What's going on with the weather?

2011-05-26T00:00:00Z What's going on with the weather? Arizona Daily Star
May 26, 2011 12:00 am

WASHINGTON - The deadliest tornadoes in decades. Severe flooding on the Mississippi River. Drought in Texas, and heavy rains in Tennessee.

What's up with the weather?

Scientists say there are connections between many of the severe weather events of the past month and global warming.

"Basically, as we warm the world up, the atmosphere can hold more moisture in it," said Anne Jefferson, an assistant professor in the geography and Earth science department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

"Weather patterns that used to be limited to the South move farther north now," she said. "Both of those things together will increase the frequency with which we see these big rain storms, and those are likely to increase flooding in the future."

Flooding on the Mississippi has become more frequent and more extensive since about 1950, Jefferson said. This year's huge flood was created by snowmelt and rain-on-snow in the upper Mississippi River basin, and very intense rain in its middle regions.

"Climatically we have a higher frequency of rain-on-snow events, a real recipe for flooding," she said. "Also you're getting more warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico farther north up the Mississippi. It's both a warming and, more so, the fact that the weather patterns have changed and are projected to continue to change, so the precipitation patterns are changing."

All of these changes are part of the general shift in the world's climate known as global warming - primarily the result of billions of tons of heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, as well as deforestation.

"Anything that's happening now is occurring superimposed on very different background conditions than we used to have. We have significantly altered our background conditions," said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University.

The study of long-term statistical trends shows an increase in heat waves and heavy rainfalls, Hayhoe said.

But for tornadoes, the jury is still out, because the historical record is too patchy.

Climate change may enhance one precursor of tornadoes while diminishing another one, she said. "We will need a lot more data and modeling before we can say for sure which effect will dominate."

On StarNet: Read more environment-related articles at azstarnet.com/environment

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