Record high temperatures far outpace record lows across U.S.

Spurred by a warming climate, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last decade across the continental United States, new research shows. The ratio of record highs to lows is likely to increase dramatically in coming decades if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to climb.

This graphic shows the ratio of record daily highs to record daily lows observed at about 1,800 weather stations in the 48 contiguous United States from January 1950 through September 2009. Each bar shows the proportion of record highs (red) to record lows (blue) for each decade. The 1960s and 1970s saw slightly more record daily lows than highs, but in the last 30 years record highs have increasingly predominated, with the ratio now about two-to-one for the 48 states as a whole. (©UCAR, graphic by Mike Shibao.)

This is from the news release of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The scientific paper itself is here (subs. req’d). A blog post on this by the NYT’s Andy Revkin is here. And NCAR posted a video of lead author Gerald Meehl discussing his findings:

Here are more excerpts from the news release:

“Climate change is making itself felt in terms of day-to-day weather in the United States,” says Gerald Meehl, the lead author and a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “The ways these records are being broken show how our climate is already shifting.”

… If temperatures were not warming, the number of record daily highs and lows being set each year would be approximately even. Instead, for the period from January 1, 2000, to September 30, 2009, the continental United States set 291,237 record highs and 142,420 record lows, as the country experienced unusually mild winter weather and intense summer heat waves.

A record daily high means that temperatures were warmer on a given day than on that same date throughout a weather station’s history. The authors used a quality control process to ensure the reliability of data from thousands of weather stations across the country, while looking at data over the past six decades to capture longer-term trends.

This decade’s warming was more pronounced in the western United States, where the ratio was more than two to one, than in the eastern United States, where the ratio was about one-and-a-half to one.

The study also found that the two-to-one ratio across the country as a whole could be attributed more to a comparatively small number of record lows than to a large number of record highs. This indicates that much of the nation’s warming is occurring at night, when temperatures are dipping less often to record lows. This finding is consistent with years of climate model research showing that higher overnight lows should be expected with climate change.

And that is in keeping with what the scientific models had predicted. Given that the past projections were right, we should have more confidence in the future ones:

The modeling results indicate that if nations continue to increase their emissions of greenhouse gases in a “business as usual” scenario, the U.S. ratio of daily record high to record low temperatures would increase to about 20-to-1 by mid-century and 50-to-1 by 2100. The mid-century ratio could be much higher if emissions rose at an even greater pace, or it could be about 8-to-1 if emissions were reduced significantly, the model showed.

The authors caution that such predictions are, by their nature, inexact. Climate models are not designed to capture record daily highs and lows with precision, and it remains impossible to know future human actions that will determine the level of future greenhouse gas emissions. The model used for the study, the NCAR-based Community Climate System Model, correctly captured the trend toward warmer average temperatures and the greater warming in the West, but overstated the ratio of record highs to record lows in recent years.

The scientists made use of an extensive dataset in this analysis:

The study team analyzed several million daily high and low temperature readings taken over the span of six decades at about 1,800 weather stations across the country, thereby ensuring ample data for statistically significant results. The readings, collected at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center, undergo a quality control process at the data center that looks for such potential problems as missing data as well as inconsistent readings caused by changes in thermometers, station locations, or other factors.

Bottom line: We’re still warming, as the science predicted.

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