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Extreme weather: Is climate change always to blame?

October 10, 2023

As extreme heatwaves, storms and wildfires increase in severity and frequency, a comparatively new kind of research called weather attribution studies determines whether they are linked to human-caused climate change.

A man and a woman walk on the dry, cracked bed near the shore of Lake Titicaca in drought season in Huarina, Bolivia August 3, 2023.
Extreme heat in South America has been officially linked to the burning of fossil fuelsImage: CLAUDIA MORALES/REUTERS

From prolonged periods of extreme heat in South America, coast-to-coast Canadian wildfires and biblical flooding in Libya, catastrophic  weather events have dominated global headlines over recent months.

And as the planet heats due to still-rising greenhouse gas emissions, many weather disasters are blamed on climate change.

"The dog days of summer are not just barking. They are biting. Climate breakdown has begun," said Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, after it was revealed that June to August 2023 were the hottest months ever recorded in the Northern hemisphere. Since then, this September has gone down in history as the hottest ever on record. 

But how much of a heatwave or massive storm is down to global heating, and how much is just natural weather variability?

Wildfires, heat waves, floods — the new normal?

This question is being answered by the relatively new science of weather attribution. It sets out to assess the extent to which human-caused climate change, driven primarily by burning fossil fuels, increases the likelihood and intensity of an extreme weather event.

"No hurricane is 100% caused by climate change, but it's impacted by climate change in many different ways," Delta Merner, lead scientist at the Science Hub for Climate Litigation at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told DW. "Attribution science can help us to really tease out the role of climate change in these different events."

South American heatwave 100 times more likely 

During August and September, large parts of South America endured a 50-day extreme heatwave. Temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay, and wildfires took hold in several countries. 

Research conducted by the UK-based academic initiative, World Weather Attribution (WWA) to determine the role of human-driven climate change found that climate change made the heatwave 100 times more likely and increased temperatures by between 1.4 and 4.3 degrees Celcius.  

A dried riverbed
The Amazon river was one of many to be impacted by drought across the regionImage: Gustavo Basso/DW

They also found that climate change was a much greater contributing factor than El Nino, a natural phenomenon connected to higher temperatures in South America and other parts of the world. 

"Extreme, record-breaking heat is one of the clearest signs of human-caused climate change," Sjoukje Philip, a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, said in a statement. 

Canadian wildfires twice as likely due to climate change

When wildfires spread from the Canadian east to west coast in the summer of 2023, they burned nearly twice as much area than the previous record.  

Focused on the province of Quebec, the WWA concluded that climate change helped create dry, "fire-prone" weather about 20 to 50% more intense than average. It more than doubled the likelihood of extreme fire weather conditions in eastern Canada.

 wildfire burns on the mountainside above a lakefront home
The Canadian wildfires of 2023 were up to 50% more intense due to global heatingImage: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP/picture alliance

The hotter and drier weather caused snow to melt more rapidly, for example, bringing forward the start of the fire season and increasing its duration.

WWA says that advances in climate modeling and better access to weather data have improved the confidence and precision of studies that gauge the probability of extreme weather events, with or without climate change.

Italian floods: Climate not responsible

The climate crisis can't always be directly blamed for extreme weather events.

In May 2023, in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna, three rainstorms sparked widespread landslides and flooding that were said to be the worst in a century.  

But while the high waters align with rising incidences of climate-driven extreme weather globally, researchers concluded this was an isolated event.

Weather extremes due to rising temperatures

After analyzing rainfall records dating back to 1960 in Emilia-Romagna, scientists, including Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the Imperial College London and co-founder of the WWA, found that spring rainfall is neither becoming more nor less intense with climate change in the region.

The researchers found that this particular 21-day period of rainfall — a one in a 200-year event with only a 0.5% chance of happening annually — could have occurred with or without climate change.

The flooding was caused by highly unique and unusual weather conditions "driven by an unprecedented sequence of three low-pressure systems in the central Mediterranean," said Davide Faranda, an Italian researcher at the Institute Pierre-Simon Laplace and an author of the study.

Libya and Greece floods: Climate impact can be ambiguous

After Storm Daniel triggered flooding that caused two dams to burst and killed thousands in Libya in early September, a WWA study found that human-induced planetary heating made the torrential rainfall up to 50 times more likely. Massive flooding in central Greece spawned from the same storm was up to 10 times more likely.  

Following a summer of record heatwaves and wildfires with a "very clear climate change fingerprint, quantifying the contribution of global warming to these floods proved more challenging," said Otto.  

To figure out if temperature rise had spurred heavier rain in the region, scientists compared weather data from the pre-1880s climate with the current climate that has warmed 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) since then.

Aerial view of the devastated city of Derna in Libya following the flood
Damage from floods in Derna, eastern Libya, in September. Climate change made the flooding up to 50 times more likelyImage: Ayman Al-sahili/REUTERS

The report acknowledged that "large mathematical uncertainties" were built into the analysis as the weather patterns covered relatively small areas, and "most climate models do not represent rainfall on these small scales well."

However, it added that "studies project heavier rain in the region as temperatures rise" and that local weather station data in Greece, for example, showed a trend toward heavier rain.

A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, so from 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming alone, "we would expect a 10% increase" in rainfall intensity, said Otto.

Record summer heatwaves in 2023 have marks of climate change

As opposed to rainfall, the link between temperature extremes and global heating is much clearer.

WWA published a study showing that extreme heat in the US, Mexico region and southern Europe in July "would have been virtually impossible to occur … if humans had not warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels."

During July 2023 more than 6.5 billion people were exposed to one or more days of heat made at least three times more likely by climate change, according to attribution analysis by Climate Central, a US-based climate think tank. That's around 80% of the world's population.

The analysis assessed 4,700 cities and 200 countries, finding that residents in 15 major cities with populations above 6 million were exposed to high average monthly temperatures made more likely by global heating. These included Mexico City, Cairo, Kolkata, Lagos, Hong Kong, Miami and Khartoum.

"Human-caused climate change influenced July temperatures for the vast majority of humanity," said Andrew Pershing, vice president for science at Climate Central. "Across the entire planet, the average person was exposed to 11 days in which carbon pollution made the local temperature at least three times more likely. Virtually no place on Earth escaped the influence of climate change."

Edited by: Jennifer Collins 

This article was originally published on 28.09 and has been updated to include the latest WWA study on the extreme heat in South America.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.