The year of living dangerously. Masters: “The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability”

Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change”

A year of deadly record-smashing weather extremes from Nashville to Moscow, from the Amazon to Pakistan, ended with staggering deluges from California — “Rainfall records weren’t just broken, they were obliterated” — to Australia:

More than a year’s rain fell in Carnarvon in just 24 hours this week. A monsoonal low hovering over the Gascoyne dumped a 24-hour record 204.8mm, smashing the previous record of 119.4mm set on March 24, 1923.

NASA reported that it was the hottest ‘meteorological year’ [December to November] on record and likely to be the hottest calendar year.

Uber-meteorologist and former NOAA Hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground reported, “The year 2010 now has the most national extreme heat records for a single year — nineteen. These nations comprise 20% of the total land area of Earth. This is the largest area of Earth’s surface to experience all-time record high temperatures in any single year in the historical record.”

This was a year that the scientific literature became clearer that global warming is driving more extreme weather, hell and high water (see Study: Global warming is driving increased frequency of extreme wet or dry summer weather in southeast, so droughts and deluges are likely to get worse) — and it is likely to get much, much worse if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path (see “A stunning year in climate science reveals that human civilization is on the precipice” and “Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path”).

But this was also very much a year of living dangerously right now for people around the globe:

As Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, put it last week, “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.” Tamino calculates (at length) that global warming made the Moscow heat wave roughly eight times more likely: “Without global warming, this once-in-a-century-or-two event would have been closer to a once-in-a-millenium event.” On our current emissions path, Russia’s grain-export-ending heat wave and drought could be a once every decade event — or even more frequent.

I queried both Masters and Dr. Peter Hoeppe, Head of the Geo Risks Research Department at Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, about this astonishing year. Here’s what Masters wrote me:

In my thirty years as a meteorologist, I’ve never seen global weather patterns as strange as those we had in 2010. The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability. Natural variability probably did play a significant role in the wild weather of 2010, and 2011 will likely not be nearly as extreme. However, I suspect that crazy weather years like 2010 will become the norm a decade from now, as the climate continues to adjust to the steady build-up of heat-trapping gases we are pumping into the air. Forty years from now, the crazy weather of 2010 will seem pretty tame. We’ve bequeathed to our children a future with a radically changed climate that will regularly bring unprecedented weather events — many of them extremely destructive — to every corner of the globe. This year’s wild ride was just the beginning.

You can hear an extended interview of Masters and meteorologist Heidi Cullen and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on last week’s Living on Earth, “The Wild Weather of 2010.” Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section, said on that show, “Some [weather events] we’ve had this year it’s clear — even though the research has not been done in detail yet — that the odds have changed, and we can probably say some of these would not have happened without global warming, without the human influence on climate.”

In an Exclusive interview with ClimateProgress earlier this year, Trenberth explained a key connection between human-caused global warming and superstorms:

“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”

Back in August, Trenberth told the NY Times, “It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

The nation’s top climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen has also recently written on the subject: Would recent extreme “events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm?” The “appropriate answer” is “almost certainly not”:

“Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.”

Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, issued a news release in late September, “large number of weather extremes as strong indication of climate change,” which noted:

Floods in central Europe, wildfires in Russia, widespread flooding in Pakistan. The number and scale of weather-related natural catastrophe losses in the first nine months of 2010 was exceptionally high…. Munich Re emphasises the probability of a link between the increasing number of weather extremes and climate change.

Globally, 2010 has been the warmest year since records began over 130 years ago, the ten warmest during that period all falling within the last 12 years. The warmer atmosphere and higher sea temperatures are having significant effects. Prof. Peter H¶ppe, Head of Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research/Corporate Climate Centre: “It’s as if the weather machine had changed up a gear. Unless binding carbon reduction targets stay on the agenda, future generations will bear the consequences.”

Munich Re recorded a total of 725 weather-related natural hazard events with significant losses from January to September 2010, the second-highest figure recorded for the first nine months of the year since 1980. Some 21,000 people lost their lives, 1,760 in Pakistan alone, up to one-fifth of which was flooded for several weeks. Overall losses due to weather-related natural catastrophes from January to September came to more than US$ 65bn and insured losses to US$ 18bn. Despite producing 13 named storms, the hurricane season has been relatively benign to date, the hurricanes having pursued favourable courses.

Munich Re’s natural catastrophe database, the most comprehensive of its kind in the world, shows a marked increase in the number of weather-related events. For instance, globally there has been a more than threefold increase in loss-related floods since 1980 and more than double the number of windstorm natural catastrophes, with particularly heavy losses as a result of Atlantic hurricanes.

The rise in natural catastrophe losses is primarily due to socio-economic factors. In many countries, populations are rising, and more and more people moving into exposed areas. At the same time, greater prosperity is leading to higher property values. Nevertheless, it would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge as set out in the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report.

There are at present insufficient data on many weather risks and regions to permit statistically backed assertions regarding the link with climate change. However, there is evidence that, as a result of warming, events associated with severe windstorms, such as thunderstorms, hail and cloudbursts, have become more frequent in parts of the USA, southwest Germany and other regions. The number of very severe tropical cyclones is also increasing. One direct result of warming is an increase in heatwaves such as that experienced in Russia this summer. There are also indications of a higher incidence of atmospheric conditions causing air mass formation on the north side of the Alps and low-lying mountain ranges, a phenomenon which can result in floods. Heavy rain and flash floods are affecting not only people living close to rivers but also those who live well away from traditionally flood-prone areas. Although climate change can no longer be halted, even with the help of very ambitious schemes, it can still be curbed.

Dr. Peter Hoeppe, Head of the Geo Risks Research Department at Munich Re, had been (incorrectly) quoted by AFP saying, “The first nine months of the year have seen the highest number of weather-related events since Munich Re started keeping records.” I asked him about that and about Munich Re’s assertion that climate change is driving the increase in weather-related catastrophes. He wrote me:

I never said that 2010 is the year with the highest number of weather related loss events, it is the second highest after 2007. Currently (December 23) we have reached the number of 931 nat cat loss events, 849 of them being caused by weather related events. The still record year is 2007 with a total of 1043 events, 943 weather related. For me the most convincing piece of evidence that global warming has been contributing already to more and more intense weather related natural catastrophes is the fact that while we find a steep increase in the number of loss relevant weather events (about tripling in the last 30 years) we only find a slight increase in geophysical (earthquake, volcano, tsunami) events, which should not be affected by global warming. If the whole trend we find in weather related disaster should be caused by reporting bias, or socio-demographic or economic developments we would expect to find it similarly for the geophysical events. By the way the assumption that climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather events is backed by IPCC.

This is all one big coincidence for the anti-science disinformers. But for the rest of us, the really scary part is that we’ve only warmed about a degree and a half Fahrenheit in the past century. We are on track to warm five times times that or more this century (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F ).

In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet!Update: Brad Johnson has some iconic photos of extreme weather events here:

RUSSIA BURNING: As central Russia suffered through its hottest summer in thousands of years, hundreds of wildfires swept the countryside, causing billions in damage. Russians here try to stop a fire from spreading near the village Golovanovo, Ryazan region, on August 5, 2010. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)

PAKISTAN FLOODS: Starting in July and lasting for months, some of the worst flooding in Pakistan’s history took place — at one point nearly one fifth of the country was underwater. Here, Pakistani flood victim Mohammed Nawaz hangs onto a moving raft as he is rescued by the Pakistan Navy August 10, 2010 in Sukkur, Pakistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

WEATHER BOMB: Visible satellite image of the October 26, 2010 superstorm taken at 5:32pm EDT. At the time, Bigfork, Minnesota was reporting the lowest pressure ever recorded in a U.S. non-coastal storm, 955 mb. (NASA/GSFC)

UPDATE: Capitol Climate has good piece, “California Rainfall Smashes Records By Wide Margin.”

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