By the time some of the top climate scientists published their research into the possible links between the 2003 heat wave in France and global warming, five years had passed.
That was so last decade.
Fast forward to the Texas drought and heat wave of 2011. Peer-reviewed research into a connection between that event and climate change took less than a year to publish.
Mote’s paper concluded global warming is 20 times more likely to be the cause of last year’s prolonged heat wave in Texas than it could have been in the 1960s, when less greenhouse gases had been released into the atmosphere.
EarthFix: Thank you for joining us Dr. Mote. You led some pretty interesting research. It looked at some very recent weather extremes and connected them to climate change. In simple terms, can you explain what makes this, as you told told The New York Times in a recent interview, “hot new science?”
Mote: Well, it’s hot in a couple of ways. One is trying to understand extreme events and why they happen. Scientists are using a variety of different tools and approaches to answer that question. The second thing that’s hot about this is that we’re trying to offer explanations quite soon after these events have happened. This paper that was published covered 2011 extreme events and we had to have a draft ready by the end of February of 2012. So we really only had a couple of months to do some very intense research. Then of course, it got peer reviewed and revised. But it’s a pretty quick turnaround for science.
EarthFix: Before this kind of science was brought to bear, how much time would pass between the weather event or the climate event and the research and the publishing?
Mote: That’s a good question. One of the biggest extreme events, in terms of its impact, was the 2003 heat wave in France. I know the most cited review articles about it were published in 2008. So four, five, six years later would be a more typical pace.
EarthFix: The headline for your newly published paper is: “Did human influence on climate make the 2011 Texas drought more probable?” So, what’s the answer?
Mote: We looked at both the drought and the heat wave and they’re of course related, but we have to treat them somewhat separately. The bottom line was, yes, it probably made the drought slightly more probable, but it made the heat wave much more probable.
EarthFix: One conclusion in your paper is that drought conditions like those in Texas last year are “at least in the case of temperature, distinctly more probable than they were 40–50 years ago.” Can you elaborate?
Mote: What we were trying to say there was, in the case of drought, if you compare the likelihood of drought, given different types of larger scale climate conditions that might set up a local drought, the events in 2011 were not way outside the norm. The context was a little different.
Whereas, for the heat wave, that’s a very, very clearly different situation. Specifically what I’m talking about is, if you go back to the 1960s and you look at years that had a similar ocean pattern – a pattern of ocean temperatures — we can find reasonable analogues for 2011 back in the 1960s. And if we compare those analogue years with 2011 when the greenhouse gases were much higher, the fact that there were greenhouse gases in the atmosphere makes a much bigger difference for temperature than it does for the drought risk.
EarthFix: Getting this kind of information so quickly after an extreme weather event – it’s got to have a lot of potential not just in science where you do all of your work, but also in the public square as ordinary people and political leaders debate climate change and possible solutions and responses. Do you see it that way? And how might getting this quicker turnaround of scientific analysis help contribute to the debate?
Mote: We can look back at the recent past at events that actually happened and figure out what happened and what effects they had. We may not be able to change next year the likelihood of a heat wave or a flood, but we can change next year and ten years out the exposure to such weather events. There’s a lot of good work going on in urban areas in the U.S. to find ways to protect vulnerable populations in the event of a heat wave and that’s saved a lot of lives.
Similarly looking at how the flood risk might be changing in different basins as a result of climate change and land use change is also a way to reduce our exposure to the risk of flooding. So there are a lot of near term actions.
Longer term, understanding which extreme events are responding to the stuff we’re putting into the atmosphere helps us weigh the benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. We are, in a sense, setting up our descendants for a set of weather events that may cause varying degrees of harm. And the less greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere, the less harmful those events will be.
Philip W. Mote is director of the Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University.
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