Recent years have been characterized by a spike in extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires. These events, along with record temperatures and other unusual weather phenomena, such as an unusually early spring in the United Kingdom last year and record rainfall in the U.S. Midwest, have led some to wonder whether climate change may be behind the increase in natural disasters.
So is climate change really making weather more extreme?
How climate change causes more extreme weather.
In short, probably.
Scientists are reasonably certain that rising temperatures as a result of climate change have made extreme precipitation (heavy rainfall and drought) more likely. The relationship between all extreme weather events and climate change is less clear. However, there is evidence to suggest that higher temperatures lead to more intense weather. A Carbon Brief analysis estimated that 68% of all severe weather events to date were more likely due to the effects of climate change.
You can think of the relationship between climate change and weather like adding gasoline to a tank of fuel or wood to a fire. The more energy you have, the greater the result you will get.
For example, natural disasters such as tropical storms and hurricanes use hot water as fuel. As long as a storm is over high temperature water, it can grow in intensity. As a result, record sea surfaces can create extremely intense storms, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Maria. At the same time, warm surface temperatures also produce more water vapor. This vapor rises into the atmosphere and then falls as rain, which causes the flooding associated with hurricanes.
Higher temperatures also tend to dry out areas that are already drought-prone, such as much of California and Australia. The drier these places become, the more fuel there is for wildfires. When an area is dry enough, all it takes is a misplaced campfire or a sparking electrical wire to start a massive fire.
Will rising temperatures continue to make extreme weather events even more extreme? Major utilities seem to think so. Utilities previously affected by extreme weather events have spent large amounts of money strengthening their infrastructure in anticipation of similar events in the future. investors, similarly, are also preparing for a future in which extreme weather is more common.
Climate change-related disaster reduction and prevention
The impact and intensity of future weather is not guaranteed: people can do much to prevent future climate events and prepare for their arrival.
Policies that reduce global carbon emissions and remove greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere are likely to be an effective long-term solution. Lower temperatures can help rainfall intensity, storms and droughts return to normal levels.
Strengthening infrastructure that is threatened by extreme weather can also help. The 2019 California wildfires may have been caused in part by failures in outdated electrical equipment. Much of the U.S. power grid has similar problems. Investing in aging, failure-prone infrastructure can prevent such disasters in the future.
Similarly, building or reinforcing coastal structures to withstand hurricane-force winds can help coastal communities handle major hurricanes and storms.
You can take some steps within your own life to prepare for more extreme weather. Start by familiarizing yourself with the steps you should take immediately following a natural disaster such as a wildfire or hurricane. You may also consider preparing your home for potential severe weather and researching relevant insurance plans, such as policies that cover flood or wildfire damage.
Managing Weather Events Caused by Climate Change
Scientists agree that climate change is likely causing extreme weather events to become more severe and more frequent. In the future, we are likely to see a greater number of hurricanes and high-intensity wildfires, assuming current patterns and predictions continue.
Policymakers can prevent these events with policies aimed at reducing the impact of greenhouse gases. The influence of these atmospheric gases can also be reduced with infrastructure improvements, such as new power lines and buildings designed to withstand high winds and storm surges.