When NASA climate scientists speak in public, they’re often asked about possible connections between climate change and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, heavy downpours, floods, blizzards, heat waves and droughts. After all, it seems extreme weather is in the news almost every day of late, and people are taking notice. How might particular extreme weather and natural climate phenomena, such as El Niño and La Niña, be affected by climate change, they wonder?
There’s no easy answer, says Joao Teixeira, co-director of the Center for Climate Sciences at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and science team leader for the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite. “Within the scientific community it’s a relatively well-accepted fact that as global temperatures increase, extreme precipitation will very likely increase as well,” he says. “Beyond that, we’re still learning.”
“Within the scientific community it’s a relatively well-accepted fact that as global temperatures increase, extreme precipitation will very likely increase as well. Beyond that, we’re still learning.”
While there’s not yet a full consensus on the matter, in recent years a body of evidence linking extreme weather with climate change has begun to emerge. Evidence from satellites, aircraft, ground measurements and climate model projections are increasingly drawing connections. Quantifying those interconnections is a big challenge.
“All our available tools have pros and cons,” says Teixeira. “Rain gauges, for example, provide good measurements, but they’re local and spread far apart. In contrast, satellites typically measure climate variables (such as precipitation, temperature and humidity) indirectly and don’t yet have long enough data records to establish trends, though that’s beginning to change. In addition, representing small-scale processes of the atmosphere that are key to extreme weather events in climate models, such as turbulence, convection and cloud physics, is notoriously difficult. So, we’re in a bit of a conundrum. But great progress is being made as more studies are conducted.”
A simple analogy describes how difficult it is to attribute extreme weather to climate change. Adding fossil fuel emissions to Earth’s atmosphere increases its temperature, which adds more energy to the atmosphere, supercharging it like an athlete on steroids. And just as it’s difficult to quantify how much of that athlete’s performance improvement is due to steroid use, so too it’s difficult to say whether extreme weather events are definitively due to a warmer atmosphere.
Are Supercharged Atlantic Hurricane Seasons a Case in Point?
Take hurricanes, for example. A hot topic in extreme weather research is how climate change is impacting the strength of tropical cyclones. A look at the 2019 Atlantic hurricane season provides a case in point.
After a quiet start to the 2019 season, Hurricane Dorian roared through the Atlantic in late August and early September, surprising many forecasters with its unexpected and rapid intensification. In just five days, Dorian grew from a minimal Category 1 hurricane to a Category 5 behemoth, reaching a peak intensity of 185 miles (295 kilometers) per hour when it made landfall in The Bahamas. In the process, Dorian tied an 84-year-old record for strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricane and became the fifth most intense recorded Atlantic hurricane to make landfall, as measured by its barometric pressure.
Two weeks later the remnants of Tropical Storm Imelda swamped parts of Texas under more than 40 inches (102 centimeters) of rain, enough to make it the fifth wettest recorded tropical cyclone to strike the lower 48 states. Fueled by copious moisture from a warm Gulf of Mexico, the slow-moving Imelda’s torrential rains and flooding wreaked havoc over a wide region.
Then in late September, Hurricane Lorenzo became the most northerly and easterly Category 5 storm on record in the Atlantic, even affecting the British Isles as an extratropical cyclone.
Earth’s atmosphere and oceans have warmed significantly in recent decades. A warming ocean creates a perfect cauldron for brewing tempests. Hurricanes are fueled by heat in the top layers of the ocean and require sea surface temperatures (SSTs) greater than 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) to form and thrive.
Since 1995 there have been 17 above-normal Atlantic hurricane seasons, as measured by NOAA’s Accumulated Cyclone Energy (ACE) Index. ACE calculates the intensity of a hurricane season by combining the number, wind speed and duration of each tropical cyclone. That’s the largest stretch of above-normal seasons on record.
So while there aren’t necessarily more Atlantic hurricanes than before, those that form appear to be getting stronger, with more Category 4 and 5 events.
NASA Research Points to an Increase in Extreme Storms Over Earth’s Tropical Oceans
What does NASA research have to say about extreme storms? One NASA study from late 2018 supports the notion that global warming is causing the number of extreme storms to increase, at least over Earth’s tropical oceans (between 30 degrees North and South of the equator).
A team led by JPL’s Hartmut Aumann, AIRS project scientist from 1993 to 2012, analyzed 15 years of AIRS data, looking for correlations between average SSTs and the formation of extreme storms. They defined extreme storms as those producing at least 0.12 inches (3 millimeters) of rain per hour over a certain-sized area. They found that extreme storms formed when SSTs were hotter than 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius). The team also saw that for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) that SST increased, the number of extreme storms went up by about 21 percent. Based on current climate model projections, the researchers concluded that extreme storms may increase 60 percent by the year 2100.
Thanks to weather satellites, scientists have identified possible correlations between the extremely cold clouds seen in thermal infrared satellite images (called deep convective clouds) and extreme storms observed on the ground under certain conditions, especially over the tropical oceans. When precipitation from these clouds hits the top of Earth’s lowest atmospheric layer, the troposphere, it produces torrential rain and hail.
AIRS can’t measure precipitation directly from space, but it can measure the temperature of clouds with extraordinary accuracy and stability. Its data can also be correlated with other climate variables such as SSTs, for which scientists maintain long data records.
To determine the number of extreme storms, Aumann’s team plotted the number of deep convective clouds each day against measurements of sea surface temperature. They found that the number of these clouds correlated with increases in sea surface temperature.
The results of this study reflect a long line of AIRS research and three previously published papers. The researchers say large uncertainties and speculations remain regarding how extreme storms may change under future climate scenarios, including the possibility that a warming climate may result in fewer but more intense storms. But the results of this study point to an intriguing direction for further research.
What Lies Ahead?
Aumann is confident future studies will reveal additional insights into how severe storms detected as individual deep convective clouds coalesce to form tropical storms and hurricanes. He notes that if you look at these clouds over the global ocean, they frequently occur in clusters.
“AIRS sees hurricanes as hundreds of these clusters,” he said. “For example, it saw Hurricane Dorian as a cluster of about 150 deep convective clouds, while Hurricane Katrina contained about 500. If you look at a weather satellite image, you’ll see the severe storms that make up a hurricane are not actually contiguous. In fact, they’re uncannily similar to the stars within the spiral arms of a galaxy. It’s one severe thunderstorm after another, each dumping a quantity of rain on the ground.
“AIRS has 2,400 different frequency channels, so it’s a very rich data set,” he said. “In fact, there’s so much data, our computer capabilities aren’t able to explore most of it. We just need to ask the right questions.”