Extreme Weather Forecast

March 6, 2012 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Heidi Cullen’s long-term weather forecast is a wild one.

Cullen, a senior research scientist at the media and science organization Climate Central, told a Frick Center audience on March 1 that the weather of the future will be characterized by extremes: Not just heat and drought, but more intense storms, as well.

The culprit, she said, is  human-generated climate change that is making our world steadily warmer and, in the process, creating more fuel for storms.

“Climate change stacks up in the extremes, which means we can expect to see more extreme weather,” she said. Heat waves will become more severe, rain and snow storms more powerful. “This is the new normal.”

Cullen, author of The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms and Other Scenes From a Climate-Changed Planet, visited Elmhurst as part of the College’s Science Talks lecture series. Before joining Climate Central, Cullen was The Weather Channel’s first on-air climate expert and helped to create Forecast Earth, a weekly television series focused on issues related to climate change and the environment.

Cullen said that looming weather extremes promise trouble for urban infrastructure such as tunnels and subways, and for an energy grid that will be severely taxed.

“These are problems that can only be solved looking out on a long time scale and asking, ‘What can we do to plan ahead?’” she said.

Popular opinion still mixed

Despite dire warnings from climate scientists like Cullen, public-opinion polls show Americans still wrestling with the basic premises behind climate change. Depending on the poll, anywhere between half and three-quarters of respondents say they believe global warming is real. What’s more, Cullen told her Frick Center audience, the general public underestimates the extent of the consensus in the scientific community about climate change.

“Within the mainstream climate-science community, climate change is a well-established fact, but people think there’s still doubt about it,” she said.

Not only has climate science identified the emergence of a “new normal” of extreme weather, Cullen said, it also can point to a culprit. Borrowing statistical methods used in epidemiology, climate scientists seek to measure how our consumption of fossil fuels affects the climate and increases the odds of extreme weather.

One such study examined the European heat wave of 2003 that claimed 30,000 lives and was widely described as the kind of weather event that could be expected only once every few hundred years. Cullen said that studies showed that heat-trapping pollution doubled the likelihood of that heat wave. She added that such catastrophic heat could, by 2040, become commonplace, likely to happen as often as every other year.

What can be done to stave off such disaster? “There is no silver bullet,” Cullen said. Improving energy efficiency would help. So would relying more heavily on solar, wind, geothermal and other alternative energy sources.

But first, Cullen said, scientists will have to do a better job of communicating their concern about climate change. “We have to convince people that it’s real, that it’s a threat and that something can be done about it,” she said.

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