News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Can Extreme Weather Make Climate Change Worse?

Devastating drought in the Southwest, unprecedented wildfire activity, scorching heat waves and other extreme weather are often cited as signs of a changing climate. But what if those extreme weather events themselves cause more extreme weather events, fueling climate change?

That’s one of the possibilities raised by a study released Wednesday that was conducted by a team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. The researchers have shown that extreme weather events may reduce an ecosystem’s capability to absorb carbon and create a damaging cycle in which extreme weather fuels climate change by preventing forests from absorbing carbon, allowing more of it to remain in the atmosphere.

Low water levels in Lake Medina northwest of San Antonio, Texas.
Credit: Mike Fisher/flickr

Ecosystems absorb about 11 billion fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide every year because of extreme climate events than they would if the extreme weather didn’t occur, according to the study. Eleven billion tons is about the same as a third of a year’s worth of global carbon emissions.

The most damaging kind of extreme weather is the kind of drought that ravaged the Southwestern U.S. early in the last decade, and the kind that is devastating the Southwest and the southern Great Plains today.

“Any extreme can be as damaging as another if it is strong enough,” said Max Planck Institute Director Markus Reichstein, who is leading the study. “We found, however, that globally, the effect of droughts is largest, because they tend to have the largest spatial extent.”

Droughts put extreme stress on ecosystems, and as trees and other plants die, the ability of the drought-stricken ecosystem to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greatly diminished.

During a 2003 heat wave that struck central and southern Europe, scientists documented how the extreme heat affected the carbon cycle — the exchange of carbon dioxide between ecosystems, such as forests, and the atmosphere.

Reichstein’s study concludes that it’s possible that droughts, heat waves and storms weaken ecosystems’ “buffer effect” on the climate.

In the past 50 years, plants and soil have absorbed up to 30 percent of the carbon dioxide that humans have emitted, according to the study. The less healthy those plants are, the less carbon they may be able to absorb.

As extreme weather events become more frequent because of climate change, climate researchers believe their impacts on ecosystems could cause a vicious cycle of extreme weather, Reichstein said.

“That is scientifically the most interesting question,” he said. “We cannot answer how strong this vicious cycle is. Increasing carbon dioxide emissions cause a warming climate and, associated with that, increase the intensity of extreme events.”

Drought has been an ongoing crisis for many in West Africa.
Credit: Oxfam

And those extreme events may damage ecosystems, causing them to absorb less carbon dioxide and allow more of that carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere, intensifying the warming of the planet, he said.

More research needs to be done before such a cycle is proven, however.

“This is the logical cycle that can be anticipated,” Reichstein said. “There is no evidence this is happening. We only have evidence for pieces — for individual pieces.”

To gather that evidence, Reichstein and his team used satellite images from 1982 and 2011 to reveal how much light plants in an area absorb so they can perform photosynthesis. From those images, Reichstein’s team determined how much biomass an individual ecosystem accumulates during or after extreme weather.

The team used a global network of 500 stations that record carbon dioxide and air concentrations near ground level and in forest canopies to determine how much carbon dioxide absorption occurs in each ecosystem studied.

Using complex computer models, the team concluded that on average, vegetation absorbs 11 billion fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide than it would in a climate that doesn’t experience extreme weather events.

Reichstein singled out the ongoing drought in the Southwest as a particularly damaging extreme weather event that could affect ecosystems’ carbon dioxide absorption in the U.S.

“I think counting on the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon is a risky thing because you don’t know how long it will continue to take up carbon dioxide that we emit,” he said.

Related Content
8 Images to Understand the Southwest's Drought 
A Nation Divided By Drought 
Drought Puts Trees the World Over 'At the Edge' 
2012 Global Carbon Emissions 
Study Downplays Risk of Catastrophic Amazon 'Dieback'

Comments

By Erik Frederiksen
on August 14th, 2013

Seems every new hypothesis or observation of climate science paints a bleaker picture of our future that gets ever closer to us in time.

Reply to this comment

By Mark Goldes (Sebastopol, CA 95472)
on August 15th, 2013

All fossil fuels can be left behind much more rapidly than might be imagined.

Revolutionary new technologies are en-route that can turn future cars into power plants, able to sell electricity when suitably parked. No wires needed. Cars, truck and buses might even pay for themselves.

Since these are hard to believe breakthroughs, a seemingly impossible generator has been required to increase support for the best of them.

An engine has been invented that needs no fuel. It could trigger a perpetual commotion.

See NO FUEL ENGINE on the AESOP Institute website

These engines will not get hot, after a prototype is validated by an independent lab, small plastic desktop piston engines are planned that will run a radio and recharge cell phones.

Metal versions are expected to power homes 24/7 and replace diesel generators. They also may provide emergency generators and an on-board recharge for electric cars.

Making the “impossible” possible will open a surprisingly practical path to rapid reduction in the need for fossil fuels.

Reply to this comment

By Lewis Cleverdon
on August 15th, 2013

Mark - you’re remarkable announcement seems to me entirely plausible
when you say that “These engines will not get hot.”

Reply to this comment

By mememine69
on August 15th, 2013

What would the deniers do if science agreed their 28 year old crisis is now “inevitable” instead of agreeing it is just “likely”? What denier would question; “eventual” and “unavoidable”? Why does science feed this costly debate and refuse to achieve CO2 mitigation by giving us a real warning for a real crisis? Don’t scientists have doomed kids as well?

Reply to this comment

By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on August 16th, 2013

“And those extreme events may damage ecosystems, causing them to absorb less carbon dioxide and allow more of that carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere, intensifying the warming of the planet, he said.”

That’s a very tiny component of the CO2 cycle because drought areas are very small compared to the rest of the planet and the natural cycling of CO2 is 100 times large than manmade CO2 which is probably 100 times larger than drought-made CO2.

In any case the entire climate modeling experience points to extreme weather as a negative feedback.  Floods and other extreme weather causes global cooling if they increase globally on average.  Floods are obvious, an increase in the water cycle globally means global cooling.  Droughts are ambiguous, but the decrease in RH due to drought causes some extra cooling at night.

Reply to this comment

By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on August 17th, 2013

Lewis? Surely that’s not the real Lewis Cleverdon. I have read a lot of his posts and I don’t think he would spell your as “you’re”.

Mark is of course claiming the existence of a perpetual motion machine – among other things. I looked at his web site. There is even a way you can contribute money. What a surprise. This particular machine violates the second law of thermodynamics. If this were true then this finding could provide an alternative explanation for why terrestrial systems appear to be moving away from net thermal equilibrium. This could open up a whole new line of inquiry into climate change by a direct challenge to the 2nd Law.

Comment moderation CC? Maybe it’s time to start cross checking email addresses to avoid spoofing.

Reply to this comment

By Greg Laden (Twin Cities, MN)
on August 18th, 2013

Eric: Nice try.  Go to the original source.  A significant percentage of the amount of human releasted CO2 is matched by this feedback system. That is not tiny.

You are referring to a standard line from science denialists here. Yes, the “Carbon cycle” is huge.  The changes in atmospheric carbon such as doubling the amount is tiny compared to the global, long term carbon cycle.  Nonetheless, a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere fundamentally changes or climate.

If a person takes a fatal dose of strychnine, and the rest of the world’s strychnine supply is small, that person dies.  If a person takes the same fatal dose of strychnine but the rest of the worlds’ strychnine supply is huge, that person still dies.

Reply to this comment

By Eric Peterson (Front Royal, VA 22630)
on August 19th, 2013

Greg, I am fully aware that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is entirely due to manmade emissions along with land use changes (mostly tropical forest clearing).  There is no contribution that I have ever read about from drought.  There is a full accounting of land use changes like I stated and those include forest clearing for agriculture and cattle grazing.  Those cause nontrivial contributions to atmospheric apart from fossil fuel burning and lime (cement) production.

There is no significant contribution from any feedback as suggested by this article or yourself.

Reply to this comment

By Keyto Clearskies (Austin, TX 78752)
on August 21st, 2013

“For over 20 years Mark Goldes has claimed his company MPI has been developing machines that generate energy for free. In over 20 years his company has not presented one shred of evidence that they can build such machines…

“For the past five years Mark Goldes has been promising generators ‘next year.’ He has never delivered. Like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ there will always be jam tomorrow, but never jam today.

- Penny Gruber, December 2008

- Penny Gruber’s comment was written almost five years ago - but it’s just as true today - except that MPI, Goldes’ corporation that he claimed would bring in one billion dollars in revenue from his imaginary generator in 2012, is now defunct, having never produced any “Magnetic Power Modules” - just as his company called “Room Temperature Superconductors Inc” is also now defunct, having never produced any “room temperature superconductors.” Evidently there’s a limit to how many years in a row the same company can claim it will finally have something to demonstrate “next year.” Now Goldes has a new scamporation, Chava Energy.

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
City/State/Zip:
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.