Frequently Asked Question 9.1
Can Individual Extreme Events be Explained by Greenhouse Warming?
Changes in climate extremes are expected as the climate warms in response to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases resulting from human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels. However, determining whether a specific, single extreme event is due to a specific cause, such as increasing greenhouse gases, is difficult, if not impossible, for two reasons: 1) extreme events are usually caused by a combination of factors and 2) a wide range of extreme events is a normal occurrence even in an unchanging climate. Nevertheless, analysis of the warming observed over the past century suggests that the likelihood of some extreme events, such as heat waves, has increased due to greenhouse warming, and that the likelihood of others, such as frost or extremely cold nights, has decreased. For example, a recent study estimates that human influences have more than doubled the risk of a very hot European summer like that of 2003.
People affected by an extreme weather event often ask whether human influences on the climate could be held to some extent responsible. Recent years have seen many extreme events that some commentators have linked to increasing greenhouse gases. These include the prolonged drought in Australia, the extremely hot summer in Europe in 2003 (see Figure 1), the intense North Atlantic hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005 and the extreme rainfall events in Mumbai, India in July 2005. Could a human influence such as increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have ‘caused’ any of these events?
Extreme events usually result from a combination of factors. For example, several factors contributed to the extremely hot European summer of 2003, including a persistent high-pressure system that was associated with very clear skies and dry soil, which left more solar energy available to heat the land because less energy was consumed to evaporate moisture from the soil. Similarly, the formation of a hurricane requires warm sea surface temperatures and specific atmospheric circulation conditions. Because some factors may be strongly affected by human activities, such as sea surface temperatures, but others may not, it is not simple to detect a human influence on a single, specific extreme event.
Nevertheless, it may be possible to use climate models to determine whether human influences have changed the likelihood of certain types of extreme events. For example, in the case of the 2003 European heat wave, a climate model was run including only historical changes in natural factors that affect the climate, such as volcanic activity and changes in solar output. Next, the model was run again including both human and natural factors, which produced a simulation of the evolution of the European climate that was much closer to that which had actually occurred. Based on these experiments, it was estimated that over the 20th century, human influences more than doubled the risk of having a summer in Europe as hot as that of 2003, and that in the absence of human influences, the risk would probably have been one in many hundred years. More detailed modelling work will be required to estimate the change in risk for specific high-impact events, such as the occurrence of a series of very warm nights in an urban area such as Paris.
The value of such a probability-based approach – ‘Does human influence change the likelihood of an event?’ – is that it can be used to estimate the influence of external factors, such as increases in greenhouse gases, on the frequency of specific types of events, such as heat waves or frost. Nevertheless, careful statistical analyses are required, since the likelihood of individual extremes, such as a late-spring frost, could change due to changes in climate variability as well as changes in average climate conditions. Such analyses rely on climate-model based estimates of climate variability, and thus the climate models used should adequately represent that variability.
The same likelihood-based approach can be used to examine changes in the frequency of heavy rainfall or floods. Climate models predict that human influences will cause an increase in many types of extreme events, including extreme rainfall. There is already evidence that, in recent decades, extreme rainfall has increased in some regions, leading to an increase in flooding.
FAQ 9.1, Figure 1. Summer temperatures in Switzerland from 1864 to 2003 are, on average, about 17°C, as shown by the green curve. During the extremely hot summer of 2003, average temperatures exceeded 22°C, as indicated by the red bar (a vertical line is shown for each year in the 137-year record). The fitted Gaussian distribution is indicated in green. The years 1909, 1947 and 2003 are labelled because they represent extreme years in the record. The values in the lower left corner indicate the standard deviation (σ) and the 2003 anomaly normalised by the 1864 to 2000 standard deviation (T’/σ). From Schär et al. (2004).