Perspective | Published:

Attribution of climate extreme events

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 725730 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

There is a tremendous desire to attribute causes to weather and climate events that is often challenging from a physical standpoint. Headlines attributing an event solely to either human-induced climate change or natural variability can be misleading when both are invariably in play. The conventional attribution framework struggles with dynamically driven extremes because of the small signal-to-noise ratios and often uncertain nature of the forced changes. Here, we suggest that a different framing is desirable, which asks why such extremes unfold the way they do. Specifically, we suggest that it is more useful to regard the extreme circulation regime or weather event as being largely unaffected by climate change, and question whether known changes in the climate system's thermodynamic state affected the impact of the particular event. Some examples briefly illustrated include 'snowmaggedon' in February 2010, superstorm Sandy in October 2012 and supertyphoon Haiyan in November 2013, and, in more detail, the Boulder floods of September 2013, all of which were influenced by high sea surface temperatures that had a discernible human component.

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Acknowledgements

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation. This work is supported by DOE award DE-SC0012711. T.G.S. acknowledges the support provided through the Grantham Chair in Climate Science at the University of Reading.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), PO Box 3000, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA

    • Kevin E. Trenberth
    •  & John T. Fasullo
  2. Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, UK

    • Theodore G. Shepherd

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Contributions

K.E.T. led the writing of the paper and conceived of the paper and figures. J.T.F analysed some data and contributed to two figures. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kevin E. Trenberth.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2657

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