What extreme heatwaves tell us about the dangers of climate change

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Scientists have simply had too short a period of time with a climate system heated by human actions to determine the answers to such questions.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty when it comes to these unprecedented events and records,” Flavio Lehner, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, said in an email. “You can’t, with the utmost confidence, say that models get it or they don’t get it,” when it comes to certain extreme events.

What other forces could be contributing to very hot heat waves?

Several researchers are exploring the degree to which certain forces could be aggravating heat waves and whether they are accurately represented in current models, Lehner says.

These include possible feedback effects, such as drying of the soil and plants in some regions. Beyond certain thresholds, this can accelerate heating during heat waves, because the energy that would otherwise go to the evaporation of water works to heat the air.

Another open scientific question is whether climate change in itself is increasing the persistence of certain atmospheric patterns that are clearly fueling heat waves. This includes the build-up of high-pressure ridges that push warm air down, creating so-called heat domes that move overhead and bake large regions.

Both forces may have played a major role in fueling the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest last year, according to a forthcoming paper. In Europe, researchers have observed that a splitting of the jet stream and the warming of ocean waters could play a role in increasing extreme heat events across the continent.

Why didn’t the scientists warn us correctly?

Ugh. Some publications have actually printed words in this regard, in response to increasingly extreme weather events.

But to be clear, scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades, in every way possible, that climate change will make the planet warmer, stranger, harder to predict and, in many ways, more dangerous to humans. humans, animals and ecosystems. And they have been frank about the limits of their understanding. The main accusation they have faced until recently (and still do, in many sectors) is that they are fear fans who exaggerate the threat for political or research funding reasons.

Real-world events that highlight the shortcomings of climate models, insofar as they are, do not amount to a kind of revelation “aha, I understand, scientists have been wrong all along.” They offer a stress test of the tools that researchers enthusiastically use to hone their understanding of these systems and the models they have created to represent them, Lehner says.

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said so bluntly, in a letter responding to the New York News’ statement that “few thought [climate change] it would come so fast ”:“ The problem has not been that scientists have been wrong. It has been that, despite clear warnings consistent with the available evidence, scientists dedicated to informing the public have struggled to make their voices heard in an environment full of false accusations of alarm and political motivation. “

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