"When an extreme weather event happens somewhere in the world these days, it’s
common to read quotes from climate scientists explaining this is exactly the
kind of event we expect to see more often as climate change progresses. Such
events are often devastating, but not surprising if you’ve been paying
attention to the climate projections issued by scientists for many decades now.
But every so often, an event is so extreme it causes scientists to question our
understanding of just how fast climate change is progressing. One such event
was the heatwave across the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and
Canada in the northern summer of 2021, when temperatures at some locations hit
49℃ (121℉) – hotter than the all-time record for Texas.
It broke heat records by such a wide margin that scientists were quoted in the
media saying they hadn’t expected to see temperatures so high in the Pacific
Northwest until much later this century.
The basic concern for these scientists was that our computer climate models are
best at simulating things that span large areas and long time periods, such as
the annual average global temperature (what we broadly mean when we say “the
climate”). They aren’t as good at simulating smaller-scale things such as an
individual storm or hot wind (that is, “the weather”).
It’s not that our models can’t simulate small-scale weather – they’re basically
the same models we use for weather forecasting – it’s just very computationally
expensive to have them zoom in and run in “weather mode” to get a highly
detailed simulation. It’s feasible for a seven-day weather forecast, but not
for a century-long climate simulation.
Given this limitation, the scientists quoted in the media were concerned
extreme weather events might be more sensitive to climate change than our
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics