Extremely high temperatures, over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, were experienced in the Pacific Northwest in 2021. While this may be interpreted by some as a sign of the times, is the frequency of such events truly increasing because of climate change? The startling conclusion of a new study is that they are not.
According to a UCLA research group, global warming may be affecting annual summer temperatures, but it is not leading to an increase in extreme weather events like the 2021 heat wave. As a matter of fact, scientists have estimated that heat waves like the one in the Pacific Northwest only happen once every 10,000 years.
“It was unbelievable how harsh and terrible that heat wave was,” says Karen McKinnon, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability, in a press release from the institution. Extreme weather is difficult to predict with climate models, and preliminary studies have found almost no possibility of such events occurring.
The study was conducted by McKinnon and co-author Isla Simpson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who looked at climate model simulations and historical weather trends in the states of Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. According to their analysis, climate models can reproduce intense heat waves like the one in 2021, which only occur once every several thousand years. Moreover, the models predict that this will only happen once per 100,000 years in the cities where temperatures peaked at roughly 121 degrees.
Won’t Climate Change Speed This Timetable Up?
The research found that the frequency and intensity of heat waves are both rising as a result of climate change. This tendency, however, by no means ensures a prosperous future. McKinnon claims that there is no evidence from the past to support the claim that early summer heatwave temperatures rose more quickly than usual. In 2021, a heat wave swept the Pacific Northwest, and experts say it was caused by a combination of climate change and extremely unlucky natural variability.
Researchers examined whether or whether other regions of the world are becoming more vulnerable to extreme climate events by analyzing data from similar places such as coastal Alaska, British Columbia, Canada, and the Nordic countries. These places are all in the same general latitude as the Pacific Northwest and have many of the same characteristics. Heat waves are caused by high-pressure systems that remain stationary and do not move, as is the case in this region.
Even with the doubling of greenhouse gases over the next century, the findings of 50 climate model simulations looking at weather from 1850 to 2100 reveal that a heat wave like the one in the Pacific Northwest will only happen once every 10,000 years.
On the bright side, “we don’t see indications that occurrences this dramatic should start happening routinely,” as McKinnon puts it. The summer of 2022 was marked by extreme heat in several parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, China, and the state of California. It’s important to keep analyzing whether or not these catastrophic events are supporting or contradicting our most recent discoveries concerning the state of the climate.
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Could the Models Be Wrong?
More historic heat waves will require scientists to review their models, even if McKinnon does not think that extreme occurrences are warming faster than normal temperatures are right now.
If instances with a 10,000-year return frequency persist, the researcher concedes, “there may be something missing in the climate model we utilized.” Though it’s encouraging that extreme weather isn’t becoming more often, the authors of this study stress that global warming is still a persistent issue.
McKinnon says, “If everything is moving with mean climate change, it can sound like it’s not so awful,” but then he points out the catastrophic repercussions of climate change we’re already experiencing.