Linking Extreme Weather Events to Climate Change

Meteorologist Jeff Masters explains why climate scientists once were hesitant to link climate change with the trend of extreme weather events


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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Extreme weather events seem to be happening more and more often, from hurricanes like Iselle raging in Hawaii to consecutive summers of drought in California. But can these events be linked to climate change?

Now joining us from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to discuss whether there’s a relationship between extreme weather and climate change is our guest, Jeff Masters. He’s a meteorologist and the director of meteorology for the website

Thanks for joining us, Jeff.


DESVARIEUX: So, Jeff, as we speak, tropical storm Iselle has made landfall on Hawaii’s big island, and according to the U.S. Drought Monitor report, California is now experiencing its worst drought ever. Can these extreme weather events be linked to climate change? Or are they a part of sort of this, quote, natural variability, which is how a NASA scientist described this? Is this natural variability?

MASTERS: We have to understand that the climate is composed of two parts. One is kind of the base state, the large-scale atmospheric temperatures and moisture levels and amount of solar energy coming in. And then there’s this range of variation, the ups and downs of the weather, the day-to-day variation. That’s never going to go away.

But if you change the base state of the climate by warming it, now you’ve put more energy into the system. You put more moisture into the system, because you’re going to evaporate more water vapor off the oceans. So that has to change weather events.

And in particular, things like hurricanes hitting Hawaii, well, that’s probably going to get more common, because it’s difficult to get a hurricane in Hawaii, because the ocean temperatures aren’t warm enough. Once you cross a certain critical threshold, then you can start to get hurricanes in Hawaii. And the ocean temperatures for this particular storm were just above that critical threshold, about a degree Fahrenheit above average.

So the answer to your question is: there could be natural variations accounting for these, but if you look at the long-term statistics, then you can start figuring out, ahaare we starting to see a rise in extreme weather events? And in some situations, yes, we can say we are.

DESVARIEUX: But, Jeff, in the past it seems that scientists have been so hesitant to make these connections. Why do you think scientists like yourself are coming forward now and trying to make this connection?

MASTERS: There is a lot of natural variability in the system, and it takes a long time period of data records to be able to say with some degree of certainty that, yeah, we’re seeing some changes. And in some cases we are starting to see that now. And also, starting in about 2010, the atmosphere just got so crazy that a lot of meteorologists, it was a wake-up call for them. They said, hey, something’s up. And even a common person, I mean, if you’ve been alive, you know, 30, 40 years or more, you have to realize that the weather patterns you’ve seen in the last few years are like nothing else before in your history.

DESVARIEUX: What are some of your biggest concerns in terms of the short-term effects of climate change on our environment? Can you speak to specifics? And which people are going to be the most vulnerable?

MASTERS: My biggest concern is drought, because that affects the two things we need to live: food and water. And we saw a case in 2010 where in Russia they had a huge drought–killed over 55,000 people because of the heatwave that accompanied the drought–and global grain prices took a huge spike that helped cause the so-called Arab Spring, where you had unrest in all these countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Now imagine if you had a Russian drought at the same time you had a drought in one of the other major grain producing areas of the world, say the U.S. or Australia. Now you can imagine a situation where you’ve got extreme levels of unrest globally, possibly famine. So that’s the biggest concern with climate change.

Two other big concerns are stronger storms. When you put more heat energy into the atmosphere, now you can have stronger hurricanes. And as those stronger hurricanes make landfall, now they’re riding up on top of higher sea levels, so you cause more inundation along the coast, like we saw with Hurricane Sandy.

And the third concern to have is when you put more energy in the atmosphere, that heat energy evaporates more water off of the oceans. And now there are heavier downpours as a result, so you can get more extreme inland flooding. All these types of disasters are going to affect the poor the most, because the poor tend to live in the areas where nobody else wants to live, in the floodplains or in the areas for natural disasters.

DESVARIEUX: And, Jeff, I mean, you’re not alone in these calls in terms of alerting the public in terms of the potential risks that we are going to be facing–and, I mean, some people can even make the argument that we have already been facing with climate change. But at the end of the day, politicians haven’t really made moves. Congress hasn’t made a move to really address this issue. Why do you think this hasn’t become a bigger issue in Congress? And what is it going to take for us to kind of turn that corner and actually get some policies that can make a difference in combating climate change?

MASTERS: We have to realize that the richest and most powerful corporations in world history, the oil companies, are fighting a huge battle against any sort of actions being taken. They have a lot of political power, and their PR wings are very adept at trying to disguise the severity of the problem. They spend tens of millions of dollars every year trying to throw dirt on scientists, trying to make it sound like it’s not as big a problem as scientists are saying, trying to say that it’s too late to do any action, or if we do any action, it won’t do any good. So a lot of maneuvering going around with a lot of big money. That’s really slowing things down, and that’s been the biggest impediment towards action that I can see.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Jeff Masters, joining us from Ann Arbor, Michigan, thank you so much for being with us.

MASTERS: You’re welcome.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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