Hotter, faster, stronger: That isn’t a tagline for the next blockbuster superhero movie. This is what climate change is doing to many extreme weather events. As the planet warms, heat waves are getting hotter, wildfires are moving faster and burning larger areas, and storms and floods are becoming stronger.
These effects are no longer a future or distant concern: They are affecting us — all of us — here and now. The last week of July, in Ontario, where one of us, Dr. Hayhoe, was visiting family, the sun was orange and hazy, and smoke from the wildfires that blazed across Canada hung in the air. The week before, Dr. Otto anxiously checked in with family in Rhineland-Palatinate, the region in western Germany where heavy rainfall caused floods that took more than 150 lives.
We’re both climate scientists, so when a disaster happens, we’re often asked: Is this climate change or just bad weather?
While it is a natural human inclination to want to categorize things in simple terms, how climate change affects our weather is not an either/or question. We are already living in a world that is two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was at the outset of the Industrial Revolution. That means that every weather event is already superimposed over the background of a changed climate.
The more precise question to ask is this: Did climate change alter the severity, frequency or duration of this event? Increasingly, the answer is a resounding yes. And thanks to cutting-edge science, we’re starting to be able to put some numbers on it, too. This type of research is called attribution.