FAQ 3.1 | Is the Climate Becoming More Extreme?
While there is evidence that increases in greenhouse gases have likely caused changes in some types of extremes, there is no simple answer to the question of whether the climate, in general, has become more or less extreme. Both the terms ‘more extreme’ and ‘less extreme’ can be defined in different ways, resulting in different characterizations of observed changes in extremes. Additionally, from a physical climate science perspective it is difficult to devise a comprehensive metric that encompasses all aspects of extreme behavior in the climate.
One approach for evaluating whether the climate is becoming more extreme would be to determine whether there have been changes in the typical range of variation of specific climate variables. For example, if there was evidence that temperature variations in a given region had become significantly larger than in the past, then it would be reasonable to conclude that temperatures in that region had become more extreme. More simply, temperature variations might be considered to be becoming more extreme if the difference between the highest and the lowest temperature observed in a year is increasing. According to this approach, daily temperature over the globe may have become less extreme because there have generally been greater increases in mean daily minimum temperatures globally than in mean daily maximum temperatures, over the second half of the 20th century. On the other hand, one might conclude that daily precipitation has become more extreme because observations suggest that the magnitude of the heaviest precipitation events has increased in many parts of the world. Another approach would be to ask whether there have been significant changes in the frequency with which climate variables cross fixed thresholds that have been associated with human or other impacts. For example, an increase in the mean temperature usually results in an increase in hot extremes and a decrease in cold extremes. Such a shift in the temperature distribution would not increase the ‘extremeness’ of day-to-day variations in temperature, but would be perceived as resulting in a more extreme warm temperature climate, and a less extreme cold temperature climate. So the answer to the question posed here would depend on the variable of interest, and on which specific measure of the extremeness of that variable is examined. As well, to provide a complete answer to the above question, one would also have to collate not just trends in single variables, but also indicators of change in complex extreme events resulting from a sequence of individual events, or the simultaneous occurrence of different types of extremes. So it would be difficult to comprehensively describe the full suite of phenomena of concern, or to find a way to synthesize all such indicators into a single extremeness metric that could be used to comprehensively assess whether the climate as a whole has become more extreme from a physical perspective. And to make such a metric useful to more than a specific location, one would have to combine the results at many locations, each with a different perspective on what is ‘extreme.’
Three types of metrics have been considered to avoid these problems, and thereby allow an answer to this question. One approach is to count the number of record-breaking events in a variable and to examine such a count for any trend. However, one would still face the problem of what to do if, for instance, hot extremes are setting new records, while cold extremes are not occurring as frequently as in the past. In such a case, counting the number of records might not indicate whether the climate was becoming more or less extreme, rather just whether there was a shift in the mean climate. Also, the question of how to combine the numbers of record-breaking events in various extremes (e.g., daily precipitation and hot temperatures) would need to be considered. Another approach is to combine indicators of a selection of important extremes into a single index, such as the Climate Extremes Index (CEI), which measures the fraction of the area of a region or country experiencing extremes in monthly mean surface temperature, daily precipitation, and drought. The CEI, however, omits many important extremes such as tropical cyclones and tornadoes, and could, therefore, not be considered a complete index of ‘extremeness.’ Nor does it take into account complex or multiple extremes, nor the varying thresholds that relate extremes to impacts in various sectors.
A third approach to solving this dilemma arises from the fact that extremes often have deleterious economic consequences. It may therefore be possible to measure the integrated economic effects of the occurrence of different types of extremes into a common instrument such as insurance payout to determine if there has been an increase or decrease in that instrument. This approach would have the value that it clearly takes into account those extremes with economic consequences. But trends in such an instrument will be dominated by changes in vulnerability and exposure and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle changes in the instrument caused by non-climatic changes in vulnerability or exposure in order to leave a residual that reflects only changes in climate extremes. For example, coastal development can increase the exposure of populations to hurricanes; therefore, an increase in damage in coastal regions caused by hurricane landfalls will largely reflect changes in exposure and may not be indicative of increased hurricane activity. Moreover, it may not always be possible to associate impacts such as the loss of human life or damage to an ecosystem due to climate extremes to a measurable instrument.
None of the above instruments has yet been developed sufficiently as to allow us to confidently answer the question posed here. Thus we are restricted to questions about whether specific extremes are becoming more or less common, and our confidence in the answers to such questions, including the direction and magnitude of changes in specific extremes, depends on the type of extreme, as well as on the region and season, linked with the level of understanding of the underlying processes and the reliability of their simulation in models.
Omnologos, 28 March 2012