The Climate Change – Weather Connection. Yes, Virginia, There Is One.

| 9/1/2012 8:49:49 AM

You’ve heard it before: “We cannot make a direct connection between climate change and weather events.” Okay, that may have been technically or literally true, but only in the total science nerd sense. Because every scientist who said it also knew, deep down, that there was a connection – just no way to prove it for any given event.

Until now.

James Hansen, a climatologist and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, has published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that concludes that the weather extremes we’ve been seeing over the last six decades can scientifically be attributed to climate change. How? He bypasses the admittedly near-impossible task of linking each specific weather event by itself to climate change and instead looks at the entire group of weather events as a whole. Could these abnormal weather events have occurred by chance? Were they just normal “weird weather?” What are the odds?

The way to talk about odds in groups of events is to use statistics. Hansen and his group applied statistics to the weather data for Hansens curveseach of the six decades from 1951 through 2011 (so this data doesn’t even include all our extreme weather this year). This analysis produces a series of probability curves (see the figure) which say how probably any given temperature anomaly is in that decade. Even without getting into all the technical elements of the data, you can tell two (true) things just by looking at the curves:


  • Every decade, the curve shifts to the right. This means that the average temperature has been steadily rising – no surprise there, right? 
  • Every decade, the curve has been getting shorter and wider. THIS is the real news.  


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