It's not just that climate will make heat waves worse and rainfall more intense. It's that it already has -- as two new studies show, human activity is altering the world we live in, to often disastrous effect.
To see what's going on, you have only to look at this summer, where for the third time this century Europe found itself slammed by a massive heatwave rivaling those experienced in 2003 and 2006. Before it finally broke, Madrid had set a new July heat record at 103.8 degrees Fahrenheit, Germany had beat its all time heat record with a reading of 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit and a 98.1 degrees Fahrenheit temperature recorded at London's Heathrow airport was the highest ever recorded in the U.K. in July. It was a bad year to compete in the Tour de France, and researchers have already figured out that global warming doubled its odds of happening.
A team of international researchers carried out the study in partnership with Climate Central. They looked at cities across the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Paris and Switzerland and, using two independent, peer-reviewed methods, found it is "virtually certain" that the heatwaves they experienced were more likely to occur now than before climate change started happening -- four times as likely, in the most extreme cases.
A separate study out Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, found the fingerprints of climate change on a natural disaster dating several summers back: the heavy downpour near Russia's Black Sea coast that caused devastating floods in the city of Krymsk. Over 170 people were killed, and according to the researchers, the warming of the Black and eastern Mediterranean Seas -- about 2 degrees Celsius since the early 1980s -- were associated with a 300 percent increase in rainfall. The catastrophic flooding, in other words, wouldn't have been possible just decades earlier.
"Due to ocean warming, the lower atmosphere has become more unstable over the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean," explained study co-author Douglas Maraun. "We therefore expect that events like those in Krymsk or Sochi [which saw torrential rains of its own just last month] will become more frequent in the future."
Simulated precipitation (over 24 hours from 6 to 7 July 2012) of a model run using observed sea surface temperature (a) and (b) using a colder SST representative of the early 1980s (GEOMAR)
Scientists are always incredibly cautious not to say that climate change cased any single weather event, and even in cases when they can say that climate change influenced something, the turnaround can be slow -- as with the Krymsk study. Some situations, like California's drought, last long enough for the research to catch up -- we're able to understand, while we're living through it, how climate change contributes -- but the point in rushing the research on Europe's heat, the scientists involved with the study say, was to make it easier for climate to be part of the conversation while these events are grabbing headlines.
“There’s just often a lot of unscientific speculation going on about the role of climate change,” Heidi Cullen, Climate Central’s chief scientist, told Nature. “Our goal was to provide quantitative answers in this more timely manner when the question was being asked.”
In any case, Europe's heat and Russia's rain can now join the list of extreme weather events that scientists feel certain were made worse by climate change. The most pertinent information, for everyone who lived through them: if the impact of climate change is already being felt now, then there's lots more to come in the future.