2010 Year in Review: Extreme Weather and Climate Events
Looking back in a decade or two, we might well remember 2010 as the year that the weather got really wacky. Or, perhaps, as the year that the effects of long term global climate change started to really tweak short term weather patterns.
One thing is clear: this was a wild, violent, and catastrophic year in extreme weather events.
Don't trust a layman like me. Weather Underground's founding meteorologist Jeff Masters said, "In my 30 plus years of being a meteorologist I can't ever recall a year like this one as far as extreme weather events go, not only for U.S. but the world at large."
Now let's be clear: no single weather event is evidence alone of climate change. But it's also true that most, if not all, of the extreme weather events of 2010 do fit within the predictions of climatic extremes that the best science is warning us of in the coming century.
Kevin Trenberth of the Nation Center for Atmospheric Research offers this take:
We can't attribute a single event to climate change, but I would contend that every event has a climate change component to it nowadays. And a different way of thinking about it is try to look at odds of that event happening. And, with some of the events that we've had this year it's clear—even though the research has not been done in detail yet—that the odds have changed, and we can probably say some of these would not have happened without global warming, without the human influence on climate."
Trenberth hints at a common metaphor used in climate science circles: that global warming is "loading the dice" for extreme weather patterns. One climate scientist, Steven Sherwood, carries the metaphor a bit further, writing to Andy Revkin at Dot Earth:
Climate change also allows unprecedented (in human history) things to happen. It is more like painting an extra spot on each face of one of the dice, so that it goes from 2 to 7 instead of 1 to 6. This increases the odds of rolling 11 or 12, but also makes it possible to roll 13. What happens then? Since we have never had to cope with 13’s, this could prove far worse than simply loading the dice toward more 11’s and 12’s.
You can decide for yourself whether the extreme, destructive events of 2010—the Russian heat wave or the floods in Pakistan or the Amazon's drought—count as 12's or 13's. You can't argue that it's been a wild year for weather.
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In early February, Washington, D.C., was blanketed by 17.8 inches of snow in a storm that residents immediately took to calling "Snowmageddon." (Credit—or blame—a Capitol Weather Gang reader for the name.) But this bruiser was but one of three massive snowstorms to strike the mid-Atlantic last winter, the snowiest ever recorded in the nation's capital.
On May 1 and 2, the western half of Tennessee was struck by what the National Weather Service defined as an "epic flood event." In all, 13.57 inches of rain fell at the Nashville airport, washing away the monthly rainfall record for May, which had been 11.04 inches, by the second day of the month.
Weather Underground's esteemed meteorologist Jeff Masters described the rain as "equivalent to a one in 1,000-year event." This was also a tragic, fatal event. Twenty-one people died from the flooding in Tennessee, and floods from the same storm system killed six more in Northern Mississippi and four in Kentucky.
This year, Russia suffered through the hottest July ever recorded in the 130 years that records have been kept. After a month of temperatures above 30 degrees Celcius (or 87 degrees Fahrenheit), with countless individual daily record highs recorded, Alexander Frolov, head of Russia's weather service, said that, "Our ancestors haven't observed or registered a heat like that within 1,000 years. This phenomenon is absolutely unique."
The high temperatures and a severe drought created the deadly conditions for massive, widespread wildfires, which broke out in the drained bogs, swamps and peat fields surrounding Moscow at the end of the month and carried on through the middle of August.
According to government officials, the death toll in Moscow from heat and air pollution in early August reached 330 casualties per day as smog and dangerous carbon monoxide blanketed the city. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 15,000 people died nationwide during the heat wave and subsequent fires.
Photo: NASA Earth Observatory
Meanwhile in Pakistan, the worst floods to strike the country in at least 80 years drowned a nation. The floods began in July in the province of Baluchistan, and by mid-August a full one-fifth of the country was underwater. As rivers devoured villages, an estimated 20 million lives were affected, and the death toll reached nearly 2,000.
The Pakistan floods were caused by a particularly massive Asian monsoon season, one that delivered record amounts of rainfall across the nation. Some meteorologists, including Jeff Masters, see a clear link between the Russian heat wave and the flooding in Pakistan in the form of an unusual polar jet stream pattern that "locked" into place through July. Writes Masters: "This jet curved far to the north of Moscow, then plunged southwards towards Pakistan. This allowed hot air to surge northwards over most of European Russia, and prevented rain-bearing low pressure systems from traveling over the region. These rain-bearing low pressure systems passed far to the north of European Russia, then dove unusually far to the south, into northern Pakistan. The heavy rains from these lows combined with Pakistan's usual summer monsoon rains to trigger Pakistan's most devastating floods in history."
The impacts of these floods will be felt for years in Pakistan, as long term food shortages are expected.
Of course, longer term temperature trends are much more important in a climatic sense than daily records. Overall, the summer of 2010 will be remembered by millions worldwide as the hottest in memory. NOAA's National Climatic Data Center rated the summer of 2010 as the hottest ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, and all indications are that 2010 will officially stand as the hottest year on record.
Writes Jeff Masters, "From the densely populated I-95 corridor of the USA's mid-Atlantic region (New York City to Virginia), the entire region of western Russia (St. Petersburg to the Caspian region) and for almost all of Japan, there has never in modern records been such a warm meteorological (meaning June-August) summer."
Since no major storms made landfall in the United States this year, it may come as a surprise that this hurricane season was actually a doozy. In technical terms, 2010 was a "hyperactive" hurricane season, with 19 named storms, 12 hurricanes, and 5 intense hurricanes.
This year tied for second place for most number of named storms in an Atlantic hurricane season, and second place for most number of hurricanes in a season. Only 2005 had more hurricane activity.
So why were we so lucky this year? According to Climate Central, "Atmospheric steering patterns caused storms to veer away from the U.S., and either into the open Atlantic, or southwest into Mexico."
Image: Climate Central
The Amazon region is currently enduring its third "extreme" drought in a dozen years, and in many areas has reached "exceptional" drought status (one step worse than "extreme," and the most dire rating given to droughts). It's likely that this will wind up being the worst drought in 108 years of record keeping, and entire stretches of essential rivers and tributaries are drying up completely, leaving vast plains of mud and clay where flowing water is essential to local life.
The Rio Negro, a major tributary to the Amazon that runs along the Amazonian metropolis of Manuas is running at its lowest levels in recorded history, according to Globo Amazonia. Just last year, the river was running at an all time high.
Click here for more startling photos of the Amazon drought.
Photo: Greenpeace Brasil
Throughout Europe and much of North America, winter has arrived with ferocity, battering northern regions with bitter cold and heavy early snowfalls.
Andrew Freedman writes on Capitol Weather Gang, "The unusually wintry weather gripping Europe as well as the cold plaguing the eastern United States are linked by a historically strong weather system locked over Greenland." Believe it or not, this frigid start to winter in northern North America and Europe may have to do with unusually warm temperatures in the Arctic.
Referred to as the "Warm Arctic/Cold Continents Pattern," current research is linking the loss of sea ice to the cold Northerly blasts. Climate Central explains:
When the ice melts, it allows incoming solar radiation to warm water and air temperatures, which in turn has an influence on atmospheric pressure and circulation, and may help shift Arctic air southward, while the Arctic remains unusually warm.
Jeff Masters used a kitchen analogy to sum up the paradox: "This pattern is kind of like leaving the refrigerator door ajar--the refrigerator warms up, but all the cold air spills out into the house."
Image: Climate Central
Even with this brutal early winter, when the numbers are finally crunched, 2010 could possibly edge out 2005 for the official title of "Warmest Year on Record." (We won't know for sure until November and December numbers are run in early 2011.) This comes despite a La Niña event that causes cooler surface temperatures on the Pacific Ocean, despite the fierce early winter, and despite the "deepest solar minimum in nearly a century."
According to NASA, the 2010 "meteorological year," which ends on November 30, was already the warmest in the agency's 130 year history.
In related news, 2010 is also the year that that levels of carbon dioxide emissions bounced back to new record highs after a slight recession-induced dip in 2009.