Weather Report: Wild With a Chance of Record Heat, Precipitation

Tom Johnson | March 29, 2012 | Energy & Environment
Scientists at climate change conference blame extremes on need to cut carbon pollution

The past year has witnessed an extraordinary number of extreme weather events in New Jersey. It had its wettest August on record, leading to widespread flooding, and a rare October snowstorm, which left hundreds of thousands without power, to name just two.

“Millions of New Jerseyans have lived through extreme weather, causing extremely big problems for New Jersey’s economy and our public safety,’’ said Matt Elliott, clean energy advocate for Environment New Jersey. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.’’

But while there is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that man-made activities are causing the planet to warm, there is still a lot of uncertainty whether it is can be tied to climate change, scientists said at a symposium at Rutgers University’s Cook Campus Center yesterday.

If we are seeing more examples of extreme weather, it is likely to be caused by multiple effects, including global climate change, according to Gabriel Vecchi, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Princeton Township.

As the planet warms, there is an expectation that there will be more precipitation, more hot weather, and more record hot weather, Vecchi said. “For single events attributed to global warming, it is problematic,’’ the scientist said at the event, dubbed “Extreme Weather and Climate Change: How Can We Address Uncertainty?’’

For other extreme events, such as hurricanes, the expected influence of global climate change also is uncertain. “It’s a scientific gray zone,’’ he said.

Still, there is evidence of more intense rainfalls occurring, such as the number of days when more than two inches of precipitation falls, noted Richard Moss, a senior staff scientist at the University of Maryland. “But the link to tropical storms just isn’t there yet,’’ he said, during a break in the symposium.

However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in a report issued yesterday, said evidence suggests that climate change has led to change in climate extremes, such as heat waves, record high temperatures, and, in many regions, heavy precipitation in the past half century.

“The main message from the report is that we know enough to make good decisions about managing the risks of climate-related disasters. Sometimes we take advantage of this knowledge, but many times we do not,’’ said Chris Field, co-chair of one of IPCC’s working groups that produced the report.

Those risks include more surface runoff, leading to more pollution and increased risk of disease, caused by raw sewage mixing with runoff to flow into waterways, Moss said.

The nation’s infrastructure needs be addressed, including its roads, bridges and other systems, Moss said. “If you add increases in temperature and precipitation, then you are really in a bad situation,’’ he said.

According to Environment New Jersey, we are already there. The organization analyzed county-level weather-related disaster declarations in the state from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2006 through 2011.

Since 2006, federally declared weather-related disasters affected all 21 counties in New Jersey, including seven declarations in Atlantic County, six in Mercer, and five in both Middlesex and Bergen counties.

“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,’’ Elliott said. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling global warming demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from those sources.

Ironically, the two reports were released the day after the Obama administration proposed new rules to curb greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, a step that Elliott said fell short of what is needed to effectively combat climate change.