Global Warming, Weather and Climate Change

Reader Contribution by Richard Hilderman and Ph.D.

The United States is currently experiencing an extreme heat wave! At one time 32 states were under either a heat advisory or heat warning covering about 100 million square miles and affecting about 141 million people. At least 12 deaths have been attributed to this heat wave. Furthermore, parts of the midwest and southeast are experiencing severe drought conditions. What is the relationship between heat waves, weather, climate change and global warming? To address this question we must understand the link between weather and climate.

Weather is comprised of temperature, wind speed, humidity, precipitation, etc that occurs over only a few days. Climate, on the other hand, is the average weather patterns that occur over decades. In other words weather is concerned about the immediate whereas climate is more focused on the long term. The climate is currently evolving because of the human induced burning of fossil fuel that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This release of carbon dioxide is responsible for the current atmospheric carbon overload which triggers the current global warming trend (my postings entitled Fossil Fuel and Atmospheric Levels of Carbon Dioxide and Solar Activity, Greenhouse Gas Levels and Climate Change on Our Earth). Since global warming occurs over decades, it represents a shift to a warmer climate. This shift to a warmer climate increases the frequency of powerful storms and extreme weather events which is something we have experienced in the past several years.

Since climate change represents what is happening in the future, there is only one possible future if we continue in our use of fossil fuels. The continued burning of fossil fuel is triggering climate change by shifting the global temperature to a higher level. Some people believe we don’t have to worry about global warming until climate change triggers events that are harmful to us personally. Unfortunately this will be too late! The climate system has a time lag because it will take thousands of years to remove the excess carbon dioxide we are pumping into the atmosphere by burning of fossil fuel (my posting entitled Carbon Cycle). Thus, when we see the effects of global warming in the weather on a daily basis it will be too late to fix the problem!

If we want to see an increase in the frequency of heat waves like the one we are currently experiencing, all we have to do is continue our use of fossil fuel.

More information on the relationship of weather and the climate can be found in the book entitled THE WEATHER OF THE FUTURE:  Heat Waves, Extreme Storms and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet by Heidi Cullen.