3 Connections Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather
More than 98 inches of snow has fallen in Boston this season, while workers have spent about 170,000 hours plowing the streets and distributed more than 76,000 tons of salt on roadways. At the same time, much of the American West, Rocky Mountains, and Northern and Central Plains have experienced warmer-than-average temperatures. California, in the grip of an epic drought, had its fourth-driest January ever recorded with just 15 percent of average precipitation.
So what is going on with this extreme weather, and what does it have to do with global climate change?
More research is planned in coming years to examine links between extreme weather and climate events and climate change, and global research already tells us a lot about the trends, including these three counterintuitive connections between climate change and extreme events:
1. Record cold temperatures can still occur in a warming world.
During 2014, cities in regions like the Midwest and Northeast endured record cold months. Zoom out to the state level, however, and three states (California, Nevada and Arizona) saw record warm annual temperatures in 2014, while none experienced record cold annual temperatures. The national average temperature was warmer than normal, and at the global scale, last year was more than just above average—2014 was the warmest year ever recorded.
A growing body of research suggests that a contributing factor of this drastic east-west temperature contrast could be the accelerated warming taking place in the Arctic, which can have a weakening effect on the polar jet stream, a west-to-east river of wind in the atmosphere where cold Arctic air meets milder subtropical air in the mid-latitudes (e.g., the U.S.) of the Northern Hemisphere. A weaker polar jet stream creates more favorable conditions for a “wavy” north-south oriented path around the Arctic, which can increase the frequency of phases where Arctic air seeps south into regions like the eastern United States while warmer air protrudes north in the western half of the country.
2. A warming planet can make some regions much snowier.
The warmer the air is, the more water vapor it can hold. This additional moisture can bring more intense rain or snowfall. In addition, when sea surface temperatures are warmer than average (as they are currently in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean), the atmosphere becomes fueled with more moisture and energy.
Precipitation amounts vary by region, but in the United States, all regions except Hawaii have experienced an increase in very heavy precipitation events since the late 1950s. However, snowfall has decreased in most parts of the country since recordkeeping began, in large part because more winter precipitation has come from rain instead of snow. Thus, temperatures play a significant role.
Gradual warming is reducing the number of very cold days in many regions, but when temperatures are cold enough, the increased moisture can cause heavier snowfall events. In fact, the heaviest snowstorms occur when temperatures are just below freezing as opposed to when they are much colder (when available moisture is reduced)—conditions becoming more likely in mid-winter in a warmer world.
3. Climate change can contribute to a double whammy of drought and extreme precipitation in the same location.
As mentioned above, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, fueling more intense rain and snow events. But at the other end of the spectrum, the warming climate can amplify conditions conducive to drought—like heatwaves, evapotranspiration and reduced soil moisture. The combination of these two extremes in one location can increase disasters like flooding and landslides, and recent history suggests parts of the United States may already be grappling with these double-whammy impacts.
Since 2010, regions like the Midwest have been impacted by numerous extreme drought and flooding events that have each exceeded $1 billion in losses. Right now, California is in the midst of a drought that researchers have found to be its worst in at least 1,200 years. And while not found to have been caused by climate change, scientists have determined the drought has been driven by record warm temperatures and reduced precipitation. These prolonged warm and dry conditions were then met with an incredible deluge of rainfall in some areas of the state last December (San Francisco received more rain in a matter of days than it did all of 2013) causing flooding and mudslides, washing out roads and damaging homes.
A Need for Action
A growing body of evidence shows strong connections between climate change and extreme events, and impacts once thought of as a distant future threat are already occurring and widespread.
As decision-makers scramble to keep trains and buses running among feet of snow, make plans to save infrastructure from flooding, and revise planning to contend with drought, it’s time they pause to acknowledge the role that human-induced climate change is playing in our changing weather—and commit to ambitious policy changes that reverse these trends.
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By 2030, almost a third of all the energy consumed in the European Union must come from renewable sources, according to binding targets agreed in 2018. Sweden is helping lead the way.
Sweden is a world leader in renewable energy consumption. Swedish Institute/World Bank
Naturally Warm<p>54% of Sweden's power comes from renewables, and is helped by its geography. With plenty of moving water and 63% forest cover, it's no surprise the <a href="https://sweden.se/nature/energy-use-in-sweden/#" target="_blank">two largest renewable power sources</a> are hydropower and biomass. And that biomass is helping support a local energy boom.</p><p>Heating is a key use of energy in a cold country like Sweden. In recent decades, as fuel oil taxes have increased, the country's power companies have turned to renewables, like biomass, to fuel local 'district heating' plants.</p><p>In Sweden these trace their <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank">origins back to 1948</a>, when a power station's excess heat was first used to heat nearby buildings: steam is <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/district-heating-system" target="_blank">forced along a network of pipes</a> to wherever it's needed. Today, there are around 500 district heating systems across the country, from major cities to small villages, providing heat to homes and businesses.</p><p>District heating used to be fueled mainly from the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140" target="_blank">by-products of power plants</a>, waste-to-energy plants and industrial processes. These days, however, Sweden is bringing more renewable sources into the mix. And as a result of competition, this localized form of power is now the country's<a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544217304140#fig3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> home-heating market leader.</a></p>
Sweden is using smart grids to turn buildings into energy producers. Huang et al/Elsevier
Energy ‘Prosumers’<p>But Sweden doesn't stop at village-level heating solutions. Its new breed of energy-generation takes hyper-local to the next level.</p><p>One example is in the city of Ludivika where 1970s flats <a href="https://www.buildup.eu/sites/default/files/content/transforming-a-residential-building-cluster-into-electricity-prosumers-in-sweden.pdf" target="_blank">have recently been retrofitted with the latest smart energy technology</a>.</p><p>48 family apartments spread across 3 buildings have been given photovoltaic solar panels, thermal energy storage and heat pump systems. A micro energy grid connects it all, and helps charge electric cars overnight.</p><p>The result is a cluster of 'prosumer' buildings, producing rather than consuming enough power for 77% of residents' needs. With <a href="http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1232060/FULLTEXT01.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high levels of smart meter usage</a>, it's a model that looks set to spread across Sweden.</p>
<div id="d7bf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8757b138d5570bec9d6aad18074a429a"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1273556364263071744" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Read more about Western Harbour and book a visit: https://t.co/ujSmVs9rNK 🏡🌳🌊 https://t.co/C5PuPziqIM</div> — Smart City Sweden (@Smart City Sweden)<a href="https://twitter.com/SmartCitySweden/statuses/1273556364263071744">1592474473.0</a></blockquote></div>
Scaling Up<p>A recent development by E.ON in Hyllie, a district on the outskirts of Malmö, southern Sweden, <a href="https://www.eonenergy.com/blog/2019/February/sweden-smart-city" target="_blank">has scaled up the smart grid principle</a>. Energy generation comes from local wind, solar, biomass and waste sources.</p><p>Smart grids then balance the power, react to the weather, deploying extra power when it's colder or putting excess into battery storage when it's warm. The system is not only more efficient, but bills have fallen.</p><p>Smart energy developments like those in Hyllie, Ludivika, and renewable-driven district heating, offer a radical alternative to the centralized energy systems many countries rely on today.</p><p>The EU's leaders have a challenge: how to generate 32% of energy from renewables by 2030. Sweden offers a vision of how technology and local solutions can turn a goal into a reality.</p>
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