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 , 1:32 PM GMT on June 24, 2011
Every year extraordinary weather events rock the Earth. Records that have stood centuries are broken. Great floods, droughts, and storms affect millions of people, and truly exceptional weather events unprecedented in human history may occur. But the wild roller-coaster ride of incredible weather events during 2010, in my mind, makes that year the planet's most extraordinary year for extreme weather since reliable global upper-air data began in the late 1940s. Never in my 30 years as a meteorologist have I witnessed a year like 2010--the astonishing number of weather disasters and unprecedented wild swings in Earth's atmospheric circulation were like nothing I've seen. The pace of incredible extreme weather events in the U.S. over the past few months have kept me so busy that I've been unable to write-up a retrospective look at the weather events of 2010. But I've finally managed to finish, so fasten your seat belts for a tour through the top twenty most remarkable weather events of 2010. At the end, I'll reflect on what the wild weather events of 2010 and 2011 imply for our future.
Earth's hottest year on record
Unprecedented heat scorched the Earth's surface in 2010, tying 2005 for the warmest year since accurate records began in the late 1800s. Temperatures in Earth's lower atmosphere also tied for warmest year on record, according to independent satellite measurements. Earth's 2010 record warmth was unusual because it occurred during the deepest solar energy minimum since satellite measurements of the sun began in the 1970s. Unofficially, nineteen nations (plus the the U.K.'s Ascension Island) set all-time extreme heat records in 2010. This includes Asia's hottest reliably measured temperature of all-time, the remarkable 128.3°F (53.5°C) in Pakistan in May 2010. This measurement is also the hottest undisputed temperature anywhere on the planet except for in Death Valley, California (two hotter official records, at Al Azizia, Libya in 1922, and Tirat, Zvi Israel in 1942, have ample reasons to be disputed.) The countries that experienced all-time extreme highs in 2010 constituted over 20% of Earth's land surface area.
Figure 1. Climate Central and Weather Underground put together this graphic showing the twenty nations (plus one UK territory, Ascension Island) that set new extreme heat records in 2010.
Most extreme winter Arctic atmospheric circulation on record; "Snowmageddon" results
The atmospheric circulation in the Arctic took on its most extreme configuration in 145 years of record keeping during the winter of 2009 - 2010. The Arctic is normally dominated by low pressure in winter, and a "Polar Vortex" of counter-clockwise circulating winds develops surrounding the North Pole. However, during the winter of 2009 - 2010, high pressure replaced low pressure over the Arctic, and the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times, with a clockwise flow of air replacing the usual counter-clockwise flow of air. This unusual flow pattern allowed cold air to spill southwards and be replaced by warm air moving poleward. Like leaving the refrigerator door ajar, the Arctic "refrigerator" warmed, and cold Arctic air spilled out into "living room" where people live. A natural climate pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), and its close cousin, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) were responsible. Both of these patterns experienced their strongest-on-record negative phase, when measured as the pressure difference between the Icelandic Low and Azores High.
The extreme Arctic circulation caused a bizarre upside-down winter over North America--Canada had its warmest and driest winter on record, forcing snow to be trucked in for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but the U.S. had its coldest winter in 25 years. A series of remarkable snow storms pounded the Eastern U.S., with the "Snowmageddon" blizzard dumping more than two feet of snow on Baltimore and Philadelphia. Western Europe also experienced unusually cold and snowy conditions, with the UK recording its 8th coldest January. A highly extreme negative phase of the NAO and AO returned again during November 2010, and lasted into January 2011. Exceptionally cold and snowy conditions hit much of Western Europe and the Eastern U.S. again in the winter of 2010 - 2011. During these two extreme winters, New York City recorded three of its top-ten snowstorms since 1869, and Philadelphia recorded four of its top-ten snowstorms since 1884. During December 2010, the extreme Arctic circulation over Greenland created the strongest ridge of high pressure ever recorded at middle levels of the atmosphere, anywhere on the globe (since accurate records began in 1948.) New research suggests that major losses of Arctic sea ice could cause the Arctic circulation to behave so strangely, but this work is still speculative.
Figure 2. Digging out in Maryland after "Snowmageddon". Image credit: wunderphotographer chills.
Arctic sea ice: lowest volume on record, 3rd lowest extent
Sea ice in the Arctic reached its third lowest areal extent on record in September 2010. Compared to sea ice levels 30 years ago, 1/3 of the polar ice cap was missing--an area the size of the Mediterranean Sea. The Arctic has seen a steady loss of meters-thick, multi-year-old ice in recent years that has left thin, 1 - 2 year-old ice as the predominant ice type. As a result, sea ice volume in 2010 was the lowest on record. More than half of the polar icecap by volume--60%--was missing in September 2010, compared to the average from 1979 - 2010. All this melting allowed the Northwest Passage through the normally ice-choked waters of Canada to open up in 2010. The Northeast Passage along the coast of northern Russia also opened up, and this was the third consecutive year--and third time in recorded history--that both passages melted open. Two sailing expeditions--one Russian and one Norwegian--successfully navigated both the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage in 2010, the first time this feat has been accomplished. Mariners have been attempting to sail the Northwest Passage since 1497, and have failed to accomplish this feat without an icebreaker until the 2000s. In December 2010, Arctic sea ice fell to its lowest winter extent on record, the beginning of a 3-month streak of record lows. Canada's Hudson Bay did not freeze over until mid-January of 2011, the latest freeze-over date in recorded history.
Figure 3. The Arctic's minimum sea ice extent for 2010 was reached on September 21, and was the third lowest on record. Image credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Record melting in Greenland, and a massive calving event
Greenland's climate in 2010 was marked by record-setting high air temperatures, the greatest ice loss by melting since accurate records began in 1958, the greatest mass loss of ocean-terminating glaciers on record, and the calving of a 100 square-mile ice island--the largest calving event in the Arctic since 1962. Many of these events were due to record warm water temperatures along the west coast of Greenland, which averaged 2.9°C (5.2°F) above average during October 2010, a remarkable 1.4°C above the previous record high water temperatures in 2003.
Figure 4. The 100 square-mile ice island that broke off the Petermann Glacier heads out of the Petermann Fjord in this 7-frame satellite animation. The animation begins on August 5, 2010, and ends on September 21, with images spaced about 8 days apart. The images were taken by NASA's Aqua and Terra satellites.
Second most extreme shift from El Niño to La Niña
The year 2010 opened with a strong El Niño event and exceptionally warm ocean waters in the Eastern Pacific. However, El Niño rapidly waned in the spring, and a moderate to strong La Niña developed by the end of the year, strongly cooling these ocean waters. Since accurate records began in 1950, only 1973 has seen a more extreme swing from El Niño to La Niña. The strong El Niño and La Niña events contributed to many of the record flood events seen globally in 2010, and during the first half of 2011.
Figure 5. The departure of sea surface temperatures from average at the beginning of 2010 (top) and the end of 2010 (bottom) shows the remarkable transition from strong El Niño to strong La Niña conditions that occurred during the year. Image credit: NOAA/NESDIS.
Second worst coral bleaching year
Coral reefs took their 2nd-worst beating on record in 2010, thanks to record or near-record warm summer water temperatures over much of Earth's tropical oceans. The warm waters caused the most coral bleaching since 1998, when 16 percent of the world's reefs were killed off. "Clearly, we are on track for this to be the second worst (bleaching) on record," NOAA coral expert Mark Eakin in a 2010 interview. "All we're waiting on now is the body count." The summer 2010 coral bleaching episodes were worst in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, where El Niño warming of the tropical ocean waters during the first half of the year was significant. In Indonesia's Aceh province, 80% of the bleached corals died, and Malaysia closed several popular dive sites after nearly all the coral were damaged by bleaching. In some portions of the Caribbean, such as Venezuela and Panama, coral bleaching was the worst on record.
Figure 6. An example of coral bleaching that occurred during the record-strength 1997-1998 El Niño event. Image credit: Craig Quirolo, Reef Relief/Marine Photobank, in Climate, Carbon and Coral Reefs
Wettest year over land
The year 2010 also set a new record for wettest year in Earth's recorded history over land areas. The difference in precipitation from average in 2010 was about 13% higher than that of the previous record wettest year, 1956. However, this record is not that significant, since it was due in large part to random variability of the jet stream weather patterns during 2010. The record wetness over land was counterbalanced by relatively dry conditions over the oceans.
Figure 7. Global departure of precipitation over land areas from average for 1900 - 2010. The year 2010 set a new record for wettest year over land areas in Earth's recorded history. The difference in precipitation from average in 2010 was about 13% higher than that of the previous record wettest year, 1956. Image credit: NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.
Amazon rainforest experiences its 2nd 100-year drought in 5 years
South America's Amazon rainforest experienced its second 100-year drought in five years during 2010, with the largest northern tributary of the Amazon River--the Rio Negro--dropping to thirteen feet (four meters) below its usual dry season level. This was its lowest level since record keeping began in 1902. The low water mark is all the more remarkable since the Rio Negro caused devastating flooding in 2009, when it hit an all-time record high, 53 ft (16 m) higher than the 2010 record low. The 2010 drought was similar in intensity and scope to the region's previous 100-year drought in 2005. Drought makes a regular appearance in the Amazon, with significant droughts occurring an average of once every twelve years. In the 20th century, these droughts typically occurred during El Niño years, when the unusually warm waters present along the Pacific coast of South America altered rainfall patterns. But the 2005 and 2010 droughts did not occur during El Niño conditions, and it is theorized that they were instead caused by record warm sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic.
We often hear about how important Arctic sea ice is for keeping Earth's climate cool, but a healthy Amazon is just as vital. Photosynthesis in the world's largest rainforest takes about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air each year. However, in 2005, the drought reversed this process. The Amazon emitted 3 billion tons of CO2 to the atmosphere, causing a net 5 billion ton increase in CO2 to the atmosphere--roughly equivalent to 16 - 22% of the total CO2 emissions to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels that year. The Amazon stores CO2 in its soils and biomass equivalent to about fifteen years of human-caused emissions, so a massive die-back of the forest could greatly accelerate global warming.
Figure 8. Hundreds of fires (red squares) generate thick smoke over a 1000 mile-wide region of the southern Amazon rain forest in this image taken by NASA's Aqua satellite on August 16, 2010. The Bolivian government declared a state of emergency in mid-August due to the out-of-control fires burning over much of the country. Image credit: NASA.
Global tropical cyclone activity lowest on record
The year 2010 was one of the strangest on record for tropical cyclones. Each year, the globe has about 92 tropical cyclones--called hurricanes in the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific, typhoons in the Western Pacific, and tropical cyclones in the Southern Hemisphere. But in 2010, we had just 68 of these storms--the fewest since the dawn of the satellite era in 1970. The previous record slowest year was 1977, when 69 tropical cyclones occurred world-wide. Both the Western Pacific and Eastern Pacific had their quietest seasons on record in 2010, but the Atlantic was hyperactive, recording its 3rd busiest season since record keeping began in 1851. The Southern Hemisphere had a slightly below average season. The Atlantic ordinarily accounts for just 13% of global cyclone activity, but accounted for 28% in 2010--the greatest proportion since accurate tropical cyclone records began in the 1970s.
A common theme of many recent publications on the future of tropical cyclones globally in a warming climate is that the total number of these storms will decrease, but the strongest storms will get stronger. For example, a 2010 review paper published in Nature Geosciences concluded that the strongest storms would increase in intensity by 2 - 11% by 2100, but the total number of storms would fall by 6 - 34%. It is interesting that 2010 saw the lowest number of global tropical cyclones on record, but an average number of very strong Category 4 and 5 storms (the 25-year average is 13 Category 4 and 5 storms, and 2010 had 14.) Fully 21% of 2010's tropical cyclones reached Category 4 or 5 strength, versus just 14% during the period 1983 - 2007. Most notably, in 2010 we had Super Typhoon Megi. Megi's sustained winds cranked up to a ferocious 190 mph and its central pressure bottomed out at 885 mb on October 16, making it the 8th most intense tropical cyclone in world history. Other notable storms in 2010 included the second strongest tropical cyclone on record in the Arabian Sea (Category 4 Cyclone Phet in June), and the strongest tropical cyclone ever to hit Myanmar/Burma (October's Tropical Cyclone Giri, an upper end Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds.)
Figure 9. Visible satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Phet on Thursday, June 3, 2010. Record heat over southern Asia in May helped heat up the Arabian Sea to 2°C above normal, and the exceptionally warm SSTs helped fuel Tropical Cyclone Phet into the second strongest tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Arabian Sea. Phet peaked at Category 4 strength with 145 mph winds, and killed 44 people and did $700 million in damage to Oman. Only Category 5 Cyclone Gonu of 2007 was a stronger Arabian Sea cyclone.
A hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season: 3rd busiest on record
Sea surface temperatures that were the hottest on record over the main development region for Atlantic hurricanes helped fuel an exceptionally active 2010 Atlantic hurricane season. The nineteen named storms were the third most since 1851; the twelve hurricanes of 2010 ranked second most. Three major hurricanes occurred in rare or unprecedented locations. Julia was the easternmost major hurricane on record, Karl was the southernmost major hurricane on record in the Gulf of Mexico, and Earl was the 4th strongest hurricane so far north. The formation of Tomas so far south and east so late in the season (October 29) was unprecedented in the historical record; no named storm had ever been present east of the Lesser Antilles (61.5°W) and south of 12°N latitude so late in the year. Tomas made the 2010 the 4th consecutive year with a November hurricane in the Atlantic--an occurrence unprecedented since records began in 1851.
Figure 10. Hurricane Earl as seen from the International Space Station on Thursday, September 2, 2010. Image credit: NASA astronaut Douglas Wheelock.
A rare tropical storm in the South Atlantic
A rare tropical storm formed in the South Atlantic off the coast of Brazil on March 10 - 11, and was named Tropical Storm Anita. Brazil has had only one landfalling tropical cyclone in its history, Cyclone Catarina of March 2004, one of only seven known tropical or subtropical cyclones to form in the South Atlantic, and the only one to reach hurricane strength. Anita of 2010 is probably the fourth strongest tropical/subtropical storm in the South Atlantic, behind Hurricane Catarina, an unnamed February 2006 storm that may have attained wind speeds of 65 mph, and a subtropical storm that brought heavy flooding to the coast of Uruguay in January 2009. Tropical cyclones rarely form in the South Atlantic Ocean, due to strong upper-level wind shear, cool water temperatures, and the lack of an initial disturbance to get things spinning (no African waves or Intertropical Convergence Zone.)
Figure 11. Visible satellite image of the Brazilian Tropical Storm Anita.
Strongest storm in Southwestern U.S. history
The most powerful low pressure system in 140 years of record keeping swept through the Southwest U.S. on January 20 - 21, 2010, bringing deadly flooding, tornadoes, hail, hurricane force winds, and blizzard conditions. The storm set all-time low pressure records over roughly 10 - 15% of the U.S.--southern Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Old records were broken by a wide margin in many locations, most notably in Los Angeles, where the old record of 29.25" set January 17, 1988, was shattered by .18" (6 mb). The record-setting low spawned an extremely intense cold front that swept through the Southwest. Winds ahead of the cold front hit sustained speeds of hurricane force--74 mph--at Apache Junction, 40 miles east of Phoenix, and wind gusts as high as 94 mph were recorded in Ajo, Arizona. High winds plunged visibility to zero in blowing dust on I-10 connecting Phoenix and Tucson, closing the Interstate.
Figure 12. Ominous clouds hover over Arizona's Superstition Mountains during Arizona's most powerful storm on record, on January 21, 2010. Image credit: wunderphotographer ChandlerMike.
Strongest non-coastal storm in U.S. history
A massive low pressure system intensified to record strength over northern Minnesota on October 26, 2010, resulting in the lowest barometric pressure readings ever recorded in the continental United States, except for from hurricanes and nor'easters affecting the Atlantic seaboard. The 955 mb sea level pressure reported from Bigfork, Minnesota beat the previous low pressure record of 958 mb set during the Great Ohio Blizzard of January 26, 1978. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin set all time low pressure readings during the October 26 storm, and International Falls beat their previous low pressure record by nearly one-half inch of mercury--a truly amazing anomaly. The massive storm spawned 67 tornadoes over a four-day period, and brought sustained winds of 68 mph to Lake Superior.
Figure 13. Visible satellite image of the October 26, 2010 superstorm taken at 5:32pm EDT. At the time, Bigfork, Minnesota was reporting the lowest pressure ever recorded in a U.S. non-coastal storm, 955 mb. Image credit: NASA/GSFC.
Weakest and latest-ending East Asian monsoon on record
The summer monsoon over China's South China Sea was the weakest and latest ending monsoon on record since detailed records began in 1951, according to the Beijing Climate Center. The monsoon did not end until late October, nearly a month later than usual. The abnormal monsoon helped lead to precipitation 30% - 80% below normal in Northern China and Mongolia, and 30 - 100% above average across a wide swath of Central China. Western China saw summer precipitation more than 200% above average, and torrential monsoon rains triggered catastrophic landslides that killed 2137 people and did $759 million in damage. Monsoon floods in China killed an additional 1911 people, affected 134 million, and did $18 billion in damage in 2010, according to the WHO Collaborating Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). This was the 2nd most expensive flooding disaster in Chinese history, behind the $30 billion price tag of the 1998 floods that killed 3656 people. China had floods in 1915, 1931, and 1959 that killed 3 million, 3.7 million, and 2 million people, respectively, but no damage estimates are available for these floods.
Figure 14. Paramilitary policemen help evacuate residents from Wanjia village of Fuzhou City, East China's Jiangxi province, June 22, 2010. Days of heavy rain burst the Changkai Dike of Fu River on June 21, threatening the lives of 145,000 local people. Image credit: Xinhua.
No monsoon depressions in India's Southwest Monsoon for 2nd time in 134 years
The Southwest Monsoon that affects India was fairly normal in 2010, bringing India rains within 2% of average. Much of the rain that falls in India from the monsoon typically comes from large regions of low pressure that form in the Bay of Bengal and move westwards over India. Typically, seven of these lows grow strong and well-organized enough to be labelled monsoon depressions, which are similar to but larger than tropical depressions. In 2010, no monsoon depressions formed--the only year besides 2002 (since 1877) that no monsoon depressions have been observed.
The Pakistani flood: most expensive natural disaster in Pakistan's history
A large monsoon low developed over the Bay of Bengal in late July and moved west towards Pakistan, creating a strong flow of moisture that helped trigger the deadly Pakistan floods of 2010. The floods were worsened by a persistent and unusually-far southwards dip in the jet stream, which brought cold air and rain-bearing low pressure systems over Pakistan. This unusual bend in the jet stream also helped bring Russia its record heat wave and drought. The Pakistani floods were the most expensive natural disaster in Pakistani history, killing 1985 people, affecting 20 million, and doing $9.5 billion in damage.
Figure 15. Local residents attempt to cross a washed-out road during the Pakistani flood catastrophe of 2010. Image credit: Pakistan Meteorology Department.
The Russian heat wave and drought: deadliest heat wave in human history
A scorching heat wave struck Moscow in late June 2010, and steadily increased in intensity through July as the jet stream remained "stuck" in an unusual loop that kept cool air and rain-bearing low pressure systems far north of the country. By July 14, the mercury hit 31°C (87°F) in Moscow, the first day of an incredible 33-day stretch with a maximum temperatures of 30°C (86°F) or higher. Moscow's old extreme heat record, 37°C (99°F) in 1920, was equaled or exceeded five times in a two-week period from July 26 - August 6 2010, including an incredible 38.2°C (101°F) on July 29. Over a thousand Russians seeking to escape the heat drowned in swimming accidents, and thousands more died from the heat and from inhaling smoke and toxic fumes from massive wild fires. The associated drought cut Russia's wheat crop by 40%, cost the nation $15 billion, and led to a ban on grain exports. The grain export ban, in combination with bad weather elsewhere in the globe during 2010 - 2011, caused a sharp spike in world food prices that helped trigger civil unrest across much of northern Africa and the Middle East in 2011. At least 55,000 people died due to the heat wave, making it the deadliest heat wave in human history. A 2011 NOAA study concluded that "while a contribution to the heat wave from climate change could not be entirely ruled out, if it was present, it played a much smaller role than naturally occurring meteorological processes in explaining this heat wave's intensity." However, they noted that the climate models used for the study showed a rapidly increasing risk of such heat waves in western Russia, from less than 1% per year in 2010, to 10% or more per year by 2100.
Figure 16. Smoke from wildfires burning to the southeast of Moscow on August 12, 2010. Northerly winds were keeping the smoke from blowing over the city. Image credit: NASA.
Record rains trigger Australia's most expensive natural disaster in history
Australia's most expensive natural disaster in history is now the Queensland flood of 2010 - 2011, with a price tag as high as $30 billion. At least 35 were killed. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology's annual summary reported, "Sea surface temperatures in the Australian region during 2010 were the warmest value on record for the Australian region. Individual high monthly sea surface temperature records were also set during 2010 in March, April, June, September, October, November and December. Along with favourable hemispheric circulation associated with the 2010 La Niña, very warm sea surface temperatures contributed to the record rainfall and very high humidity across eastern Australia during winter and spring." In 2010, Australia had its wettest spring (September - November) since records began 111 years ago, with some sections of coastal Queensland receiving over 4 feet (1200 mm) of rain. Rainfall in Queensland and all of eastern Australia in December was the greatest on record, and the year 2010 was the rainiest year on record for Queensland. Queensland has an area the size of Germany and France combined, and 3/4 of the region was declared a disaster zone.
Figure 17. The airport, the Bruce Highway, and large swaths of Rockhampton, Australia, went under water due to flooding from the Fitzroy River on January 9, 2011. The town of 75,000 was completely cut off by road and rail, and food, water and medicine had to be brought in by boat and helicopter. Image credit: NASA.
Heaviest rains on record trigger Colombia's worst flooding disaster in history
The 2010 rainy-season rains in Colombia were the heaviest in the 42 years since Colombia's weather service was created and began taking data. Floods and landslides killed 528, did $1 billion in damage, and left 2.2 million homeless, making it Colombia's most expensive, most widespread, and 2nd deadliest flooding disaster in history. Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos said, "the tragedy the country is going through has no precedents in our history."
Figure 18. A daring rescue of two girls stranded in a taxi by flash flood waters Barranquilla, northern Colombia on August 14, 2010.
Tennessee's 1-in-1000 year flood kills 30, does $2.4 billion in damage
Tennessee's greatest disaster since the Civil War hit on May 1 - 2, 2010, when an epic deluge of rain brought by an "atmospheric river" of moisture dumped up to 17.73" of rain on the state. Nashville had its heaviest 1-day and 2-day rainfall amounts in its history, with a remarkable 7.25" on May 2, breaking the record for most rain in a single day. Only two days into the month, the May 1 - 2 rains made it the rainiest May in Nashville's history. The record rains sent the Cumberland River in downtown Nashville surging to 51.86', 12' over flood height, and the highest level the river has reached since a flood control project was completed in the early 1960s. At least four rivers in Tennessee reached their greatest flood heights on record. Most remarkable was the Duck River at Centreville, which crested at 47', a full 25 feet above flood stage, and ten feet higher than the previous record crest, achieved in 1948.
Figure 19. A portable classroom building from a nearby high school floats past submerged cars on I-24 near Nashville, TN on May 1, 2010. One person died in the flooding in this region of I-24. Roughly 200 - 250 vehicles got submerged on this section of I-24, according to wunderphotographer laughingjester, who was a tow truck operator called in to clear out the stranded vehicles.
When was the last time global weather was so extreme?
It is difficult to say whether the weather events of a particular year are more or less extreme globally than other years, since we have no objective global index that measures extremes. However, we do for the U.S.--NOAA's Climate Extremes Index (CEI), which looks at the percentage area of the contiguous U.S. experiencing top 10% or bottom 10% monthly maximum and minimum temperatures, monthly drought, and daily precipitation. The Climate Extremes Index rated 1998 as the most extreme year of the past century in the U.S. That year was also the warmest year since accurate records began in 1895, so it makes sense that the warmest year in Earth's recorded history--2010--was also probably one of the most extreme for both temperature and precipitation. Hot years tend to generate more wet and dry extremes than cold years. This occurs since there is more energy available to fuel the evaporation that drives heavy rains and snows, and to make droughts hotter and drier in places where storms are avoiding. Looking back through the 1800s, which was a very cool period, I can't find any years that had more exceptional global extremes in weather than 2010, until I reach 1816. That was the year of the devastating "Year Without a Summer"--caused by the massive climate-altering 1815 eruption of Indonesia's Mt. Tambora, the largest volcanic eruption since at least 536 A.D. It is quite possible that 2010 was the most extreme weather year globally since 1816.
Where will Earth's climate go from here?
The pace of extreme weather events has remained remarkably high during 2011, giving rise to the question--is the "Global Weirding" of 2010 and 2011 the new normal? Has human-caused climate change destabilized the climate, bringing these extreme, unprecedented weather events? Any one of the extreme weather events of 2010 or 2011 could have occurred naturally sometime during the past 1,000 years. But it is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work. The best science we have right now maintains that human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2 are the most likely cause of such a climate-altering force.
Human-caused climate change has fundamentally altered the atmosphere by adding more heat and moisture. Observations confirm that global atmospheric water vapor has increased by about 4% since 1970, which is what theory says should have happened given the observed 0.5°C (0.9°F) warming of the planet's oceans during the same period. Shifts of this magnitude are capable of significantly affecting the path and strength of the jet stream, behavior of the planet's monsoons, and paths of rain and snow-bearing weather systems. For example, the average position of the jet stream retreated poleward 270 miles (435 km) during a 22-year period ending in 2001, in line with predictions from climate models. A naturally extreme year, when embedded in such a changed atmosphere, is capable of causing dramatic, unprecedented extremes like we observed during 2010 and 2011. That's the best theory I have to explain the extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011--natural extremes of El Niño, La Niña and other natural weather patterns combined with significant shifts in atmospheric circulation and the extra heat and atmospheric moisture due to human-caused climate change to create an extraordinary period of extreme weather. However, I don't believe that years like 2010 and 2011 will become the "new normal" in the coming decade. Many of the flood disasters in 2010 - 2011 were undoubtedly heavily influenced by the strong El Niño and La Niña events that occurred, and we're due for a few quiet years without a strong El Niño or La Niña. There's also the possibility that a major volcanic eruption in the tropics or a significant quiet period on the sun could help cool the climate for a few years, cutting down on heat and flooding extremes (though major eruptions tend to increase drought.) But the ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air puts tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010 - 2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway. A warmer planet has more energy to power stronger storms, hotter heat waves, more intense droughts, heavier flooding rains, and record glacier melt that will drive accelerating sea level rise. I expect that by 20 - 30 years from now, extreme weather years like we witnessed in 2010 will become the new normal.
Finally, I'll leave you with a quote from Dr. Ricky Rood's climate change blog, in his recent post,Changing the Conversation: Extreme Weather and Climate: "Given that greenhouse gases are well known to hold energy close to the Earth, those who deny a human-caused impact on weather need to pose a viable mechanism of how the Earth can hold in more energy and the weather not be changed. Think about it."
Related blog posts
U.S. had most extreme spring on record for precipitation in 2011
Is the U.S. climate getting more extreme?
Comments will take a few seconds to appear.