Extreme Weather: This Season's Norm?

With all that's going on in the world, it's easy to miss weather events. So you may not have noticed that U.S. weather patterns the last few months have been quite extreme and worrying.

From NOAA's National Climatic Data Center

The graph above shows drought conditions in the U.S. during June 2007 using the "Drought Severity Palmer Index" – the more positive the index (green areas), the wetter the soil, and the more negative the index (red areas), the drier the soil.

As you can see, two large regions of the U.S. – the southeast and the southwest – are experiencing extreme drought. In Georgia and Florida, dry conditions caused failing crops and water shortage alerts. Lake Okeechobee in South Florida, second only to Lake Michigan as the largest fresh water lake in the U.S., and a source of water for millions of people and the Everglades, reached its lowest level ever. Levels were so low that archeological artifacts were revealed on the exposed lake bottom.

The region was also hit with wildfires reported as the most extensive since 1898. In Georgia and Florida alone, more than 1 million acres have burned so far in 2007. At the Florida Climate Summit in Miami last week, I heard Governor Crist report that this year there were wildfires in all but 3 of the more than 90 counties in the state.

In the southwest, California, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah were hit with sweltering heat. Record-breaking or near record-breaking high temperatures were recorded in Reno, Las Vegas, Boise, and Spokane. In Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other cities, temperatures hovered near 110oF or higher.

Meanwhile, the central part of the U.S. – especially Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas – is awash in water. You might think these folks would appreciate moisture after last year's severe drought with widespread wildfires and crop failures. But not this much moisture. The floods produced by near-record rains have cost lives, destroyed property, and contaminated waters and soils.

Is this extreme weather due to global warming? It's impossible to attribute a specific meteorological episode to a climate trend, but global warming does make extreme weather events more the norm than the exception. And certainly the weather the past few months has been extreme.

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49 Comments

  1. sam
    Posted July 18, 2007 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    let me know what you think about this alternative energy conversation: http://www.mypetpeeves.com/plog/index.php/archives/2365

  2. Kira
    Posted July 19, 2007 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Bill also contributed to a nice overview of the science that connects global warming to extreme weather events, such as drought and wildfires: http://www.environmentaldefense.org/page.cfm?tagid=1405

  3. kenzrw
    Posted July 20, 2007 at 12:28 am | Permalink

    Be sure to look at previous years too. There's always some extremes somewhere in the US. There is definitely a trend toward drier in the western US over the recent past, however. But other parts of the US alternates between too wet and too dry and normal. Are we really seeing more extreme weather today than, say, in the 1930s? Does anyone have a drought index from that time period? I'd like to see it if you do. Thanks.

  4. Posted July 20, 2007 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    So are we "seeing" more extreme weather? A good question and a tough one to answer. Extreme weather, like extreme events in general, are statistical outliers and so difficult to characterize. But here are few things to consider.

    In a paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Andreadis and Lettenmaier found that precipitation and average soil moisture has increased in the 20th century for most of the US, while the duration and severity of droughts in the Southwest and parts of the interior West has increased.

    I find the data on hurricanes is pretty compelling – they are getting more intense.

    Also take a look at this figure which I found on Wikipedia.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/ab/Trends_in_natural_disasters.jpg

    Here are some resources:

    NOAA has a website on North American droughts with maps generated from 20th century instrumental records and older proxies: data, 20th century instrumental record, map of four different North American droughts based on those records.

  5. infamous liberal hippie type in austin
    Posted July 20, 2007 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    sam:
    re: mypetpeeves comment by slappy.
    Pedernales Electric is not the only provider, not even the main provider, in Austin. The municipally owned Austin Energy serves the majority of Austin proper, and has the #1 Green Power program in America – GreenChoice. Eighty percent of electric power in GreenChoice comes from West Texas wind farms, some from solar and some from landfill biogas. The "liberal hippie types Austin is famous for" have been supporting this program for nearly a decade. I know because I signed up in one of the first waves before the wind turbines were even spinning!

  6. Posted July 27, 2007 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Weather cycles have been around since the big bang and long before man roamed this planet.
    Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Why? Because you can't.
    So that remains a no brainer.

    All other hurricanes that have hit this country no longer are a matter of history and are ignored.
    Only hurricane Katrina receives continuing attention because it was the first politically incorrect hurricane. It hurt a lot of black people in New Orleans.

    Alternative energy? Been yakked about for years
    and we're still using gasoline only it costs $2.50
    a gallon more than it used to. Environmental laws have backfired in that they've stymied
    production of anything including so called alternative energy. Kinda like a dog chasing it's tail.

    Energy is available everywhere you want to try it. How so? Give Einstein's marvelous equation a go and see what you'll find. It's misnomered as a Theory of Relativity whereby it's hardly a theory,it's a reality. If our college faculties engaged less in left wing ideals and start grinding out more engineers, we'd advance.
    But with American kids majoring in beer and sex instead of math, we remain at a standstill using gasoline for power while Al Gore bitches about it
    yet doesn't know what to do.

  7. hawk
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 12:29 am | Permalink

    Bill,

    I have an anti-desertification solution; stop and recapture desert land. Do you know of any climate models showing how GW will affect deserts?

    Dan

  8. Posted July 17, 2008 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    James Wang (climate scientist here) did a post on droughts and deserts:

    http://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2008/01/14/global_winds/

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