Do recent storms indicate a climate shift?

The frequency of major storms in the Northwest and New England is up, say experts.

Most of the news about global climate change this week came from the climate meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo, where former Vice President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) were awarded.

But residents in Centralia, Wash., are more focused on mud and the other damage from recent 100-m.p.h winds and torrential rains there.

What weather forecasters call the Pineapple Express roared through the area, resulting in considerable damage, flooded town centers and interstate highways, and the loss of some lives.

The connection: Experts say there's increasing evidence that global warming is bringing changes in the weather – more major storms, droughts, and wildfires.

After analyzing data from weather stations, the nonprofit group Environment Washington recently reported that storms with heavy rainfall are 30 percent more frequent in Washington State now compared with 60 years ago. Bill LaBorde, program director for the environmental group, says in a story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"The thing that's interesting about this report is that certainly no single weather event can be tied directly to global warming, but the fact that we're seeing a greater frequency of these events is evidence of global warming in Washington state."

Residents of the southwestern corner of the United States are concerned too.

Researchers with the advocacy group Environment Arizona examined data from more than 3,000 reporting stations between 1948 and 2006. They found that the number of storms with high amounts of precipitation increased by 25 percent in the Mountain West, by 26 percent in Arizona, and by 43 percent in Phoenix, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. The article expounds:

" 'If something is slowly changing, we tend to lose sight of it until it's manifested in some extreme event,' said Kelly Redmond, regional climatologist and deputy director of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, [Nev.]. No one notices continental drift until an earthquake occurs, Redmond said. Extreme storms are like the climate equivalent of an earthquake."

Meanwhile, summer temperatures in western North America are predicted to rise5 to 8 degrees F. in the next 50 years, with no increase in precipitation, says Steven Running, an ecology professor at the University of Montana and one of the IPCC's report authors according to an article in Montana's Helena Independent Record. He continues:

" 'The western US in particular is in for longer, hotter summers, and I can conclude nothing else but that's going to increase wildfire dynamics,' he said. The IPCC authors want the public to know that the warming trend is human-induced and that the early signs of a transition of our entire landscape already have begun, he said. 'In the long run, only reducing our fossil fuel emissions is going to get us ahead of this problem.' "

Patrick Mazza, research director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Climate Solutions, likens the connection between the weather (short term) and climate (long term) in the US Northwest to steam rising from a pot of boiling water:

"Global warming is heating the oceans, and the steamy, moist air rising from ocean surfaces is rocket fuel for storms. A warmer atmosphere also holds moisture better. The line of clouds pointing from the tropical Pacific to the Northwest that show up on the weather report satellite photos are the physical illustration of these phenomena."

Mr. Mazza adds an important scientific caveat: No one weather event conclusively demonstrates global warming. But, he says:

"The point here is that global warming loads the dice for more frequent and intense storms, such as the Northwest has seen in recent days. When rainfall in the rain city of Seattle hits the second-greatest one-day level in recorded history, and the record was set only in 2003, it provides a very suggestive indicator."

In a story in Portland's Oregonian newspaper, Mike Kreidler, Washington State insurance commissioner, says that if climate change amplifies weather damage, the region could find itself in a situation similar to that of the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast after Katrina, where property insurance became expensive, if not impossible, to obtain.

"The Northwest must strengthen building codes to make sure homes and other structures avoid danger from wind, flood, and wildfires, [Mr.] Kreidler said. 'We also need to take a careful look at where we develop and redevelop our communities. We need to first ask ourselves, 'Is the risk so great from some perils we should not build here?' "

It's not just the Northwest that's seeing big storms more frequently, according to a survey of weather reporting station data going back to 1948.

The steepest increases – in excess of 50 percent – were recorded in New York State and New England, says a story in The Baltimore Sun. As a region, New England experienced an increase of 61 percent of such storms, followed by the mid-Atlantic region at 42 percent.

This recent analysis was produced by Environment America, a federation of state-based advocacy groups. In a press release, it quotes William Moomaw, a professor of international environmental policy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.:

" 'This report demonstrates that we are already seeing the effects of global warming even with a relatively small increase in temperatures. The projected increases are much greater, and the impacts are already much more than was predicted.' "
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