Wild weather in recent years — from Hurricane Sandy and deadly tornado outbreaks to extremes of drought and floods — likely can be traced, in part, to climate change, the National Weather Service director says.
The onslaught of wild weather that has battered the USA in recent years — from Hurricane Sandy and deadly tornado outbreaks to extremes of drought and floods — looks to be part of a “new normal” for weather patterns in the U.S., new National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said Wednesday.
In comments to the USA TODAY Editorial Board, Uccellini also cited the “likely” contribution of global warming to the extreme weather.
Global warming is “making it more likely that the storms are more intense and produce heavier precipitation,” he said, but Uccellini cautioned that he doesn’t think there are enough cases of extreme weather yet to prove the hypothesis. “I think the evidence is leaning that way,” he said, adding that we’ve loaded the dice to produce more extreme weather such as Sandy. Uccellini said that Sandy’s damage was due in part to sea level rise from global warming.
The extreme weather, surprisingly, may even include winter storms, such as the ones that have hammered the Northeast Coast this winter.
“We have observed more snowstorms and heavy rain events that have been extreme,” he said, due to the fact that a warming atmosphere can “hold more water vapor that can increase the intensity of storms.”
One study, recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, reports that the lack of Arctic summer ice has altered weather patterns down here in North America and could potentially lead to stormier winters.
Others aren’t so sure about attributing recent specific weather events to climate change: The science of attributing extreme weather to climate change “is in its infancy, very difficult, and perhaps even the wrong question to address,” said meteorologist Ryan Maue of private forecasting firm WeatherBell Analytics.
“Many recent research papers may be speculative but they serve an important purpose to put forth a hypothesis into the scientific community that can be tested or rejected,” Maue said.
And while the intensity of some hurricanes may become stronger, there is no obvious link between tornadoes and climate change.
Other topics that Uccellini covered at the meeting:
- Hurricane Sandy classification: Sandy’s transition from a hurricane to a “Post Tropical Cyclone” caused some confusion as the storm approached the coast last year: No hurricane warnings were issued north of the Carolinas. Uccellini said that the weather service intends to implement “new procedures” designed to prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.
- Weather prediction models: In order to keep up with the European’s top prediction model — which is now the gold standard — the USA’s top model will have to increase its computing power: The Europeans “run their models at a higher resolution,” than that of the USA’s top models, Uccellini said.
- Weather satellites “gap”: Satellites are the “backbone” of the global observing system, he said, and he’s “concerned” about the possible looming gap in satellite coverage later this decade. “We have plans for gap mitigation,” he said, including making better use of the data that will still be there by 2016 and 2017.
A longtime federal meteorologist, Uccellini, 63, became head of the weather service in February, replacing acting director Laura Furgione, who remains as deputy director.