Published on March 10th, 2011 | by Joshua S Hill
Climate Change Not Responsible for Russian Heat Wave, but..
Climate Change enthusiasts sometimes like to blame every vaguely unnatural climatic event on the current warming of our climate, but sometimes there is simply no linkage. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States have found that the heat wave that rocked Russia in 2010 was not due to climate change, but rather a result of a natural atmospheric phenomenon.
The study, which will be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, drew from scientific observations and computer climate models to evaluate the possibility that anthropogenic climate change was behind the deadly heat wave, or whether it was simply a result of natural processes.
Western Russia suffered extreme temperatures from July through to mid-August of 2010, with the mercury rising to anywhere between 30 °C to the low 40’s. The total death toll related to the heat wave was in the hundreds of thousands, with poor air quality from the wildfires (resulting from the heat) increasing deaths by at least 56,000 in Moscow and other parts of Russia.
Climate Change versus Nature
The researchers could not rule out that climate change played no part in the summer event, but they could categorically say that if it was present, it played a much smaller role than the naturally occurring meteorological processes.
Lead author Randall Dole, deputy director of research at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, Physical Science Division and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), noted that the intensity of the heat wave was a “climate surprise” unexpected in Russia’s current climate.
The research team sifted through long-term observations and results from a total of 22 climate models, trying to find trends that would help explain the unusually high temperatures in the region. On top of that, they also ran atmospheric models that used observed global sea surface temperatures, Arctic sea ice conditions, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in 2010 to assess whether any of these factors came into play during the heat wave.
As it was, the heat wave, according to the researchers, “was due primarily to a natural phenomenon called an atmospheric ‘blocking pattern’, in which a strong high pressure system developed and remained stationary over western Russian, keeping summer storms and cool air from sweeping through the region and leading to the extreme hot and dry conditions. While the blocking pattern associated with the 2010 event was unusually intense and persistent, its major features were similar to atmospheric patterns associated with prior extreme heat wave events in the region since 1880.”
A Timely Warning
Extreme heat waves like the one to strike Russia are likely to be a more frequent reality, according to the researchers.
While climate change was not responsible for the 2010 heat wave, it may very well be responsible for more to come. The researchers suggest that the heat wave provides “a glimpse into the region’s future” as a result of the increasing amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
“It appears that parts of Russia are on the cusp of a period in which the risk of extreme heat events will increase rapidly,” said co-author Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist, also from ESRL.
A Warming Hole
The researchers also found that western Russia has yet to experience the significant climate warming during the summer seasons that the larger part of the planet has encountered. Their research showed that the region had not experienced any significant warming during the summer season over the 130 years that they monitored, a period ranging from 1880 to 2009.
Such a “warming hole” is not an unusual event, nor is it even unique to the west Russian region, as the Earth does not warm uniformly.
“We know that climate change is not taking place at the same rate everywhere on the globe,” said Hoerling. “Western Russia is one of the parts of the world that has not seen a significant increase in summertime temperatures. The U.S. Midwest is another.”
In the end, Dole compared his team’s findings to attempting to hear a quiet conversation whilst in the path of a noisy fan; any summertime signal of climate change over western Russia was entirely drowned out by the much larger climate variability which resulted from natural processes.