Study by USU researchers could help predict future extreme weather

Co-authors Simon Wang (pictured), Robert Gillies and Larry Hipps released a study linking California's severe drought and the frigid winter in the Midwest and Northeastern United States to climate change. (Gary Neuenswander photo)

LOGAN –A new study conducted by Utah State University researchers, funded by NASA and the Bureau of Reclamation, connects extreme weather to climate change. According to Simon Wang, USU faculty and one of the authors of the study, the findings could help predict future extreme weather.

The extreme weather linked to climate change includes California’s drought and the abnormally cold winter experienced by the Midwest and Northeastern United States this year.

“We approached NASA a couple of years ago with the general purpose of understanding climate extremes,” Wang said. “Of course at that time we did not know that the California drought would happen.”

Wang said that events like the California drought are normally forecasted weeks in advance, but this particular drought wasn’t forecasted at all, even after it had started.

“The finding was surprising at first because when we started to look at the event, our initial purpose was to figure out why the event was not forecasted,” he said. “Usually when we have some climate anomaly, flooding or drought, you could somehow see it coming ahead.”

According to the research, low atmospheric pressures in the eastern U.S. and high atmospheric pressures in the west can form what is called a dipole, which is what caused the extreme weather. Dipoles occur naturally, but the USU researchers noted that they have been intensifying since the 1970s. Wang, along with the other researchers, discovered the cause to be greenhouse gasses.

“We found that the amplification of this reach really can only be simulated when you add greenhouse gas into the atmosphere,” he said. “Otherwise it will come and go. It will be more steady.”

Even though the dipole meant a drought for California this year, that won’t always be the case. Wang said that it could bring other extreme weather in the future instead, such as flooding.

“This year we had this high pressure in the west and low pressure in the east, but in different years it can flip,” he said.

Wang said that even if emissions were cut in half, the extreme weather will continue for 20 to 30 more years and that one thing that should be focused on is preparing for it, rather than reacting after it happens.

“The best mitigation plan is to forecast it better,” he said. “That is what we are trying to do.”

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