Nav: Home

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?

October 16, 2020

In this year of extreme weather events -- from devastating West Coast wildfires to tropical Atlantic storms that have exhausted the alphabet -- scientists and members of the public are asking when these extreme events can be scientifically linked to climate change.

Dale Durran, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, argues that climate science need to approach this question in a way similar to how weather forecasters issue warnings for hazardous weather.

In a new paper, published in the October issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, he draws on the weather forecasting community's experience in predicting extreme weather events such as tornadoes, flash floods, high winds and winter storms. If forecasters send out a mistaken alert too often, people will start to ignore them. If they don't alert for severe events, people will get hurt. How can the atmospheric sciences community find the right balance?

Most current approaches to attributing extreme weather events to global warming, he says, such as the conditions leading to the ongoing Western wildfires, focus on the likelihood of raising a false alarm. Scientists do this by using statistics to estimate the increase in the probability of that event that is attributable to climate change. Those statistical measures are closely related to the "false alarm ratio," an important metric used to assess the quality of hazardous weather warnings.

But there is a second key metric used to assess the performance of weather forecasters, he argues: The probably that the forecast will correctly warn of events that actually occur, known as the "probability of detection." The ideal probability of detection score is 100%, while the ideal false-alarm rate would be zero.

Probability of detection has mostly been ignored when it comes to linking extreme events to climate change, he says. Yet both weather forecasting and climate change attribution face a tradeoff between the two. In both weather forecasting and climate-change attribution, calculations in the paper show that raising the thresholds to reduce false alarms produces a much greater drop in the probability of detection.

Drawing on a hypothetical example of a tornado forecaster whose false alarm ratio is zero, but is accompanied by a low probability of detection, he writes that such an "overly cautious tornado forecasting strategy might be argued by some to be smart politics in the context of attributing extreme events to global warming, but it is inconsistent with the way meteorologists warn for a wide range of hazardous weather, and arguably with the way society expects to be warned about threats to property and human life."

Why does this matter? The paper concludes by noting: "If a forecaster fails to warn for a tornado there may be serious consequences and loss of life, but missing the forecast does not make next year's tornadoes more severe. On the other hand, every failure to alert the public about those extreme events actually influenced by global warming facilitates the illusion that mankind has time to delay the actions required to address the source of that warming. Because the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere is many hundreds to thousands of years the cumulative consequences of such errors can have a very long lifetime."
-end-
For more information, contact Durran at drdee@uw.edu.

University of Washington

Related Climate Change Articles:

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.
Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.
Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.
Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.
Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.
A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.