Droughts, heatwaves and floods: How to tell when climate change is to blame

By Quirin Schiermeier

The Northern Hemisphere is sweating through another unusually hot summer. Japan has declared its record temperatures a natural disaster. Europe is baking under prolonged heat, with destructive wildfires in Greece and, unusually, the Arctic. And drought-fuelled wildfires are spreading in the western United States.

For Friederike Otto, a climate modeller at the University of Oxford, UK, the past week has been a frenzy, as journalists clamoured for her views on climate change’s role in the summer heat. “It’s been mad,” she says. The usual scientific response is that severe heatwaves will become more frequent because of global warming. But Otto and her colleagues wanted to answer a more particular question: how had climate change influenced this specific heatwave? After three days’ work with computer models, they announced on 27 July that their preliminary analysis for northern Europe suggests that climate change made the heatwave more than twice as likely to occur in many places.

Soon, journalists might be able to get this kind of quick-fire analysis routinely from weather agencies, rather than on an ad hoc basis from academics. With Otto’s help, Germany’s national weather agency is preparing to be the first in the world to offer rapid assessments of global warming’s connection to particular meteorological events. By 2019 or 2020, the agency hopes to post its findings on social media almost instantly, with full public reports following one or two weeks after an event. “We want to quantify the influence of climate change on any atmospheric conditions that might bring extreme weather to Germany or central Europe,” says Paul Becker, vice-president of the weather agency, which is based in Offenbach. “The science is ripe to start doing it”.

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