Climate change and extreme weather

Heatwaves, flooding and other extreme weather appears to be happening more often, and getting more severe. But how much of it is down to climate change?


Climate and weather are two different, but related, things. But what exactly is the difference? And how does climate change influence the extreme weather we’re seeing around the world today?

Put simply, weather is what you experience day to day: sun, rain, wind or snow. Look out of the window and you’ll see weather. Weather is unpredictable and there is a lot of local variation.

Climate is the average of the weather in a specific area over a long time – typically 30 years or more. Climate change means long-term changes to broad weather patterns that take place over several decades. This means it’s difficult to tie any single extreme weather event to climate change.

Scientists looking at these trends are now finding that significant changes may be happening over much shorter timescales. These changes are what’s making extreme weather more likely and more severe.

The effects of climate change on UK weather

The UK generally experiences warm summers and cool winters. Only rarely do we face the extremes of heat or cold common in other climates.

There is increasing evidence that things are changing. Heatwaves, storms and flooding, wildfires and even extremely cold snaps are happening unexpectedly.

While scientists are often reluctant to put single extreme weather events down to climate change, it’s becoming clear that new patterns of extreme weather are emerging. These include how severe extreme weather events are, how often they happen, and how much impact they have.

As the climate warms, flood risk will go up, because it’ll rain more heavily. This is partly because, generally speaking, warmer air can hold more moisture – and that means more intense rainfall. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that the UK will receive about 10 percent more rainfall on average per year by 2100 compared to 1986–2005.

For the UK, heatwaves are considered extreme beyond the 30ºC mark. A record high temperature of 40.3ºC was recorded in Lincolnshire on 19 July 2022, with many more similarly high temperatures countrywide. This broke a previous record of 38.7ºC in Cambridge in July 2019.

Wildfires, storms and floods around the world

These changes are happening not only in the UK, but also globally. Weather conditions seem to be changing markedly from the long term average, with extremes of heat, drought, or increased rainfall happening more and more each year.

Many scientists believe that all weather now experienced in the world (so not just extreme weather) is affected in some way by climate change.

This now seems to include more extreme weather events. Increasing temperatures are leading to heatwaves and drought in many parts of the world. India and Pakistan faced a severe heatwave in early 2022 and China reported its third driest summer. Devastating fires raze large swathes of Australia, the Amazon and the US – which also suffered flooding like never before. Storms and floods appear to be becoming more intense too. Extreme weather can be disastrous for people’s lives and the places they live. Flooding in Pakistan and Sudan resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of people without a home.

Extreme weather is not just more frequent, but more severe

Scientists have warned humanity for decades now that climate change would change our weather systems. More and more, such events are being linked convincingly with climate change.

Fires, floods, droughts, storms, and other natural disasters, are being linked to rising global temperatures. For example, experts are now able to confirm that storm surges are likely to be more severe because sea levels are rising, and wind speeds during storms are getting stronger.

Likewise, recent analysis has connected some extreme weather events to human-caused climate change. It showed that rising temperatures are “driving more frequent and more deadly disasters”, and many would’ve been highly unlikely without the climate crisis.

Now that the climate emergency is becoming more starkly apparent – in the form of floodwaters and superstorms, and millions of people displaced and their homes and livelihoods destroyed – the rescue mission for the climate emergency must start in earnest.

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