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 , 3:12 PM GMT on January 25, 2011
Yesterday, I introduced the National Climatic Data Center's Climate Extremes Index, which uses temperature and precipitation records to see if the U.S. climate is getting more extreme. Today, I'll focus on how the drought and precipitation extremes that go into the Climate Extremes Index have changed over the past century. The three precipitation-related factors to go into the Climate Extremes Index are:
1) The sum of: (a) the monthly percentage of the United States in severe drought (equivalent to the lowest tenth percentile) based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) and (b) the percentage of the United States with severe moisture surplus (equivalent to the highest tenth percentile) based on the PDSI.
2) 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.
3) 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.
Items 1 and 3 have shown no change in annual average value over the past century, but there has been a marked increase in the number of heavy 1-day precipitation events in recent decades. Thus, the record and near-record values of the Climate Extremes Index in recent years have been due to a combination of the increase in heavy 1-day precipitation events and an increase in maximum and minimum temperatures.
Figure 1. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI) for heavy 1-day precipitation events shows that these events, on average, have affected 10% of the U.S. over the past century (black line). However, heavy precipitation events have increased in recent decades. The seven most extreme years since 1910 have all occurred since 1995, with 2010 ranking as the 5th most extreme year in the past 100 years. Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.
Heavy precipitation events
Global warming theory predicts that global precipitation will increase, and that heavy precipitation events--the ones most likely to cause flash flooding--will also increase. This occurs because as the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. The Climate Extremes Index plot for extreme 1-day precipitation events (Figure 1) does indeed show a sharp increase in heavy precipitation events in recent decades, with seven of the top ten years for these events occurring since 1995, and 2010 coming in 5th place in the past 100 years. The increases in heavy precipitation events have primarily come in the spring and summer, when the most damaging floods typically occur. This mirrors the results of Groisman et al. (2004), who found an increase in annual average U.S. precipitation of 7% over the past century, which has led to a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events. Kunkel et al. (2003) also found an increase in heavy precipitation events over the U.S. in recent decades, but noted that heavy precipitation events were nearly as frequent at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, though the data is not as reliable back then.
Drought and extreme wetness
Global warming theory predicts that although global precipitation should increase in a warmer climate, droughts will also increase in intensity, areal coverage, and frequency (Dai et al., 2004). This occurs because when the normal variability of weather patterns brings a period of dry weather to a region, the increased temperatures due to global warming will intensify drought conditions by causing more evaporation and drying up of vegetation. Increases in drought and flooding are my top two concerns regarding climate change for both the U.S. and the world in the coming century. Two of the three costliest U.S. weather disasters since 1980 have been droughts--the droughts of 1988 and 1980, which cost $71 billion and $55 billion, respectively. The heat waves associated with these droughts claimed over 17,000 lives, according to the National Climatic Data Center publication, Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters. Furthermore, the drought of the 1930s Dust Bowl, which left over 500,000 people homeless and devastated large areas of the Midwest, is regarded to be the third costliest U.S. weather disaster on record, behind Katrina and the 1988 drought. (Ricky Rood has an excellent book on the Dust Bowl that he recommends in a 2008 blog post).
Figure 2. The Annual Climate Extremes Index (CEI) for drought. The worst U.S. droughts on record occurred in the 1930s and 1950s. There has been no trend in the amount of the U.S. covered by drought conditions (blue bars) or by abnormally moist conditions (red bars) over the past century. About 10% of the U.S. is typically covered by abnormally dry or wet conditions (black lines). Image credit: National Climatic Data Center.
The good news is that the intensity and areal coverage of U.S. droughts has not increased in recent decades (blue bars in Figure 2). The portion of the U.S. experiencing abnormal drought and exceptionally wet conditions has remained nearly constant at 10% over the past century. A recent paper by Andreadis et al., 2006, summed up 20th century drought in the U.S. like this: "Droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the country over the last century. The main exception is the Southwest and parts of the interior of the West, where, notwithstanding increased precipitation (and in some cases increased soil moisture and runoff), increased temperature has led to trends in drought characteristics that are mostly opposite to those for the rest of the country especially in the case of drought duration and severity, which have increased."
Other portions of the globe have not not been so fortunate. Globally, Dai and Trenberth (2004) showed that areas experiencing the three highest categories of drought--severe, extreme, and exceptional--more than doubled (from ~12 to 30%) since the 1970s, with a large jump in the early 1980s due to an El Niño-related precipitation decrease over land, and subsequent increases primarily due to warming temperatures. According to the Global Drought Monitor, 98 million people world-wide currently live in areas experiencing the highest level of drought (exceptional).
Andreadis, K. M. Lettenmaier, D. P., "Trends in 20th century drought over the continental United States", Geo. Res. Letters 33, 10, L10403, DOI 10.1029/2006GL025711
Dai A., K.E. Trenberth, and T. Qian, 2004: A global data set of Palmer Drought Severity Index for 18702002: Relationship with soil moisture and effects of surface warming", J. Hydrometeorol., 5, 11171130.
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.
Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64-85.
Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Redmond, and K. Hubbard, 2003, "Temporal variations of extreme precipitation events in the United States: 1895-2000", Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(17), 1900, doi:10.1029/2003GL018052.
A new Nor'easter for New England
A low pressure system currently centered along the Gulf Coast near New Orleans is bringing heavy rain to much of the south. Rains in excess of 3 inches have fallen over central Mississippi, and the rain is expected to change to snow over northern Mississippi, northern Alabama, and much of Tennessee late tonight. A swath of 2 - 4" of snow is expected in these regions, with higher amounts in the mountains. The low will move off the coast of North Carolina on Wednesday morning, then northeastward out to sea, potentially bringing heavy snows of 4 - 8" to inland portions of New England and the mid-Atlantic. At this time, it appears that the storm will track far enough from the coast and there will be insufficient cold air in place for snowfall amounts of a foot or more to fall. A nasty mix of rain, sleet, and snow is likely for much of the coast, with the heaviest snows expected to miss New York City, Washington D.C., and Boston (Figure 3.) As the low drags its cold front over Florida this afternoon, a slight risk of severe thunderstorms exists, and Florida could see a few tornadoes.
Figure 3. Probability of more than 8 inches of snow falling, for the 24 hour period ending 7am EST Thursday January 27, 2011. Image credit: National Weather Service HPC.
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