly reshaping the Arctic as this remarkable figure makes clear:

Arctic sea ice is melting much, much faster than even the best climate models had projected (actual observations in red). The reason is most likely unmodeled amplifying feedbacks. The image (from Climate Crocks via Arctic Sea Ice Blog) comes from a 2007 GRL research paper by Stroeve et al.

And much more change is yet to come, as a dire new report from NOAA warns (see “NOAA: Climate Change Driving Arctic Into A ‘New State’ With Rapid Ice Loss And Record Permafrost Warming“).  Two of the most worrisome highlights are:

If — or apparently when — the Greenland ice sheet disintegrates, sea levels will rise 20 feet. The process is accelerating to a critical “tipping point” (see also “Science Stunner: Greenland Ice Melt Up Nearly Five-Fold Since Mid-1990s”). The tundra is a frozen locker of carbon whose defrosting will further accelerate warming (see “Carbon Feedback From Thawing Permafrost Will Likely Add 0.4°F – 1.5°F To Total Global Warming By 2100).”

More and more cryoscientists are warning of a death spiral, with “Near Ice-Free Arctic In Summer” In A Decade If Volume Trends Continue. Such a dramatic change to the northern hemisphere would inevitably have an even more extreme impact on our weather — and on all of humanity.

Indeed, in 2011, the climate story of the year was “Warming-Driven Drought and Extreme Weather Emerge as Key Threat to Global Food Security.”

Oxfam had warned last year that corn or maize would see a 177% rise in price by 2030 due to climate change and other factors (see Oxfam: Extreme Weather Has Helped Push Tens of Millions into “Hunger and Poverty” in “Grim Foretaste” of Warmed World).

Further modeling this year of the impact of warming-driven extreme weather shocks leads Oxfam to conclude corn prices could increase a staggering 500% by 2030.

Note: The “additional price increase” percentage is calculated off the original price increase.

So perhaps the climate story of the year is that homo sapiens (aka the slowly boiling brainless frog) let another year go by without serious action to reverse carbon pollution trends, moving us ever closer to irreversible tipping points that would cause widespread harm to hundreds of millions if not billions. When will the madness stop?

Related 2012 Posts:

29 Responses to Climate Story Of The Year: Extreme Weather From Superstorms To Drought Emerges As Political, Scientific Gamechanger

  1. prokaryotes says:

    Some highlights of this year’s warnings of the emerging Methane bomb threat from permafrost thaw and warming of the arctic ocean.

    Tipping Points in Earth Climate System (2012 Arctic Methane Special)

  2. While I hope that you are right, Joe, I have a great deal of apprehension that it will be as much of a game changer as were the tornadoes that hit Joplin and Tuscaloosa last year. Just about the only difference is the fact that Mayor Bloomberg has more media presence and has chosen to use it.

    Just watch how the beaches of Long Beach Island are re-sanded, the beachfronts rebuilt, the boardwalk carnivals re-energized. It is all in the name of rebuilding the local economy and returning communities to normal… whatever that is. The official NJ Tourism site does not even mention what happened here.

    Then again, Google’s new Director of Technology, Ray Kurzweil says that we don’t need to worry too much about the future since solar capacity is doubling every 2 years and will be able to completely power the earth in less than 7 doublings. I hope he is right but I fear that is too much “magical thinking”.

  3. M Tucker says:

    “When will the madness stop?”

    I think there was a tipping point for madness and the conservatives have moved us right over the edge. We are now all at the table with the Mad Hatter conservatives in charge.

  4. Paul Klinkman says:

    Two things I missed:

    It’s not just that we’ve gone into a new climate. It’s that we’re going into a new climate soon. It’s like a boulder rolling off the top of a gentle hill. Wait until it hits the steep part!

    Second, the earth’s last global atmospheric crisis was only a couple of decades ago. We had a hole in the ozone layer that was eventually going to give huge numbers of us skin cancer. So, the world’s industrialized nations signed a treaty, other nations went along, and the problem was pretty much fixed. So, the real cause of climate change seems to be sheer laziness.

  5. Mr. Kurzweil is brilliant, but also a utopianist who takes his own speculations too much to heart. It’s worth remembering that he not only predicts but devoutly awaits a computer-human mind-meld. That’s like GMOs with an exponent. It’s beyond creepy.

    So I have trouble embracing his sanguinity, despite solar’s increasing efficiency.

    It’s all about the ice cap. We have very little time to keep it from entering a step-function phase change that will kick the already accelerating permafrost melt into high gear.

  6. prokaryotes says:

    Well, it is not clear to me that we have fixed the Ozone layer.

    Long lived CFC’s, Methane – Nitrous Oxide uptake and the destruction of the northern hemisphere Ozone Layer

    Extraordinarily cold temperatures in the winter of 2010/2011 caused the most massive destruction of the ozone layer above the Arctic so far: The mechanisms leading to the first ozone hole above the North Pole were studied by scientists of the KIT Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research (IMK). According to these studies, further cooling of the ozone layer may enhance the influence of ozone-destroying substances, e.g. chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), such that repeated occurrence of an ozone hole above the Arctic has to be expected.

  7. prokaryotes says:

    Alaska Science Forum: Dramatic report card for the Arctic in 2012

    Northern sea ice is at its lowest summer coverage since we’ve been able to see it from satellites. Greenland experienced its warmest summer in 170 years. Eight of 10 permafrost-monitoring sites in northern Alaska recorded their highest temperatures; the other two tied record highs.

  8. SecularAnimist says:

    Wesley Rolley wrote: “Ray Kurzweil says that we don’t need to worry too much about the future since solar capacity is doubling every 2 years and will be able to completely power the earth in less than 7 doublings.”

    Kurzweil is certainly right about what COULD happen. Indeed, technologically and economically, solar power COULD grow much faster than that — for example, if the pro-solar policies of Germany were adopted in the USA, which has vastly greater solar energy resources than Germany.

    But what WILL happen is another story. Kurzweil is probably thinking in terms of the so-called Moore’s Law which observed that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit (and thus processor performance) doubled every two years.

    But there were no giant fossil fuel corporations spending millions of dollars to obstruct and delay the development of computer chips. That’s the difference between what COULD happen and what WILL happen.

  9. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “…devoutly awaits a computer-human mind-meld.
    A Stargate, if a person should happen to fall into one. Pure Sci-fi (so far), the stuff of Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001.

  10. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    “…and the problem [ozone hole] was pretty much fixed.”
    The fix will take another century or two. CFC’s in the atmosphere are still at almost 90% of peak. The ozone hole itself has shrunk about 4%. An excess of uV caused skin cancers and cataracts will be with us for several more generations.

  11. John Paily says:

    Are we through from the danger of end – 21 Dec 2012
    An intelligent mind that observes without self and bondage to any school of thoughts both scientific and spiritual does see an uncertainty and increasing instability leading to catastrophes at all levels. The earth climatic change, increasing fluctuation leading increased climate catastrophes is there for all of us to see. From common sense we can predict huge fire and wind bound destruction because of reckless burning of fossil fuel and industrial activity leading exponential increase in environmental heat. Heat we all know unwinds and creates disorder and destroys. Earth and plants in contrast absorbs heat winds to create new order. This ordering process occurs during the night time. Our intrusion into night cycle has severely upset natures functioning to sustain the balance. So we can expect huge earth quakes, flash flood and snows and volcanoes. Beyond certain critical point Nature is bound to react to destroy humanity to sustain the balance. Noble laureate James Lovelock has predicted this in his book “Vanishing face of Gaia” Earth functions on certain principle and design. If we need survive we need to know Truth of Nature. She cares little for our self, our material, political economic points. She will not wait for our debate. The date 21 Dec 2012 might be over, but we are not out of danger. We exist on the edge- unless we awaken to truth of principle and design of earth and evolve our knowledge we will see huge destructions. We need to make international policy for energy management of earth’s atmospheres to find ways live in harmony with nature and grow.

  12. prokaryotes says:

    The Albedo-Flip effect is the ultimate IQ test for our species. Each habitable planet in space is similar to earth, so this is a fundamental barrier for adaption to planetary boundaries to evolving species. How fast can we learn to react accordingly? The goal is nothing less than global reduction of CO2 emissions to the point of a negative emission scenario. And we can only solve this together.

  13. Paul Klinkman says:

    Thank you. I didn’t know all of this.

    I’m still glad that they signed the treaty.

  14. Paul Klinkman says:

    I think that Mr. Kurzweil is only a bit off target.

    He’s thinking of all solar power as photovoltaic electricity. Solar power is also heat, and it’s light in the spectrum that plants use for photosynthesis.

    Heat can be stored. Anyone who owns or leases a piece of property already has onsite the necessary dirt or rock needed to store heat. Much of our solar need is for heat. Also, heat can be converted into electricity with either a steam turbine or with a Stirling engine, and may the best piece of machinery win.

    Photosynthesis is useful for converting atmospheric carbon dioxide and water into hydrocarbons, a permanent way of storing energy. Most of our current vehicles run on hydrocarbons. Also, sequestering gigatons of hydrocarbons can be easy, permanent and maintenance-free.

    Overall, yes, solar is an obvious long-range choice, with some room for advancing wind technology. Solar generates unlimited power onsite so that there’s no power shipping monopoly or choke point.

    Coal and methane should be obvious energy dead ducks, unworthy of any research, unworthy of national subsidies, deserving of a carbon tax and an old dead technology tax to boot.

  15. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    Two thoughts come to mind:

    1. In “Storms of my Grandchildren”, James Hansen wrote that for as long as humans inhabit earth there will be no more ice ages.

    2. In “Under a Green Sky”, Peter Ward wrote that had humans not begun agriculture 10,000 years ago, there would now be a gigantic ice sheet currently covering regions northeastern Canada.

    Are not these two statements an affirmation of Gaia Theory?

  16. Paul Klinkman says:

    Between COULD and WOULD is the climate story of the 2010s. Let the general public yammer on, but fight against solar product development and product emergence into the market with every last fibre of a lobbyist’s being

  17. Geoff Beacon says:

    The graph of Arctic sea-ice loss shown above indicates a serious mismatch between climate models and reality. The graph was based on the CMIP3 models used for a previous IPCC report.

    The recently leaked draft IPCC report shows a similar mismatch. It is therefore difficult to believe that the leaked Chapter 9 (Evaluation of Climate Models) says

    There is very high confidence that CMIP5 models realistically simulate the annual cycle of Arctic sea-ice extent, and there is high confidence that they realistically simulate the trend in Arctic sea-ice extent over the past decades

    I have added the 2012 actual September Arctic sea ice extent to the similar graph from Chapter 9. This uses the new generation of models, the CMIP5 models. See the graph here.

    The IPCC must do better than this. They must find some way to catch up with reality before the new report is finalised – even if they have to admit the failings in their models and simply make their best guess.

  18. Spike says:

    Met Office looks back on the records broken in the UK this year:

    Wettest April

    Wettest June

    Wettest April – June

    Highest March and May daily maximum temperature for Scotland

    Warmest April

    Warmest spring

    Warmest October day England and Wales

    Driest spring on record in southern England
    Highest May

  19. Brooks Bridges says:

    Nothing big enough to significantly reduce the magnitude of the coming climate catastrophe is going to happen without massive government intervention.

    The official signup for the President’s Day rally started just 10 days ago and already over 8000 have pledged to go. There is a ground swell for action now that has previously been missing.

    Please add your name, or persuade others to, and help create a media event so huge it cannot be ignored. Nothing else is going to overwhelm the lies and distortions in time. Make this event next year’s Climate Story of the Year.

    If not you…

  20. Geoff Beacon says:

    They also say

    Earlier in the year, our weather was heavily influenced by the position of the jet-stream, which resulted in the third warmest March on record for the UK and the wettest April for more than a century.

    As with the BBC, they avoid saying that it’s due to climate change and the slowing of Rossby waves.

  21. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Would have to admit they should have been using systems thinking and maths -extreme bravery! ME

  22. Superman1 says:

    The only ‘game changer’ is in the blogosphere. In the real world of cutting back on fossil fuel use, nothing has changed, and there is no reason to expect anything will change.

  23. Superman1 says:

    “Nothing big enough to significantly reduce the magnitude of the coming climate catastrophe is going to happen without massive government intervention.”

    That’s not how it works. What is needed is massive citizen intervention, so the government is required to implement the will of the citizenry. There are about 65M people in the USA between the ages of fifteen and thirty. They are the ones who will bear the brunt of what’s ahead. Where are they? A target of 20K for 18 February? We had twenty times that much at demonstrations in the 60s, and it had no impact. If there are not well over 1M on 18 February, that tells us much about what the younger generation is willing to do to protect its future.

  24. TGriz says:

    Hello to all you good people out there who read this site. A couple of things seem to be missing in these discussions.

    1. Where’s the discussion about energy return on energy invested (EROEI)? We can manufacture all the solar panels we want, but climate physics will not “care” if it takes many years to break even.
    2. Where’s the discussion regarding the reality that we cannot go on living like this (speaking as an American), or maybe I missed something and we actually can sustain the unsustainable indefinitely? Is industrial civilization and 7B people a sustainable living arrangement?

    I am VERY partial to reality-based living, and while the leadership of the GOP might think they can create their own reality and live there, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, and so on could “care” less about their contrived fantasy land.

    Joe, this blog site is one of the most sane, reality-based places out there and I visit it regularly. THANKS VERY MUCH!

  25. TGriz says:

    Someone please, 18-February?? What, when (time?), and where? Let’s make it happen. I’m 54 years old, but I don’t care, it’s the right thing to do.

  26. Debi daniels says:

    It’s not fixed. The Antarctic might be healing…somewhat, but the arctic just had a hole so big it burned thousands of miles of forest. I grow trees for a living. My far, burned from uv light as did every other species I observed. Birches, larch, small roadside plants, entire hillsides. Spruce burned at the top three or four feet, for a 1000 miles. Gardeners in fort Nelson reported the same thing, eir gardens going crispy even with lots of water. The uv is killing everything, and when the man. Boreal dies and decomposes its 703 Pg of co2 , enough to double the co2 concentration to 800 ppm. Not survivable, and possibly happening in just a few years. Decomposition is fast in birch.

  27. dhrivnak says:

    Not sure that is true as fossil fuel use is down nearly 10% in the USA and is down in Europe. Unfortunately those gains are being whiped out by growth in China and India. But with electric cars now becomming available we have options.

  28. William P. Gloege says:

    Ever wonder why we hear no expected radio signals from intelligent life in the universe? Could it be global warming and life self extinction is part of evolution?

    Carbon based life evolves to an “intelligent” form, discovers the siren allure of using buried carbon to do work, then uses that source to the extreme. The result every time: global warming to the point of self-immolation. No more life, intelligent or otherwise, thus no radio signals beamed out.