Traverse City Record-Eagle

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November 26, 2013

Forum: Unprecedented storms more of the norm

Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan were unprecedented storms in weather history, but neither was really a surprise. Record-setting weather of all kinds, including these massive storms, should be expected more frequently as our atmosphere warms up under an ever-increasing carbon dioxide load.

Hurricanes and typhoons are two names for the same phenomena. Like all weather, these big ocean storms are simply expressions of the atmosphere moving heat. It is a thermodynamic system. If you put more heat energy into the system it will become more extreme in its turbulence. Our planet has warmed 1 degree Celsius or nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit; we are putting more energy in the system and our weather will become more extreme.

Noted climate researcher James Hansen presents a graph of what has happened to the Northern Hemisphere’s high-temperature records in the past 33 years; Google it, it is dramatic. Compared to the long-term record, it is now 10 times more likely that any one spot on earth will experience super heat extremes: that is, three standard deviations above the norm.

Extreme heat waves and associated drought will become more common. Just weeks ago University of Hawaii graduate students showed us the statistics predicting the specific date, for a specific location, when the yearly temperature average will begin exceeding any past high temperature averages. They call it “climate-departure date.” That is the date when the new normal temperature will shift above the old extremes. It is going to get warmer, and more importantly, extreme heat will become much more common. The climate departure date for New York City is just around the corner at 2047.

Freakish weather, weather that just didn’t happen much before, or that comes at the wrong time of the year, will also increase. Consider that in 2012 extreme weather wiped out nearly all of the local cherry crop. First, it was the historic snowstorm of early March, then sudden record heat followed by the typical freezes of April. It was even worse in 2002 with a nearly total wipeout of the state’s cherry crop. That was two disasters caused by freakish weather in only one decade. Long-time growers were told as youngsters that would happen only once in a lifetime.

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