Global Warming: Like 'Weather on Steroids'

Scientists liken greenhouse gases to baseball player

ByClayton Sandell
February 07, 2012, 6:50 PM

Feb. 8, 2012 — -- Are we "doping" our atmosphere?

What's going on with these record warm temperatures… extreme snowfall… even January tornadoes?

Is climate change the cause? Or more appropriately, what impact is climate change having on our weather?

To help answer those questions, a group of researchers has just released a new online guide for understanding the links between more extreme weather and a warming planet.

Is global warming throwing our weather out of whack? Scientists tell us there's no easy, blanket answer. The bottom line is that the evidence can be strong or weak, depending on the type of weather. That, admit researchers, can be confusing to anyone looking for a clear answer.

"This is a very complicated subject," said David Hosansky, spokesman for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which produced the report and operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "We were convinced that these different messages could confuse the public and leave the people thinking that we just can't connect the dots. And in fact, a lot of the dots are being connected."

To help connect those dots, the center created a new webpage called "Weather on Steroids." (The banner image on the website even features a syringe injecting Planet Earth with an unknown substance.) They've even taken a shot at an animated analogy, comparing our weather to a baseball player on steroids.

"We wanted to reach out to the public and present it in a way that could resonate widely," Hosansky said.

When it comes to weather, for example, researchers say they have greater confidence that heat waves, torrential downpours and "Snowmageddon"-type storms are becoming more extreme as humans pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (They point out that since since greenhouse gases are a relatively small part of the atmosphere, a small increase created by human beings can make a significant difference.) There is less confidence, however, that weather phenomena like hurricanes, tornadoes and El Nino/La Nina conditions are being affected in measurable ways.

"Although the number of observed U.S. tornadoes has more than doubled since the 1950s, as more spotters and chasers watch the skies, there has been no significant trend in the strongest twisters," the report says.

You can read the entire "spectrum of confidence" and the supporting evidence here.

At a time when a substantial portion of the public and even some local TV meteorologists don't believe human activity is affecting the climate, the scientists say their report draws on the latest research to help clear the air.

"We wanted to give a clear view of the science to decision makers, the media, and members of the public," Hosansky said. "And show where the science is and where the science is going."

The report comes as the National Oceanic and Atmosheric Administration, or NOAA, releases the latest "State of the Climate" report. Among the findings:

In January, the average contiguous U.S. temperature was 5.5 degrees F above the long-term average. The first two months of the winter season were much warmer than average.

"A total of twenty-two states from Montana to Maine had December-January temperatures ranking among their ten warmest," NOAA reported.

Only Florida and Washington had near-average temperatures last month, and no state saw temperatures cooler than average. Every other state had above-average temperatures in January.

Many Northern Plains cities broke all-time high-temperature records in January, including Minot, N.D. The city hit 61 degrees F on Jan. 5, busting the previous record of 59 degrees set in 1906.

Alaska, on the other hand, saw some of the coldest temperatures on record in January, including Nome at -16.6 degrees F and Bettles at -35.5 degrees F.

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