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July 27 2011

18:16

Feeling the Heat of Global Warming


Record-breaking and intense heat waves are indicative of the trend of a warmer worldFor more than a decade there has been increasing evidence of a pronounced warming trend around the globe. Last year we saw a new record for the second highest average global temperature over a 12 month period. This year, the U.S. has experienced widespread record breaking heat waves.

Although hot summers are to be expected in the U.S., this year is different. As explained by Christopher Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, “this heat wave is exceptional not only for its strength, but also for its breadth and duration.”

According to NOAA data, July 2011 has broken many heat records. Jeff Masters, Director of Meteorology for the Weather Underground, indicated that “July 2011 is on pace to be one of the five hottest months in U.S. history.” Masters added that high humidity make this year’s heat wave feel even hotter.

Despite the record-breaking summer temperatures, the vast majority of climatologists know that you can’t extrapolate a long-term climate trend from a single weather event or finite period. As reviewed in a 2010 article edited by Joe Romm, it all comes down to the distinction between weather and climate. As NASA explains:

“The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.”

However, as Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, told the Christian Science Monitor, weather is itself a variable that is at least partially a result of an overall climate. “You can’t say any one heat wave is caused by global warming,” Leiserowitz said. “But you can say that what global warming does is make events just like this more likely.”

In 2010, we saw record breaking temperatures all around the world. There was a “Hellish heatwave” in Pakistan which set records, including a temperature of 53.5°C (128.3°F), the hottest temperature ever recorded in Asia. The Great Russian drought of 2010 prompted fires and destroyed 25 million acres of crops. Thousands died around the globe as many parts of the world suffered under the record breaking heat.

For the globe as a whole, 2010 ranks as one of the hottest on record. China recorded the second highest temperatures it had ever seen, and India recorded its warmest year ever. Many heat records were also set in the U.S. in 2010. According to NASA, 2010 was tied for the hottest year ever in the U.S. and NASA’s temperature record showed that it was the hottest January to April in U.S. history.

Canada reported the warmest winter and warmest spring on record, 2010 was also the year with the highest average temperature in the nation’s history.

Even before 2010, the evidence for a warming trend was building. Researchers have been pointing to a link between weather and climate for decades. Eight years ago, a study published in the journal Nature indicated that global warming was partially responsible for the deadly heat wave that scorched Europe in 2003.

A 2009 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research showed that there is an increasing trend of record breaking heat in the U.S. According to measurements at 1,800 weather stations located across the U.S from January 1950 through September 2009, there has been a substantial increase in the number of record daily highs. More than 4000 heat records were set in the U.S. in the spring of 2010 alone and in the last 30 years, record highs have increasingly predominated.

An article from the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) titled Record high temperatures far outpace record lows across U.S. presents some of the findings from a climate study by NCAR, Climate Central, The Weather Channel, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

“Spurred by a warming climate, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows over the last decade across the continental United States, new research shows. The ratio of record highs to lows is likely to increase dramatically in coming decades if emissions of greenhouse gases continue to climb.

Climate change is making itself felt in terms of day-to-day weather in the United States,” says Gerald Meehl, the lead author and a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “The ways these records are being broken show how our climate is already shifting.”

The NCAR study predicted that it will keep getting warmer. ”The modeling results indicate that if nations continue to increase their emissions of greenhouse gases in a ‘business as usual’ scenario, the U.S. ratio of daily record high to record low temperatures would increase to about 20-to-1 by mid-century and 50-to-1 by 2100.” The 2009 NOAA led report on U.S. climate impacts indicated that we can expect that it will get much hotter. The report predicted a 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090.

In America, states from Texas to Maine suffered from extreme heat this July. More than half of the 50 US states were under extreme heat warnings with the record temperatures and high humidity reportedly claiming dozens of lives in July alone.

As many as 34 U.S. states were under heat advisories at the same time during the month of July. This year, Detroit experienced what could be the worst heat wave in more than 20 years in what may prove to be the hottest July on record in that city.  Many other cities also reported record temperatures across the U.S. including Newark, New Jersey which saw an air temperature of 108 degrees Fahrenheit (42 Celsius), the highest ever recorded in the city since records began there in 1931, and the hottest reported by the National Weather Service on the East Coast. At Dulles Airport near Washington, temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 Celsius), the highest since the facility opened in 1962. Two cities in Connecticut, Hartford and Bridgeport, also set all-time temperature records as the mercury hit 103 Fahrenheit (39 Celsius).

Triple-digit temperatures were also recorded in Long Island, Philadelphia, Allentown, Georgetown, Boston, Atlantic City, Manhattan and Baltimore. In Washington, the mercury climbed to 101 Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). With humidity, it felt like 116 Fahrenheit (47 Celsius).

As reviewed in an ENN article titled, “Extreme Heat the New Norm,” a study published in the journal Climate Change in late July predicts increased global warming:

“According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years…Within the next 20 to 60 years, if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, summer temperatures are likely to rise irreversibly around the globe, with the tropics feeling the heat first, and parts of Africa, Asia and the Americas suffering unprecedented summer heat within the next two decades.”

Although we should not draw conclusions about the climate from any single weather event, statistical analyses across large regions are a scientifically valid approach to understanding what is happening to our climate. When we look at the data we see that seventeen of the warmest years in recorded history have occurred over the last twenty years and the warmest years on record occurred in the most recent decade.

On its own, a single weather event does not constitute evidence of climate change, nor does a month of record breaking heat. However we have a growing pool of data that is making it increasingly clear that our climate is getting warmer.

——————–

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

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