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Rain and climate: We should pay more attention to subtle, long-term changes in the weather

Source: Keith Harding/Climate Prediction Center Daily Precipitation Dataset

In Minnesota, spring has long been known for rainy days and cherished rays of warm sun. This year, after the coldest winter in a generation, our thoughts turn more to umbrellas and sandbags. Any anticipation of summer has been put off by what seem like long stretches of increasingly heavy rain driven sideways by spring gales.

Last  week our wet spring became something much more than just a delay of the summer we all deserve. Suddenly, stories of heavy rain consumed conversations on newscasts, water coolers and social media.

As with most weather events these days, the conversation eventually turns to the changing climate. The entrenched dig into their corners and those on the fence disengage, leaving just the loudest and most determined voices in the room. Both sides spout facts to support their contradicting arguments and eventually leave feeling more awful and discouraged than before. Perhaps science can provide some clarity where decades old culture wars and philosophical political battles have muddled the public discourse.

It is not your imagination; springtime in the Midwest has become much rainier over the last several decades. A number of recent studies have shown that heavy rain events are becoming more frequent throughout the warm-season here in the Upper Midwest, with the greatest change in the spring (April-June). On average, springtime heavy rain events have increased by nearly 10 percent since the 1960s. The newest generation of models suggest that this trend will likely continue into the future. 

Given that global warming has very likely influenced local rainfall trends since the 1960s, is it fair to blame our recent record downpours on climate change? Perhaps an example from the boys of summer can guide us. Say a steroid-assisted baseball slugger has begun the season with an astounding 30 more home runs than any other year. He rolls into the All-Star Game at Target Field and launches a majestic shot into Target Plaza. There’s no way we can say that his All-Star Game homer was a direct result of the steroids, but we can confidently attribute his boosted seasonal total to them.

It is the same with climate change. We cannot say conclusively that global warming acts to intensify each individual storm, but we are increasingly confident that it has directly influenced the observed long-term increase in heavy rain events throughout the region. That is not to say that last week’s rains are not a result of climate change, but rather that it cannot be proven either way.

Even though we cannot conclusively attribute one event to climate change, we know that we are loading the dice in favor of these events becoming more likely. A single roll of the dice (i.e., weather) may not be affected, but after many rolls (i.e., climate) the loaded dice will be clearly apparent. When it comes to the intersection of global climate change and local weather, we ought to pay more attention to subtle, long-term changes in the weather rather than focusing on a single storm.

The scientific literature is full of studies and reports that document how heavy rainfall events are increasing. All of the best climate models show this trend continuing, maybe even accelerating, into the future. With such clear scientific agreement, it’s time we move past tired arguments and think anew about what we can do with the data we have.

So the next time the weather gets extreme — be it hot, cold, wet, or dry — let’s not retreat to our respective corners and debate the facts. Why try to debate if today’s weather is the result of  climate change when the question is ambiguous by its very nature? Why not take a step back and ask whether the weather is consistent with long-term trends or a strange exception?

Sure, the answers to these questions may produce fewer fireworks around the water cooler or on Facebook, but at least they can move us closer to helping us decide how to respond.

Keith J. Harding is a native Minnesotan and an atmospheric scientist. He is a PhD candidate in Land and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate.

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Comments (49)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/23/2014 - 10:44 am.

    The scandal of fiddled global warming data

    The US has actually been cooling since the Thirties, the hottest decade on record.

    https://stevengoddard.wordpress.com/author/stevengoddard/

  2. Submitted by jason myron on 06/23/2014 - 11:42 am.

    Goddard…..seriously?

    You’re really on a roll today, Dennis. First the comment on the lack of diversity in the GOP and now trotting out some denier hack like Goddard? What’s next…quoting Phyllis Schlafly on Women’s Rights?

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/23/2014 - 12:24 pm.

    Scientific Data

    Steven Goddard is just some guy with a blog and is not in any way a climate expert. I’m not sure I would put him out there as a reliable source for data.

  4. Submitted by Rich Crose on 06/23/2014 - 12:41 pm.

    Simple Logic

    1. Increased carbon emissions raise the temperature of the atmosphere. (Scientifically proven to be true.)
    2. Warmer atmosphere holds more water molecules. (Basic high school science –ever see a muggy day in January?)
    3. More water in the atmosphere cause more extreme rain events like this Spring.
    4. Humans emit carbon at alarming rates and refuse to stop.
    5. Intelligent frogs will take over the earth. (I made the last one up.)

    The Earth will survive humans but humans won’t.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/23/2014 - 01:25 pm.

    This is the hole global warmers have dug themselves…

    http://www.nytimes.com/1986/06/24/movies/earth-s-climatic-crisis-examined-by-nova.html

    But instead of stopping the digging, they bring in bigger excavators. If there is legitimate science being denied, global warming “scientists” and their fans have only themselves to blame.

    • Submitted by Marc Post on 06/23/2014 - 01:48 pm.

      What?

      Thanks for the link to a 28 year old article supporting global warming. What “hole” are you referring too?

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/23/2014 - 02:17 pm.

        The consensus in 1986 was that we’d all be dead by 2000. Please take a moment to read that which you intend to speak to. Thanks.

        • Submitted by Marc Post on 06/23/2014 - 02:35 pm.

          I did read it. Did you?

          It was a newspaper review of a PBS documentary. It said nothing about us all being dead by 2000. It wasn’t even a science paper. It was a tv show review for crying out loud! Is that the best you got?

          • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 06/23/2014 - 07:49 pm.

            “dead by 2000”

            Mr. Swift has an accuracy problem. He was hoping no one would actually read the NY Times piece.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 06/23/2014 - 02:08 pm.

      No…

      digging yourself a hole is touting something from1986 in the year 2014. Typical conservative…time stopped during the Reagan years. If you applied the same standard to your religion, you’d have all become atheists about 2,000 years ago.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/23/2014 - 01:54 pm.

    Holes?

    Well the NOVA documentary Swift points to was actually made in 1983, and aired in 1986. Since then the global temps have risen as have sea levels, and plant, animal, and human life has and is under threat in a variety of way because of this…. as predicted in the documentary. So I suppose if you want to call it hole full of reliable predictions…

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/23/2014 - 02:32 pm.

      More accurately, global warming enthusiasts are claiming temps have risen as have sea levels, and plant, animal, and human life has and is under threat in a variety of way because of this…. as predicted in the documentary.

      So far, the proof is as vaporous as the “scientific consensus” dire predictions of Armageddon were in 1983.

  7. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/23/2014 - 02:20 pm.

    With all due respect Paul, the only thing that documentary reliably predicted was that GW enthusiasts would be just as deluded 28 years hence.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/24/2014 - 08:55 am.

    Due respect?

    Well, we really shouldn’t have to point out the fact that denial doesn’t actually change reality. Even the Pentagon has declared that climate change is a national security threat. The facts are clear, the sea levels HAVE risen, The global temps HAVE increased and from the South American jungles to the coral reefs of Australia plant, animal, and human life has been threatened and destroyed. From the starvation resulting from droughts in Africa to the spread of disease laden insects further and further North in the US people are dying because of higher temps. Not to mention the increased storm related fatalities and injuries. The 20cm rise in seal level off of Manhattan increased the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy by 30%, and that’s just one example. This was all predicted… and denied.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/29/2014 - 08:22 am.

      Paul, did you hear about Galviston TX? Storm surge caused massive damage and huge loss of life….it was probably global warming but scientists werent getting paid to say so in 1900..

  9. Submitted by Tom Karas on 06/24/2014 - 09:52 am.

    Thanks for a fine article

    Thoughtful and well prepared. Too bad the eventual mud wrestling with pigs ensued. Smart guys are getting dirty and the pigs are loving every minute. Save your breath for those who matter, your neighbors and children.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/24/2014 - 11:58 am.

      Stay classy Tom. You’re a credit to Smart guys everywhere.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/24/2014 - 04:50 pm.

      Fight The Good Fight

      It’s unfortunate that we even have to get in the ring with people like these, but I feel it’s a necessary fight to engage in or we risk seceding the ground to them. If they get to set the tenor of the debate, then people start to think that is the natural state of affairs. And that’s where people get the impression that there’s something wrong with the global warming issue.

      So we wade in with logic, reason, and enlightenment against innuendo and incorrect data. Most people will simply get tired of the debate and wander away without participating, but a few will read through the postings and see who’s being reasonable and who’s pulling bad information from blogs and websites that have the data wrong.

      In the end maybe, just maybe, we’ll sway a few people and we’ll move the ball forward a little. Some people we’ll never reach, even when the weather turns into climate, the seas rise, and we have mass extinctions. They’ll cling to their sump pump while crying “it’s just part of a natural cycle!”

      • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/24/2014 - 05:06 pm.

        I agree, Todd

        In bending over backwards to be fair, MinnPost perhaps errs in allowing people like Mr. Swift to make unsupported claims.

        On the other hand, any reasonable person who absorbs the argument can make a reasonable decision about who is being rational here.

        And Mr. Swift usually gets enough push back to expose how little he actually has. You have to be pretty desperate to cite a review of a tv program from 20+ yrs back in support of your argument. Of course, Google is your friend. You can find a cite to back up almost anything. People, fortunately, have started to figure this out.

        • Submitted by Pat Berg on 06/25/2014 - 06:31 am.

          Cites

          However, that just once again underscores the importance of providing cites and the transparency that goes with them. A cite is more than just the information it contains. A properly provided cite also gives the reader a chance to examine the source of that information, perhaps learn something about how it was generated, and even look for possible conflicts of interest on the part of those generating the information.

          It is true that “You can find a cite to back up almost anything”. However, not all cites are created equal, and that is why it continues to be so critical that they are included as a part of any discussion on these kinds of important topics.

          • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/25/2014 - 07:33 am.

            I agree that cites should be provided

            Often they do not say what the person who provided them claims. Or the “evidence” has been taken out of context.

            Obviously a cited review of a television story that is thirty years old is not in the same league with a recent report of primary data relevant to climate science. I tried to point out in an earlier – rejected – comment that the author of this piece is a qualified atmospheric scientist and one of his major critics is a scientific illiterate. Qualifications are important in evaluating complex matters and readers are entitled to know, or have pointed out to them, the qualifications of commenters to make broad and sweeping generalizations.

            I agree that not all cites are of equal value. That is why a community, such as the readers of MinnPost, who will follow up on the cites, and point out their shortcomings or value, is essential in public discourse.

        • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/25/2014 - 04:31 pm.

          “You can find a cite to support most anything”

          So true. That’s why, in order to be considered a scientific fact, a theories conclusions must be repeatable using the exact same criteria.

          Global warming “science” can’t even agree on the criteria they are using to investigate. Inconclusive, or contrary results merely necessitate a little data manipulation, which leads to de-bunking, which warming enthusiasts find very frustrating.

          Which is why the global warming “consensus” often times takes the appearance of a court of Inquisition. Unable to provide hard, repeatable proofs, warming enthusiasts call “Silence!”.

          It’s pretty amusing, in truth.

          • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 06/25/2014 - 05:41 pm.

            The amusement in comments so far, seem mostly over

            your denial, Mr. Swift.

            As put in an excellent article in the well-regarded newspaper, The Guardian,
            yesterday:

            Why we care about the 97% expert consensus on human-caused global warming

            The 97% expert consensus is important because it helps increase public awareness of human-caused global warming.

            Link: http://ow.ly/ysjaS

            “The evidence is crystal clear that humans are the main cause of the current global warming, and the expert consensus reflects the strength of that body of evidence. It’s not easy to convince 97% of scientific experts about anything – that requires some powerful scientific evidence.”

            “So the 97% consensus message is important, and it’s also important that this sort of information comes from sources that people trust within their own cultural groups. For example, President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson recently wrote,

            “I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with climate scientists and economists who have devoted their careers to this issue. There is virtually no debate among them that the planet is warming and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible … The solution can be a fundamentally conservative one that will empower the marketplace to find the most efficient response. We can do this by putting a price on emissions of carbon dioxide — a carbon tax.”

            So carry on, Mr. Swift. Your views are very much in the minority.

            • Submitted by Eric Flesch on 06/25/2014 - 07:33 pm.

              even more of minority

              Mr. Swift is denying there has been any warming. Even within the 3% this view is an extreme outlayer. Hard core deniers such as Anthony Watts long ago gave up the “it hasnt warmed” meme. There is no doubt the world has warmed since the 30’s.

          • Submitted by jason myron on 06/25/2014 - 11:02 pm.

            So, let’s say

            there’s a 97% chance that the airplane you’re about to board will crash…do you still get on or do you continue to deny?

          • Submitted by Marc Post on 06/26/2014 - 09:35 am.

            Wrong again

            You said “Global warming “science” can’t even agree on the criteria they are using to investigate.”

            In peer reviewed science, the criteria is stated along with the results. Peers then replicate the science using the same criteria. That’s what makes it “peer reviewed”. That is why deniers can’t produce science to support their side. They can’t prove their points using the scientific method.

            There have been over 12,000 peer reviewed scientific studies supporting global warming.

            • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/28/2014 - 06:05 pm.

              Given the fact that the integrity of the scientific method has been compromised by AGW pseudo-scientists, it’s no surprise that the peer review process has been tainted as well.

              “According to a new research report, many of the findings connected to the EPA’s attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions may be compromised by a short-circuiting of peer review.”

              http://www.thegwpf.org/20471/

              Grant hungry researchers have done more harm to the credibility of scientists than the slightly warmer temps have done to the Earth.

              • Submitted by jason myron on 06/29/2014 - 10:13 am.

                Funny stuff….

                you question the integrity and qualifications of 97% of scientists while retching up the GWPF in an attempt to back up your point? A group that refuses to state where 98% of their funding comes from and whose claim to fame was the “900+ Peer-Reviewed Papers Supporting Skepticism Of “Man-Made Global Warming” which was later found to be written almost entirely (9 of 10) by authors with ties to ExxonMobile?
                I think we’re done here….

                • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 06/30/2014 - 11:45 am.

                  Wait. To support a tainted peer review process, you mock peer review. How does that work?

                  • Submitted by Jon Lord on 06/30/2014 - 03:45 pm.

                    seems to me

                    that just recently a huge block of Corporations have come out saying that they now recognize that the climate is warming to the degree that it’ll start hurting business as usual. Now…I heard that on CBS so I can’t confirm any more than that yet, but it makes sense.

                  • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/30/2014 - 04:39 pm.

                    Reports

                    Where were these reports peer reviewed? Were they reviewed at all?

                    If these reports were reviewed and were found to be full of BS, I would say the review process is working as designed: to weed out the scientific studies that don’t pass the sniff test.

  10. Submitted by Jon Lord on 06/25/2014 - 01:55 pm.

    there’s been

    30 odd years of warming weather here in Minnesota and the upper Midwest. It’s most noticeable in the Winters here. Snowfalls aren’t what they used to be nor is the temperature except for an occasional outlier. This last winter, while colder than it’s been in 30 years and with more snowfall than in the last 30 years, was almost as cold and snowy. This last winter is now an anomaly in the climate of the Upper Midwest. It really is a part of ‘folk knowledge’ as much as it is a scientific fact. The climate change deniers are also an anomaly in both cases.

    • Submitted by Jim Halonen on 06/25/2014 - 03:15 pm.

      Weather is not

      to be confused with climate, and what is happening in the upper Midwest is not neccessarily indicative of what is happening to the whole planet…. This is what a denier would hear after this same post.

      • Submitted by Joel Fischer on 06/25/2014 - 04:24 pm.

        Jon’s comment did not sound confused.

        It was perfectly logical and grounded in climate observations.

        • Submitted by Jon Lord on 06/27/2014 - 08:01 am.

          Thanks

          Thank you Joel. I thought it was well grounded myself. Weather is part of the Climate and the Climate has changed in the upper Midwest as well as the rest of the world. We here in the upper Midwest should have noticed that last winter was no longer what winter is like here. Those of us with longer memories that is. Deniers tend to have shorter memories, sort of like ‘weather’, while longer memories are more like ‘Climate’.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 06/25/2014 - 04:53 pm.

        Weather vs. Climate

        That’s why we ask people to take a look at the broad picture, which is the entire planet over an expanded period of time, not just this past winter.

        There were a fair number of people who looked at this recent winter in Minnesota and exclaimed “if there’s global warming, why is it so cold here?!” It was explained to them that their back yard is not indicative of the entire planet and one event does not a trend make. While we were freezing our petunias off in Minnesota, other parts of the world were having a record warm winter.

        On the flip side, we’ve had several decades now to study and record the weather patterns here in Minnesota, the Midwest, the country, and the world. And the results are in: yes, we are indeed getting warmer. The issue is no longer whether or not we can stop the planet from warming up, but how to best mitigate the worst effects of the warming.

        As just one example, we’re looking at a mass extinction of species that will rival anything the dinosaurs went through.

        Or another one equally as horrific: mass migrations of people as the country where they live becomes untenable due to lack of water, salty water migrating into fresh water areas, or conflicts caused by other people moving into the area to escape poor conditions in their homeland.

        It’s not a pretty sight.

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