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The Long, Hot Summer: Longer & Hotter

Source: KQED

Stanford Study Predicts the Point of No Return for Hotter Summers

By Katrina Schwartz, KQED Climate Watch

Just as many Californians are puzzling over winter-like weather in June, climate scientists are saying hotter days are ahead for most of the West. According to a new Stanford study (available soon at this link). We may be in for permanently hotter summers sooner than expected. Of course, for climatologists, "sooner" is a relative term.

Plenty of climate scientists have studied the relationship between climate change and extreme temperature shifts, but until now no one has tried to pinpoint a moment when summer temperatures will permanently shift into a new “heat regime”, in which the coolest summer temperatures will be hotter than the hottest summer temperatures of the previous regime. Findings by the Stanford team suggest that the shift will likely happen sooner and be more widespread than expected.

This graphic indicates that a small shift in average temperatures can result in a significant number of record heat events. For more information, see this related blog post. Credit: UCAR.

The research team led by Noah Diffenbaugh of the university's Climate and Earth System Dynamics Group analyzed more than 50 climate model simulations and estimated a 50 percent likelihood that a permanent shift will happen in tropical parts of the globe in the next twenty years. In middle latitudes like Europe and North America that shift will likely happen in 40 to 50 years, the study suggests. The authors say that because temperatures don’t vary as widely near the Equator, it won’t take as much warming to bump those regions into a new “seasonal envelope”— a completely new summer temperature range.

The Stanford team applied the same climate models to historical data to see how well they could predict what actually happened between 1979 and 2008. They concluded that many areas of the globe are already experiencing these permanent heat shifts. In central Africa, the authors conclude, 40 percent of the land area has already experienced a permanent upward shift. The climate models were able to predict the same results, making the observable reality match the simulated prediction. This correlation gives Diffenbaugh confidence in his team’s predictions for the future.

Credit: Craig Miller, KQED.

The study has potentially dramatic ramifications for humans. Drastically warmer temperatures adversely affect human health and agriculture. Morbidity and mortality rates rise. The demand for energy increases while the ability to supply it decreases. Many crops important to the economy of the western United States like grapes, corn, soybeans, and cotton cannot handle extreme heat. While the study found that only the eastern and western parts of the U.S. would experience permanent summer temperature increases, Diffenbaugh was quick to point out to me that his team studied the most dramatic shift possible — a complete shift upward in temperature into a new seasonal range. He says that the effects on areas that don’t experience a permanent shift in the next 50 years — like the Midwest — could still be significant.

Diffenbaugh says he was intrigued by the wintertime comparisons in the study. He explained that the relative seasonal sameness of the tropics causes the bump up in temperature to happen quickly. In the mid-latitudes, however, the move into hotter regimes takes much longer because of overlays like Arctic air movement that occur simultaneously to an overall warming trend.

Climate Central Editor's Note: News of the Stanford study comes as a major early season heat wave is reaching its peak from the Upper Midwest to the Northeast, with numerous longstanding temperature records having already fallen. For example, Minneapolis, Minnesota reached 103°F on June 7, which was the first 100°F-plus day since 1988, and fell just one degree short of the all-time June record set on June 27, 1934. Heat warnings and advisories are in effect today from Washington, D.C. to New York City due to the combination of heat and humidity. As the new Stanford paper as well as other research shows, heat waves are more likely to take place and be more intense and longer-lasting as global warming progresses. A study published in 2009, co-authored by Climate Central senior scientist Claudia Tebaldi, found that recent years have seen double the number of new highs as new lows in the United States.

Katrina Schwartz is a freelance contributor to KQED Climate Watch, a Climate Central content partner.