How can ‘climate change’ the weather?

A cumulonimbus storm system travelling west to Oshawa from Mississauga. Photo credit: Larissa Fraser

The ice caps are melting, the sea levels are rising, and the temperatures are climbing. These are all well-known side effects of global warming but as recent weather indicates, storms are also intensifying.

Storms in Oshawa, and all over the province, have been stronger than usual, especially in the last few months. Heavy snowfall, raging winds and slick freezing rain have hammered local businesses, affected travel conditions and even closed post-secondary campuses. Changes in climate have been altering our weather and increasing the severity of storms.

These stronger systems are created as a result of human activity and polluting the environment and this is a serious problem, a 2017 extreme weather study says.

Climate change strengthens storms no matter the season. To understand how climate change strengthens storms, one must understand the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect, a natural occurrence, contributes greatly to climate change. The solar energy we receive from the sun heats our planet – NASA says some heat from the sun is reflected but most of it is absorbed through our land and oceans.

As the earth warms, the planet radiates heat known as thermal infrared radiation. This energy travels up into the atmosphere and the radiation is absorbed by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane and water vapour.

Greenhouse gases trap and send heat all over but most of the heat penetrates the earth’s surface – thus producing warmer temperatures.

Humans are changing the course of nature by sending more chemicals into the atmosphere, creating an ‘enhanced’ greenhouse effect. This means stronger, potentially destructive and even deadly weather conditions worldwide.

According to the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “since the industrial revolution began in 1750, carbon dioxide levels have increased nearly 38 percent as of 2009 and methane levels have increased 148 percent.”

Carbon dioxide and methane are released through a variety of methods such as burning fossil fuels, farming and deforestation. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more heat is absorbed and trapped in the atmosphere.

The Fifth Assessment Report also identified industrial activities have propelled global warming forward. Carbon dioxide levels have raised from “280 parts per million (ppm) to 400 parts per million in the last 150 years.” This means a 120 ppm increase in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration. The panel concluded “there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.”

Warmer temperatures will also lead to more water vapour concentration in our atmosphere, creating hotter and moister average temperatures.

This means heavier rainfall, intense flooding and more frequent lower pressure systems. Through forecasting models and remote sensing, precipitation data can be interpreted, processed and broadcasted to the public.

However, some storms are more difficult to read. The link between tornadoes and global warming is still unclear with little to no research concluding additional strength or damage associated with the disaster.

The Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions says climate change could eventually shift the timing of tornadoes and their locations, which is bad news for us.

Tornadoes are sporadic, short-term and need the right balance of conditions to form. Hurricanes are more predictable, last for a few days and easily require warmer oceans.

Warmer oceans encourage stronger and more damaging hurricanes. Hurricane seasons have been extending and the storms have been more frequent due to atmospheric instability. Climate change contributes to the speed and power of these cyclones.

It is still possible to slow down the process of climate change and avoid wilder weather. Small changes in support of the environment can make a large impact on the earth’s carbon footprint.

The sustainability and future of our planet relies on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In order to ensure a safer tomorrow for the next generation, we must realize climate change is real and is escalating the weather around us.