This is What Global Warming Looks Like

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[Originally Published in Elephant Journal, July 19, 2012]

Wildfires across Colorado, floods in Minnesota and Florida, heat waves and droughts, deadly tropical storms—and that’s just the U.S. This has been a confusing summer of extreme weather, but there is an explanation.

As Jonathan Overpeck, a professor and scientist at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.”

For years, scientists have been warning that global climate would bring extreme and devastating weather. This means that Colorado can experience record snowfall and precipitation one year, and be scorched by drought and wildfires the next year. Even more extreme, elephant’s home of Boulder can experience a June full of fires and record temperatures, only to see inclement monsoon rains the first week of July.

Of course over time, Colorado will see far less of the record precipitation and far more of the droughts and fires. Across the globe, 3,215 daily high temperature records were set this June alone.

As Overpeck said, “The extra heat increases the odds of worse heat waves, droughts, storms and wildfire. This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.”

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So why isn’t this extreme weather being talked about as a climate change issue?

For one thing, it is extremely difficult for scientists to draw a direct connection between weather events and climate change, even if they are obviously related. By nature, weather does change and extreme weather events happen. Where climate change is a longterm pattern, weather cycles are short term.

Nonetheless, we know that,

1.) Global average temperatures are rising.

2.) Isolated climates across the globe are experiencing extremes in weather at a frequency and level that were not seen 50 or 100 years ago.

Doubters will argue that a given year’s temperatures and precipitation depend on whether it is an El Niño or La Niña year. This is true of our short term whether patterns, but El Niño and La Niña themselves are determined by changes in ocean temperature. So as the average ocean temperature continues to rise, El Niño years may increase, while La Niñas may become less frequent.

Even if you are skeptical of the “global warming hype,” it seems reasonable enough to be included in the debate of increased extreme weather and natural disasters. However, the media have been a major failure in addressing the connection between climate change and weather.

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A study by Media Matters found that a mere 3 percent of recent news stories on Western wildfires even mention climate change or global warming.

It’s hard to expect politicians to jump on the unpopular climate debate when the media (and therefore the public) aren’t even even talking about.

If people realized that burning homes and flooding neighborhoods could have something to do with the rapidly changing climate, they might take the issue as a whole more seriously.

And while the fires have been contained, and floods have receded, more extreme weather is sure to hit close to home before you know it.

Update: check out this related story from Rolling Stone.



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