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Forecast: Permanently Hotter Summers in 20-60 years

Posted on 13 June 2011 by oslo

Guest post by Donna Hesterman

The tropics and much of the Northern Hemisphere are likely to experience an irreversible rise in summer temperatures within the next 20 to 60 years if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations continue to increase, according to a new climate study by Stanford University scientists. The results will be published later this month in the journal Climatic Change Letters.

Noah Diffenbaugh, center fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment

Credit: L.A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

In the study, the Stanford team concluded that many tropical regions in Africa, Asia and South America could see "the permanent emergence of unprecedented summer heat" in the next two decades. Middle latitudes of Europe, China and North America - including the United States - are likely to undergo extreme summer temperature shifts within 60 years, the researchers found.

"According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years," said the study's lead author, Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford. The study is co-authored by Stanford research assistant Martin Scherer.

"When scientists talk about global warming causing more heat waves, people often ask if that means that the hottest temperatures will become 'the new normal,'" Diffenbaugh said. "That got us thinking - at what point can we expect the coolest seasonal temperatures to always be hotter than the historically highest temperatures for that season?"

Climate models, past and future

To determine the seasonal impact of global warming in coming decades, Diffenbaugh and Scherer analyzed more than 50 climate model experiments -including computer simulations of the 21st century when global greenhouse gas concentrations are expected to increase, and simulations of the 20th century that accurately "predicted" the Earth's climate during the last 50 years. The analysis revealed that many parts of the planet could experience a permanent spike in seasonal temperatures within 60 years.

"We also analyzed historical data from weather stations around the world to see if the projected emergence of unprecedented heat had already begun," Diffenbaugh said. "It turns out that when we look back in time using temperature records, we find that this extreme heat emergence is occurring now, and that climate models represent the historical patterns remarkably well."

According to both the climate model analysis and the historical weather data, the tropics are heating up the fastest. "We find that the most immediate increase in extreme seasonal heat occurs in the tropics, with up to 70 percent of seasons in the early 21st century (2010-2039) exceeding the late-20th century maximum," the authors wrote.
Tropical regions may see the most dramatic changes first, but wide swaths of North America, China and Mediterranean Europe are also likely to enter into a new heat regime by 2070, according to the study.

Large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that by mid-century the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years, according to a study co-authored by Center Fellow Noah Diffenbaugh.
Credit: Mark Shwartz

Environmental impact

This dramatic shift in seasonal temperatures could have severe consequences for human health, agricultural production and ecosystem productivity, Diffenbaugh said. As an example, he pointed to record heat waves in Europe in 2003 that killed 40,000 people. He also cited studies showing that projected increases in summer temperatures in the Midwestern United States could reduce the harvest of staples, such as corn and soybeans, by more than 30 percent.

Diffenbaugh was surprised to see how quickly the new, potentially destructive heat regimes are likely to emerge, given that the study was based on a relatively moderate forecast of greenhouse gas emissions in the 21st century.

"The fact that we're already seeing these changes in historical weather observations, and that they match climate model simulations so closely, increases our confidence that our projections of permanent escalations in seasonal temperatures within the next few decades are well founded," Diffenbaugh said.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the World Bank.

Donna Hesterman is a science-writer intern at the Woods Institute for the Environment.

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Comments 51 to 51 out of 51:

  1. Yes, the net effect over time of the PDO is zero. However, that does not mean that the PDO has not affected the observed weather during the past century. What you call noise, has been observed as an oscillation with an amplitude of about 0.4C - that is a lot of noise. Removing this "noise" from the temperature observations results in a very linear temperature increase of 0.6C / century since 1880 - basically the entire thermometer data record. While that does not prove that the PDO is responsible for the noise, there is much understanding to explain the observed effect. Is it optimistic or simply realistic to attempt to identify and correlate all the factors affecting our climate? The climate models are constantly being redefined to incorporate new information. If the PDO was the cause of the cooling in the mid 20th century, and the cause of the recent temperature observations, then it should be incorporated into the models. It will change the end result if the observed warming was partially due to the PDO in one of two ways: either the temperature time lag is longer than proposed, or the climate sensitivity is too high.
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    Moderator Response: It is past time to move this discussion of PDO to the thread "It’s Pacific Decadal Oscillation." Further comments on that topic on this thread will be deleted.

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