This sixth edition of explaining extreme events of the previous year (2016) from a climate perspective is the first of these reports to find that some extreme events were not possible in a preindustrial climate. The events were the 2016 record global heat, the heat across Asia, as well as a marine heat wave off the coast of Alaska. While these results are novel, they were not unexpected. Climate attribution scientists have been predicting that eventually the influence of human-caused climate change would become sufficiently strong as to push events beyond the bounds of natural variability alone. It was also predicted that we would first observe this phenomenon for heat events where the climate change influence is most pronounced. Additional retrospective analysis will reveal if, in fact, these are the first events of their kind or were simply some of the first to be discovered.
Last year, the editors emphasized the need for additional papers in the area of “impacts attribution” that investigate whether climate change’s influence on the extreme event can subsequently be directly tied to a change in risk of the socio-economic or environmental impacts. Several papers in this year’s report address this challenge, including Great Barrier Reef bleaching, living marine resources in the Pacific, and ecosystem productivity on the Iberian Peninsula. This is an increase over the number of impact attribution papers than in the past, and are hopefully a sign that research in this area will continue to expand in the future.
Other extreme weather event types in this year’s edition include ocean heat waves, forest fires, snow storms, and frost, as well as heavy precipitation, drought, and extreme heat and cold events over land. There were a number of marine heat waves examined in this year’s report, and all but one found a role for climate change in increasing the severity of the events. While humancaused climate change caused China’s cold winter to be less likely, it did not influence U.S. storm Jonas which hit the mid-Atlantic in winter 2016.
As in past years, the papers submitted to this report are selected prior to knowing the final results of whether human-caused climate change influenced the event. The editors have and will continue to support the publication of papers that find no role for human-caused climate change because of their scientific value in both assessing attribution methodologies and in enhancing our understanding of how climate change is, and is not, impacting extremes. In this report, twenty-one of the twenty-seven papers in this edition identified climate change as a significant driver of an event, while six did not. Of the 131 papers now examined in this report over the last six years, approximately 65% have identified a role for climate change, while about 35% have not found an appreciable effect.
Looking ahead, we hope to continue to see improvements in how we assess the influence of human-induced climate change on extremes and the continued inclusion of stakeholder needs to inform the growth of the field and how the results can be applied in decision making. While it represents a considerable challenge to provide robust results that are clearly communicated for stakeholders to use as part of their decision-making processes, these annual reports are increasingly showing their potential to help meet such growing needs.