Anthropogenic contribution to global occurrence of heavy-precipitation and high-temperature extremes

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Abstract

Climate change includes not only changes in mean climate but also in weather extremes. For a few prominent heatwaves and heavy precipitation events a human contribution to their occurrence has been demonstrated1,2,3,4,5. Here we apply a similar framework but estimate what fraction of all globally occurring heavy precipitation and hot extremes is attributable to warming. We show that at the present-day warming of 0.85 °C about 18% of the moderate daily precipitation extremes over land are attributable to the observed temperature increase since pre-industrial times, which in turn primarily results from human influence6. For 2 °C of warming the fraction of precipitation extremes attributable to human influence rises to about 40%. Likewise, today about 75% of the moderate daily hot extremes over land are attributable to warming. It is the most rare and extreme events for which the largest fraction is anthropogenic, and that contribution increases nonlinearly with further warming. The approach introduced here is robust owing to its global perspective, less sensitive to model biases than alternative methods and informative for mitigation policy, and thereby complementary to single-event attribution. Combined with information on vulnerability and exposure, it serves as a scientific basis for assessment of global risk from extreme weather, the discussion of mitigation targets, and liability considerations.

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Figure 1: Regional changes in precipitation extremes.
Figure 2: Rapidly increasing global fraction of attributable risk of extremes over land.
Figure 3: Change in probability of heavy precipitation and hot extremes.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

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E.M.F. performed the analysis of the models. Both authors conceived the study and contributed to the writing.

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Correspondence to E. M. Fischer.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Fischer, E., Knutti, R. Anthropogenic contribution to global occurrence of heavy-precipitation and high-temperature extremes. Nature Clim Change 5, 560–564 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2617

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