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The Climate Project That Changed How We Understand Extreme Weather

WWA works with local experts to assess risks and vulnerabilities. (file)


When a handful of scientists tried to publish rapid research on the role of climate change in Britain’s record rain in 2015, they were told their high-speed approach was “not science”.

Fast forward to 2021.

As extreme heat scorched North America, the same scientists in the World Weather Attribution (WWA) group concluded that record-breaking temperatures would be “nearly impossible” without human-caused climate change.

This time people paid attention.

The discovery made headlines around the world and the news replaced vague references to the effect of global heating on extreme weather with precise details.

And that was exactly the idea of ​​WWA, a network of scientists who wanted to change the understanding of how climate change affects the real world.

“We wanted to change the conversation, but we never expected it to be so successful,” said climatologist Friedrich Otto, who conceived the WWA in 2014 with Dutch scientist Geert Jan van Oldenborg.

In September, Otto and van Oldenborg, working for the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute (KNMI), were among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021.

Time said “their work” means that people reading about our quick string of disasters get the most important information of all: it’s coming from us”.

Before dying of cancer last week, van Oldenborg responded with distinctive humility.

“We never aimed to be influential, just provide scientifically defendable answers to questions about how climate change affects extreme weather,” he tweeted.

Otto said van Oldenborg, who would have turned 60 on Friday, had a “very strong moral compass” for doing science for the good of society, especially those most vulnerable to climate change.

“It would be really hard for me to think of someone of his generation who has done more, more important work than science,” said lead author Otto, head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“But he was so calm and didn’t have an inflated ego that I don’t think many people recognize that.”


WWA’s revolutionary approach allows scientists to specifically link an individual weather event to human-caused warming for the first time.

The beginnings of extreme weather attribution can be traced back to 2004, when a British study in the journal Nature found that a European heat wave punished the previous year was more likely to stem from climate change.

But by the time this type of research passed peer review for publication, it had been several months since the event.

So when an extreme heat wave or severe storm struck, scientists and the media were reluctant to blame it exclusively on human-caused heating.

It was “very disappointing”, Otto said.

In one of their early studies, the WWA team observed record rainfall in the UK from Storm Desmond in 2015 and found that climate change increased the risk of flooding.

But his subsequent paper submitted to a scientific journal was rejected.

“A lot of people in the scientific community were saying ‘this is too fast. This is not science,'” she said.

A few years later he revisited the research and was able to publish it with the same numbers.

off the scale

To test whether climate change plays a role in a phenomenon, WWA compares the likely weather today – after about 1.2 °C of global warming since the mid-1800s – with simulated climates without that heating.

They also work with local experts to assess risks and vulnerabilities and make decisions on the ground, such as evacuation orders.

The Red Cross was an early participant, as was Climate Central, a US-based science organization that provided some of the funding.

The WWA has now published peer-reviewed methods and shows that rapid attribution can be an “operational activity”, said Robert Votard, who is also the IPCC’s lead author and director of France’s Pierre-Simon Laplace Institute. .

“You don’t publish a paper every time you forecast the weather,” he told AFP.

But when a heat wave hit western Canada and the northwestern US in June, temperatures went up “massively,” he said.

The village of Lytton in Canada was almost completely devastated by the fire when it recorded a national temperature of 49.6 °C.

The WWA concluded that in today’s environment, this was a once-in-a-thousand-year event.

There are many questions, such as whether a new effect has made the heatwave so extreme.

Crossing a tipping point, if you wish, said Sarah Kew, who oversees the research with fellow KNMI scientist Sajoukje Philippe.

At the time, van Oldenborg said the heatwave was something “no one had thought possible”.

He also continued to work from his hospital bed, Kew said. He wanted to advance his knowledge.

With extreme events accelerating, WWA scientists insist they continue to work.

“Everyone knows we have a big gap now,” Philippe said.

“But everyone is also willing to try to fill this gap together.”

(This story has not been edited by NB staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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