Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 1:54 PM GMT on March 13, 2009
Is the climate in the U.S. getting more extreme? The answer to this question depends upon how one defines "extreme". For example, the number of extreme tornadoes (violent EF-4 and EF-5 twisters) has not increased in recent years. We lack the data to judge whether there has been an increase in severe thunderstorms and hail. There has been a marked increase in Atlantic hurricane activity since 1995 (though the possible contribution of human-caused global warming to this increase is not something hurricane scientists agree upon). Since it is difficult to quantify how severe storms like tornadoes and hurricanes are changing, a better measure of how climate extremes are changing is to look at temperature and precipitation, which are well-measured. NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) has developed a Climate Extremes Index to attempt to quantify whether or not the U.S. climate is getting more extreme. The Climate Extremes Index (CEI) is based upon three parameters:
1) Monthly maximum and minimum temperature
2) Daily precipitation
3) Monthly Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI)
The temperature data is taken from 1100 stations in the U.S. Historical Climatology Network (USHCN), a network of stations that have a long period of record, with little missing data. The temperature data is corrected for the Urban Heat Island effect, as well as for station and instrument changes. The precipitation data is taken from 1300 National Weather Service Cooperative stations. The Climate Extremes Index defines "much above normal" as the highest 10% of data, "much below normal" as the lowest 10%, and is the average of these five quantities:
1) The sum of (a) percentage of the United States with maximum temperatures much below normal and (b) percentage of the United States with maximum temperatures much above normal.
2) The sum of (a) percentage of the United States with minimum temperatures much below normal and (b) percentage of the United States with minimum temperatures much above normal.
3) The sum of (a) percentage of the United States in severe drought (equivalent to the lowest tenth percentile) based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and (b) percentage of the United States with severe moisture surplus (equivalent to the highest tenth percentile) based on the PDSI.
4) Twice the value of the percentage of the United States with a much greater than normal proportion of precipitation derived from extreme (equivalent to the highest tenth percentile) 1-day precipitation events.
5) The sum of (a) percentage of the United States with a much greater than normal number of days with precipitation and (b) percentage of the United States with a much greater than normal number of days without precipitation.
Figure 1. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI), updated through 2008, shows that U.S. climate has been getting more extreme since the early 1970s. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center. On average since 1910, 20% of the U.S. has seen extreme conditions in a given year (thick black line).
As summarized by Gleason et al. (2008), the National Climatic Data Center concludes that based on the Climate Extremes Index, the percentage of the U.S. seeing extreme temperatures and precipitation generally increased since the early 1970s. These increases were most pronounced in the summer. No trend in extremes were noted for winter. The annual CEI index plot averaged for all five temperature and precipitation indices (Figure 1) showed that five of the fifteen most extreme years on record occurred since 1997. Shorter-lived periods with high CEI values occurred in the 1930s and 1950s, in association with widespread extreme drought and above-average temperatures. The most extreme year in U.S. history was 1998, with 1934 a close second. The year 1998 was the hottest year in U.S. history, with a record 78% of the U.S. experiencing minimum temperatures much above normal. That year also had a record 23% of the U.S. with much greater than normal precipitation from extreme 1-day precipitation events. The 1934 extreme in CEI was due in large part because of the most widespread drought of the century--a full 52% of the U.S. was affected by severe or extreme drought conditions. That year also saw a record 64% of the U.S. with much above normal maximum temperatures.
The impact of maximum and minimum temperatures on the Climate Extreme Index
It is very interesting to look at the five separate indices that go into the Climate Extremes Index. Today I'll look at temperature, and next week, I'll focus on drought and precipitation. The portion of the U.S. experiencing month-long maximum temperatures either much above normal or much below normal has been about 10% over the past century (black lines in Figure 2). However, over the past decade, about 20-25% of the U.S. has been experiencing monthly maximum temperatures much above normal, and the portion of the U.S. experiencing much colder than normal high temperatures has been near zero. Minimum temperatures show a similar behavior, but have increased more than the maximums (Figure 3). Over the past decade, minimum temperatures much above normal have affected 25-35% of the U.S. This means that the daily range of temperature (difference between minimum and maximum) has decreased over the past decade, which is what global warming says should be happening if greenhouse gases are primarily to blame for the rise in temperatures.
While there have been a few years (1921, 1934) when the portion of the U.S. experiencing much above normal maximum temperatures was greater than anything observed in the past decade, the sustained lack of maximum temperatures much below normal over the past decade is unique. The behavior of minimum temperatures over the past decade is clearly unprecedented--both in the lack of minimum temperatures much below normal, and in the abnormal portion of the U.S. with much above normal minimum temperatures. Remember that these data ARE corrected for the Urban Heat Island effect, so we cannot blame increased urbanization on the increase in temperatures. Recall that the all-time record maximum and minimum temperature data, which I presented in a post in February, are not corrected for the Urban Heat Island Effect, but look very similar to the CEI maximum and minimum temperature trends presented here.
A lot of people have told me that they believe we are experiencing more wild swings of temperature from hot to cold from day to day in recent years, but the CEI data does not answer this question. To my knowledge, a study of this kind has not been done.
Figure 2. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI) for maximum temperature, updated through 2008, shows that 20-25% of U.S. has had maximum temperatures much above normal over the past decade. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.
Figure 3. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI) for minimum temperature, updated through 2008, shows that 25-35% of U.S. has had minimum temperatures much above normal over the past decade. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.
Gleason, K.L., J.H. Lawrimore, D.H. Levinson, T.R. Karl, and D.J. Karoly, 2008: "A Revised U.S. Climate Extremes Index", J. Climate, 21, 2124-2137.
Annual WeatherDance contest ready for registration!
Armchair forecasters, now's your chance to shine! WeatherDance, based on teams in the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments, allows players to predict which team's city will be hotter or colder on game day in each round of the Big Dance. Beginning today, players can make their forecasts at the Weather Dance Web site at: www.weatherdance.org. The site will be updated with cities promptly after NCAA seeding announcements. First round Weather Dance selections must be entered by 11:59 p.m. EDT Wednesday, March 18.
"Officially, Weather Dance began as a class project to get students involved in weather forecasting, but we kept it around because it got popular. People think they can do better forecasting than the meteorologists. Well, here's their shot!" said Perry Samson, WeatherDance creator, co-founder of the The Weather Underground, Inc., and Professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan.
This is the fifth year for the game. Last year more than 2,000 people played. Most play merely for the thrill, but many K-12 science teachers involve their classes as part of meteorology units. The winning teacher will receive an expense-paid trip to join the Texas Tech/University of Michigan Storm Chasing team this spring for a day of tornado chasing in Tornado Alley. Other winners will receive a Weather Underground umbrella, "Extreme Weather" mugs, or a copy of the book "Extreme Weather," by Christopher C. Burt.
I'll talk about drought and precipitation trends in my next post, Monday or Tuesday.
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