Severe Weather More Likely Thanks to Climate Change

Scientists caution that climate change has increased the chances for high impact events like the Texas drought.

Climate change has increased the likelihood of severe weather events such as storms, heat waves, and droughts.


BOSTON—Wildfires. Droughts. Super storms.

As opposed to representing the unfortunate severe weather headlines of the last year, scientists said Friday that climate change has increased the likelihood of such events moving forward.

And though the misery is shared from one U.S. coast to another, scientists speaking at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston said, the type of extreme event may vary significantly from region to region. (Related: "6 Ways Climate Change Will Affect You.")

Heat waves have become more frequent across the United States, with western regions setting records for the number of such events in the 2000s, said Donald Wuebbles, a geoscientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But the Midwest and Northeast have experienced a 45 percent and 74 percent increase, respectively, in the heaviest rainfalls those regions have seen since 1950.

The extreme drought that plagued Texas in 2011 has spread to New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and northern Mexico, said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas State's climatologist at Texas A&M University in College Station.

"The science is clear and convincing that climate change is happening and it's happening rapidly. There's no debate within the science community ... about the changes occurring in the Earth's climate and the fact that these changes are occurring in response to human activities," said Wuebbles.

In 2011 and 2012, major droughts, heat waves, severe storms, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and wildfires caused about $60 billion in damages each year, for a total of about $120 billion.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climactic Data Center, these were some of the costliest weather events in the country's history, said Wuebbles.

President Obama argued in his State of the Union address this week that the time is ripe to address climate change, saying he would skirt Congress to make such changes, if necessary.

His proposals included a system similar to the cap-and-trade proposal killed in Congress during his first term, new regulations for coal-burning power plants, and a promise to promote energy efficiency and R&D efforts into cleaner technologies. (Related: "Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate, With or Without Congress.")

The researchers said they are glad to see that addressing climate change is on the President's agenda. But they stressed that they wanted the public to have access to accurate, scientifically sound information, not just simplified talking points.