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Posted at 6:00 PM ET, 01/14/2011

Rivaling reasons for world's extreme weather

By Jason Samenow

Myriad of explanations, no consistent conclusion

Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil flood victims load their belongings to a boat in a flooded area in Batticaloa, about 220 killometers (138 miles) east of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, Jan. 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Kailapillai Ruthiran).

Devastating floods in northeast Australia have swamped 30,000 homes in the vicinity of Brisbane. Mudslides in the southeast mountains of Brazil have killed more than 500 people. The death toll in Sri Lanka is rising from a flood that has displaced more than 360,000 residents. A blizzard dumped record snows on parts of the Northeast. What's causing all of this weather mayhem?

Here's where the television media chime in:

CNN features an article quoting a forecaster who attributes the "catastrophic weather events" to natural weather patterns, namely La Nina and the North Atlantic Oscillation. (Strangely, in listing examples of "catastrophic weather", CNN includes the recent East Coast snowstorm. How were impacts from that storm catastrophic or, in the least, equivalent to the terrible toll inflicted by the floods in Brazil and Australia, the other examples the network cites? But I digress...)

ABC News, in its article and companion video on the matter, fails to mention natural cycles at all and says "man-made global warming is the sudden force behind the forces of nature." It quotes climate scientist Richard Somerville, who says: "Because the whole water cycle speeds up in a warming world, there's more water in the atmosphere today than there was a few years ago on average, and you're seeing a lot of that in the heavy rains and floods..."

The media are not the only ones trying to explain the weird weather.

The United Kingdom's Met Office links La Nina with the flooding in Australia but stops short of blaming it for the flooding in Brazil and Sri Lanka. It does not address the role of global warming in the flooding specifically and indicates climate models don't simulate strong effects from global warming on La Nina and El Nino. In the video below Dr. Adam Scaife, Senior Climate Scientist at the Met Office says: "Indeed when we run our climate model into the future with increasing levels of greenhouse gases ... there are no consistent changes in the La Nina and El Nino cycle."

Capital Weather Gang's Andrew Freedman has written about the challenges of trying to explain the causes of extreme weather such as flooding while responsibly explaining the possible role of global warming and climate change:

When an extreme event occurs, a reporter is often caught in a quandary. If we overplay the causal link between climate change and the event, then we can rightly be accused of being alarmist...
Yet, if journalists ignore the scientific studies that show that some types of extreme events are consistent with what is expected due to climate change, then we may be guilty of a sin of omission.

It seems journalists and scientists around the world continue to struggle in their quest to comprehensively explain what's happening with the weather. If one can draw any conclusion, it's that multiple explanations are possible, and that the more simplistic the explanation, the more likely incomplete.

By Jason Samenow  | January 14, 2011; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, International Weather, Latest  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: PM Update: More cold, remaining mostly dry
Next: Forecast: Tolerable weekend, then tricky


Aliens. Got to be aliens. Softening us up before they attack.

Posted by: kevinwparker | January 14, 2011 6:26 PM | Report abuse

It's always easy finding after the fact reasons for weather events. The hard part is trying to predict the future.

Posted by: frontieradjust | January 14, 2011 6:26 PM | Report abuse

"Some types of extreme events are consistent with what is expected due to climate change."

This seems to be a reasonable way to express the relationship between climate and weather if it has to be done in one sentence. That said, I would second what Steve Tracton said in an earlier post about trying to discuss weather events in probabilistic terms. Some extreme events will become more frequent in the new regime.

Posted by: imback | January 14, 2011 6:43 PM | Report abuse

Is it possible that with the news happening 24/7 we hear about the weather events as they are occuring. A long time ago there was a researcher that published a paper on extreme weather events. He stated that we know very little and have very little history about extreme weather events in our planet's past. He maintained that the extreme events could be our "normal" weather. In any case it was just a theory much like all of the other theories within the weather community.

Posted by: thnixon | January 14, 2011 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Maybe .... Bruce Almighty!

Posted by: greg2010 | January 14, 2011 7:56 PM | Report abuse

For anyone here who doesn't like snow, even the people who cry themselves to sleep at night at the thought of getting a blizzard, I don't understand why you hate snow so much. I can think of 5 reasons why anyone could be a snowlover:

1. Snow is beautiful.
2. Snow gives you an excuse not to show up for work.
3. You and your spouse can have some alone time while the kids are out sledding.
4. It makes for great photo opportunities.
5. You get to enjoy the photos of Walter's snow sculptures!

Those are only five, and if I thought about it some more, I bet you I could come up with ten, heck, maybe even twenty!

Posted by: BobMiller2 | January 14, 2011 7:56 PM | Report abuse

DC's snow drought is becoming a major cause for concern. I wonder the CNN weather experts would say about that? When Florence, Alabama seriously whips us on YTD snowfall, something is amiss.

As for stinkbugs, with 10 mins. after I commented last night about not seeing one for several days, a big bugger alit on a lampshade and soon was taking a cold dip. So much for stinkbug hubris.

Posted by: JerryFloyd1 | January 14, 2011 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Seems like every year its an extreme weather year. Theres always extreme weather all over the world, every year, somewhere. This is nothing new.

All this Global Climate change is just as bad as Y2k and 2012 end of thew world theories.

No consistent conclusion because mother nature is smarter and more powerful than us humans and has the power to wipe us out in under a second. No consistent conclusion because extreme weather has happened on earth since the dawn of time and even on other planets.

Maybe that huge constant storm on Jupiter is the result of some kind of climate change too?!

Weather has always been extreme.period.

Posted by: KRUZ | January 14, 2011 8:30 PM | Report abuse

The AMS is having an event the end of this month about communicating weather events and climate change. Is anyone from CWG attending, or is it possible for you to arrange for a write up? I'd love to hear what these people have to say on the matter you raise above and since I cannot attend I hope CWG might have the hook up! Thanks!

Posted by: amandap2986 | January 14, 2011 10:06 PM | Report abuse

Extremes in weather around the globe is normal. Take global temps, for example. We are at historic low temps today vs. last 10,000 years:

Posted by: KPosty | January 14, 2011 11:01 PM | Report abuse

Kposty: Unfortunately, the graph you show isn't really good evidence for your conclusion. First: note that the last number on the bottom axis is a "95". That means the plot ends 95 years before "present". Secondly: even "present" doesn't mean "present". Paleoclimatologists often use "1950" as present. So now, your graph ends in 1855. So, you have to add the last 150 years of warming onto the end. Third: the graph is of a Greenland ice core, which is going to reflect somewhat more regional conditions rather than global, so it may not be directly comparable (though somewhat suggestive) of larger scale temps. I encourage you to read this article which quotes the RB Alley from that graph:

Or, a great talk by him:


Posted by: marcusmarcus | January 15, 2011 1:16 AM | Report abuse

It was only a few months ago that the drought it the same place was attributed to global warming. Now the flood in Australia is also caused by more water in the air due to global warming. Global warming probably will soon cause more extreme cold weather all over the world, but if it is warmer that will also be proof that global warming is at work.

True believers can find global warming under a rock and in a pile of leaves.

Posted by: AGWsceptic99 | January 15, 2011 2:39 AM | Report abuse

great catch on that graph... "present" is 95 years ago! hahahaha. effective graph...but...they no scruples.

Posted by: walter-in-fallschurch | January 15, 2011 8:21 AM | Report abuse


I'll be at the AMS meeting and so will CWG's Andrew Freedman. We'll provide some coverage.

Posted by: Jason-CapitalWeatherGang | January 15, 2011 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a climate change denier (I've been working in the field since 1994), but like the other commenter, I think it has alot to do with media saturation. I know that is too simple but think about it - a flood in northern Sri Lanka would never had made the news 10 or 20 years ago. Its a combination of the 24hrs news cycle and the media's decesion to focus on the weather. For example, if you watch network evening news, like NBC with Brian Williams(who by the way recently bought the Weather Channel) the first 5 or 10 minutes sometimes is devoted soley to the weather. That never happened in the past. It makes for good tee-vee, spectacular video of cars floating in torrents etc etc. And everyone is interested in the weather because it impacts our daily lives.

Posted by: johnnyd2 | January 15, 2011 10:42 AM | Report abuse

In yet another "cold winters" thread over at skeptical science, I am leaning more towards the natural cause but AGW enhanced line of thinking. The main reason is that in general the climate models have shown a decrease in extreme weather due to an increasingly positive Arctic Oscillation (AO). The ice loss seems to have thrown a monkey wrench into that causing Hansen to speculate that ice loss and resulting warmth has put major "ripples" into the circumpolar jet (although he didn't blame negative AO outright on ice loss).

So the models say positive AO, therefore less extreme weather. The earth says nope we are having negative AO, like it or not, like the 70's and the 30's. My conclusion is that the warmer Arctic can enhance both negative AO and positive AO. But AGW is not going to "switch" us from one to the other. But once we are negative or positive phase, the AGW factors like Arctic warming and more atmospheric moisture in some locations will enhance the effects of AO. Some floods might get a boost in moisture. Snowstorms won't be affected as much. Cold snaps won't be affected at all (pretty much all natural).

Posted by: eric654 | January 15, 2011 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I really like the Met Office video - we at CWG should think about doing these from WaPo? Very informative!

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | January 15, 2011 3:07 PM | Report abuse

BobMiller2, I don't "hate snow", but not everybody can be as Pollyanna about it as you. Some of us CAN'T stay home from work, and have no choice about getting up an hour early to shovel out the car and drive over dangerous roads. I take care of people's animals, and have to go out regardless, and often have to shovel another place to park at every stop I make. Also I feed some neutered feral cats who live outside and I know what a hardship bad weather is for them. Police, fire, and medical people have no choice either, and snow makes their jobs harder.
Yes, it's pretty, but it's not a reason for everybody to rejoice.

Posted by: Rhea1 | January 15, 2011 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Looks like Andrew's Climate Central is part of the new campaign to turn weather forecasters into CAGW propagandists I wonder where they get all the money to do this stuff? Anyway, the campaign will backfire once it is pointed out that any increase in "extreme" weather is a negative feedback and therefore the much hyped 2 to 5 degrees won't happen and thus Greenland will not melt, etc.

The question then becomes do we prepare for 100 year floods that might happen every 5 years or do we do nothing and hope the 100 year flood doesn't happen? IOW, to be prepared for more extreme weather we need to do what should do for less extreme weather.

Posted by: eric654 | January 15, 2011 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Why did we scare our kids with the CO2 death threat just to get them to turn the lights out and the thermostat down more often?
Pollution was real but this fear mongering wasn’t sustainable, especially for progressivism that preaches love and harmony.
Climate Change was a mistake, our Iraq War and is now dividing progressivism and environmentalism. The deniers won.
We need System Change, not Climate Change and let's act like real liberals again. Real liberals don't lick the boots of the likes of fat politicians as he promised to take our taxes and make the weather colder.
Let's admit the deniers won and admit our exaggerations and put this insanity behind us and get back to responsible stewardship of the planet.

Posted by: paulmerrifield | January 16, 2011 8:29 PM | Report abuse

One of the problems the media has in both understanding the answer themselves, and then conveying that answer to the average viewer/listener/reader is that in 2011, to the average nonscientist a probabilistic phenomenon with multiple causes to boot (having a corresponding series of linear weights) is an extremely exotic animal to get their heads around.

People want binary answers that are definites, not probabilities. Unfortunately, the natural world does not usually work that way.

I wince for humankind's future if we don't beef up our required math education for high school graduation.

Posted by: B2O2 | January 17, 2011 2:14 AM | Report abuse

One of the problems the media has in both understanding the answer themselves, and then conveying that answer to the average viewer/listener/reader is that in 2011, to the average nonscientist a probabilistic phenomenon with multiple causes to boot (having a corresponding series of linear weights) is an extremely exotic animal to get their heads around.

People want binary answers that are definites, not probabilities. Unfortunately, the natural world does not usually work that way.

I wince for humankind's future if we don't beef up our required math education for high school graduation.

Posted by: B2O2 | January 17, 2011 2:15 AM | Report abuse

Minor linguistic point to the author: "myriad" is an actual number, albeit in an old language (Greek). It meant "10,000" and is now used metaphorically for "many". So you don't follow it with "of". The headline should properly read "Myriad explanations, no consistent conclusion".

Posted by: B2O2 | January 17, 2011 4:45 PM | Report abuse

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