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Climate Scientist: Not 'Whether' Global Warming Spurs Disasters, But 'How'

Climate Scientist: Not 'Whether' Global Warming Spurs Disasters, But 'How'

Author: Reilly Capps/Friday, August 7, 2015/Categories: climate change

[Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth speaks at a recent international conference. Photo courtesy of Kevin Trenberth]

By Reilly Capps

You can't always believe what you read in the papers. A year after floods turned Boulder County in a disaster movie, Kevin Trenberth read in the Boulder Daily Camera this headline: "Climate change not to blame for 2013 Colorado floods."

This annoyed Trenberth. Not only is he a distinguished senior scientist in the climate analysis section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Not only does he tell us that "all events have a global warming component." But, also, his shoes weren't long dry.

It rained 15 inches in a week in September 2013 -- probably the heaviest rainfall Colorado has ever seen -- in part because temperatures in the Pacific off the coast of Mexico were the hottest spot in the Western Hemisphere. This heat sucked moisture into the clouds, and when it fell, it killed eight, caused $1 billion in damages, and led to scenes like this: 

And it affected Trenberth, a Boulder resident. He arrived home with difficulty -- no buses were running -- to find his basement was flooding. His backyard was flooding. He had to re-arrange his drainage system to keep the water flowing around the house, rather than in it. (Others weren't so lucky.) Trenberth did all this with a broken foot -- which he couldn't get treatment for, since all the urgent care places and Boulder Medical Center were closed.

So it added insult to sogginess when the Daily Camera, reporting on a study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society saying that climate change would NOT make rains more likely on the Front Range.

Other similar assertions about Hurricane Sandy or typhoon Haiyin annoyed Trenberth. Since then, he's done the best he can to correct the record, to show how these and other events -- while not literally CAUSED by it -- were AFFECTED by global warming, made more intense,.

"The planet is warming, and the memory of that is in the ocean. The environment is warmer and moister than it used to be as a result. It affects all storms and events," Trenberth told RiledUp. "The extra heat from the increased greenhouse effect of increased carbon dioxide means more heat that has to go somewhere. "In a rain storm it means heavier rains. Those things are pretty universal. The rest is embroidery."

With colleague John Fasullo at the atmospheric research center and Theodore Shepherd at the University of Reading, Trenberth published a paper in the latest issue of Nature Climate change tying the Boulder floods to global warming. They also used ocean temperature data and other info to argue that, while it's inaccurate to say that Hurricane Sandy or typhoon Haiyan were "caused" by global warming, it is absolutely true that warmer oceans and higher seas meant a higher probability that the storms would be intense. In science, usually, it's best to speak of probabilities. You're not guaranteed a disaster every time. But global warming loads the dice.

The paper caused the Boulder Daily Camera to write a follow-up -- ahem, excuse us, made it more probable that the Daily Camera would write a follow-up -- using Trenberth's new paper. Dismayingly to someone like Trenberth, the article's comment section is a cavalcade of conspiracy theorists calling Trenberth an "alarmist," and noting, redundantly, that "there have always been floods," and repeating talking points about ClimateGate.

Trenberth's basement is dry. Boulder is dry. And nothing is 100 percent "caused" by global warming. But Trenberth is clarifying the basic story. "The climate is changing and we are playing a role," he told RiledUp. "It is the wrong question to ask whether an event was due to global warming or not."

The relevant question now is: in what way?

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