Catch a fire (worst year since 1816)

The extraordinary sequence of extreme weather events during the last 18 months is probably the worst run of natural disasters since 1816, when a huge volcanic eruption at Mt Tambora cooled the earth enough to cause the famous “year without a summer“, according to a powerful blog post by Weather Underground founder Jeff Masters. He runs through the list, giving details of each:

  • Earth’s hottest year on record
  • Most extreme winter Arctic atmospheric circulation on record
  • Arctic sea ice: lowest volume on record, 3rd lowest extent
  • Record melting in Greenland, and a massive calving event
  • Second most extreme shift from El Niño to La Niña
  • Second worst coral bleaching year
  • Wettest year over land
  • Amazon rainforest experiences its 2nd 100-year drought in 5 years
  • Global tropical cyclone activity lowest on record
  • A hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season: 3rd busiest on record
  • A rare tropical storm in the South Atlantic
  • Strongest storm in Southwestern U.S. history
  • Strongest non-coastal storm in U.S. history
  • Weakest and latest-ending East Asian monsoon on record
  • No monsoon depressions in India’s Southwest Monsoon for 2nd time in 134 years
  • The Pakistani flood: most expensive natural disaster in Pakistan’s history
  • The Russian heat wave and drought: deadliest heat wave in human history
  • Record rains trigger Australia’s most expensive natural disaster in history
  • Heaviest rains on record trigger Colombia’s worst flooding disaster in history
  • Tennessee’s 1-in-1000 year flood kills 30, does $2.4 billion in damage

Masters argument is straightforward:

…it is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work. The best science we have right now maintains that human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2 are the most likely cause of such a climate-altering force.

There’s more heat accumulating in the system, and more water vapour in the atmosphere to drive weather events.

A naturally extreme year, when embedded in such a changed atmosphere, is capable of causing dramatic, unprecedented extremes like we observed during 2010 and 2011. That’s the best theory I have to explain the extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011–natural extremes of El Niño, La Niña and other natural weather patterns combined with significant shifts in atmospheric circulation and the extra heat and atmospheric moisture due to human-caused climate change to create an extraordinary period of extreme weather.

However Masters doesn’t think that this sort of weather is the new normal — at least not yet — but it does suggest where we may be heading in 20-30 years time:

…the ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air puts tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010 – 2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.

You don’t have to be an alarmist to find that alarming.

[Update: 30/6: The Guardian turns Masters’ list into a slideshow of compelling images.]

[Bob Marley]

58 thoughts on “Catch a fire (worst year since 1816)”

  1. This is an impressive list and very sad for those that were affected by the lethal disasters. When I read this hot-topic blog post I immediately wondered what the basis for labeling this ‘probably the worst run of natural disasters since 1816’. Even the title contains the language ‘worst year since 1816’.

    It’s a little unclear. Is this a scientific comparison? What is the basis for saying no other 18 month period has been more extreme? Has any definition of ‘extreme weather events’ and detailed collating of historical ‘extreme weather events’ been done in order to establish this or is it simply a case of the list sounding so impressive that the author believes it just has to be the worse.

    A quick read of Master’s original blog and the statement, “in my mind, makes [2010] the planet’s most extraordinary year for extreme weather since reliable global upper-air data began in the late 1940s. Never in my 30 years as a meteorologist have I witnessed a year like 2010–the astonishing number of weather disasters and unprecedented wild swings in Earth’s atmospheric circulation were like nothing I’ve seen”.

    So in the 30 years he has been following weather this one seems the worst. Of course this could be because it is the most recent and fresh in his memory, and also because we have global news channels and instant media through the internet.

    And then in the conclusion:

    “It is difficult to say whether the weather events of a particular year are more or less extreme globally than other years, since we have no objective global index that measures extremes. However, we do for the U.S.–NOAA’s Climate Extremes Index (CEI), which looks at the percentage area of the contiguous U.S. experiencing top 10% or bottom 10% monthly maximum and minimum temperatures, monthly drought, and daily precipitation. The Climate Extremes Index rated 1998 as the most extreme year of the past century in the U.S. That year was also the warmest year since accurate records began in 1895, so it makes sense that the warmest year in Earth’s recorded history–2010–was also probably one of the most extreme for both temperature and precipitation.”

    Hold on a sec, we have taken an index of US weather and applied it to the Earth here!

    “Looking back through the 1800s, which was a very cool period, I can’t find any years that had more exceptional global extremes in weather than 2010, until I reach 1816.”… “It is quite possible that 2010 was the most extreme weather year globally since 1816”.

    So the basis for the 1816 statement in this blog doesn’t come until here. And “quite possible” has been changed to “probably” in the intro and a definitive “worst year since 1816” in the title.

    NB. The point of this post isn’t to argue that 2010 wasn’t extreme. Or to argue that it definiatly wasn’t the most extreme if a scientific study is done. It is simply to point out the folley in taking a casual observation in one post and re-posting it as a ‘probably’.

    1. Well done, R2, entirely true to form: ignore the big picture and nit-pick the details. Whether it’s 1816 or not doesn’t matter — Masters point is that you have to look at a truly extraordinary year (read about 1816) before you can compile anything resembling the current situation.

      Let me quote a professional meteorologist in the US (pers comm):

      Most of my meteorological colleagues are in a mild state of shock. Surreal is the word that comes to mind – like something out of a Spielberg movie.

      1. So you incorrectly quote an article yet pointing this out is nitpicking. I wonder if this would be acceptable if I was doing it? Or Richard Treadgold?

        As I note in my post, I am not saying the climate wasn’t unusual, it was. You reply to me with a quote that points out that the climate was unusual.

        However the most revealing thing from your post is that you don’t deny you misquoted and embellished with the 1816 figure instead just state, “Whether it’s 1816 or not doesn’t matter”!

        So why title an article “Catch a fire (worst year since 1816)” if this isn’t true and doesn’t in fact matter? That you have such a liberal approach to scientific method (ie establishing fact) and misquoting another story is very revealing. To point this out to your readers is not nitpicking.

        1. [Caught by the spam filter, not sure why…]

          The quotes in the post are verbatim from Masters’ article. Distinguishing between “probably” and “quite possibly” in my intro paragraph amounts to nit-picking, in my view. The headline does what headlines always do: attracts readers with a very succinct encapsulation of the story. It’s adequately qualified in the intro and the rest of the piece. The whole idea is to get people to go and read what Masters wrote, which seems to have worked in your case.

          The bigger picture, the subject of the story, for you takes second place to nit-picking. Why not concentrate on the subject matter, and discuss that — or is it a tad too uncomfortable to have to confront reality?

        2. You should take up sub-editing, R2. I’m sure we’d all appreciate headlines that ran –

          Catch a fire is a song by Bob Marley that I feel is Relevant to the Issue of what we may say with Some Confidence has been a period Roughly Approximating a Year that has in All Probability been the Most Turbulent with regards to some Notable Weather Events since circa 1816, at least as far as the US is concerned but it’s Certainly also Difficult to find Precedents Internationally.

          Good luck with getting your CV in to Rupert M. He’s rather fond of people who are so immersed in all those crucial details they just can’t manage to see AGW, don’t you know? Definiatly.

  2. I don’t see using the U.S. index of extreme events is problematic as long as it is used consistently, but it is still a subjective judgement and I am a little cautious about attributing extreme event or events to AGW at this time.

    But I believe that we can point to recent events and state that they are consistent with increased heat/energy in the climate system and strongly suggestive of AGW.

    BTW there are lots of other indicators of warming that i place more weight on. As a biologist I consider changes in species ranges a very strong indicator.

    On the other hand I would argue that recent events don’t support the globe is cooling meme put out by the science rejectionists (Hat tip to Eli for this term).

  3. Science rejectionists, ‘Stupidest People In History’ (hat tip Bill) what’s the difference?

    With El Nino likely later this year, you can pencil in another extraordinary drought in the Amazon next year. The death of the Amazon rainforest might be underway.

    Also note the anomalously warm tropical Atlantic over at NOAA. Could be yet another massive coral bleaching event in the Caribbean this year, and the warm tropical Atlantic will shift rainfall away from the Amazon.

    Of course neither mass coral bleaching, nor recurrent exceptional Amazonian droughts occurred in 1816. Things are unravelling very fast now.

      1. Well, come on, R2 has the narrative to sustain, doesn’t he? He has to keep pushing the idea that all AGW proponents are sloppy and prone to mistakes, if not downright fraudulent.

        It’s not as if he’s ever going to win an argument based on science, is it?

        1. OK, I apologise for pointing out this entire post is based on something that is only “quite possible” yet presented as “probably”. Next time I will just cheer lead like the rest of ya. Lesson learnt. Movin on.

  4. Last summer, 17 countries that represent 19% of the earth’s surface set new national termperature records.

    the largest area of Earth’s surface to experience all-time record high temperatures in any single year in the historical record. Looking back at the past decade, which was the hottest decade in the historical record, 75 countries set extreme hottest temperature records (33 percent of all countries.)

    For comparison, fifteen countries set extreme coldest temperature records over the past ten years (six percent of all countries).”

    Every year since 2001 is warmer than any year before 1998 in the temperature records.

    In 2000 we had the warmest May on record,
    warmest June on record
    warmest July on record.
    Jan-August tied with 1998 for warmest on record
    Warmest Nov-Feb on record
    The warmest January to April period
    The warmest January to May period
    The warmest March to May period

    At the end of April it was the warmest 12 months on record, according to GISS. Then came the warmest May, June and July on record, for a 15 month record.

    The Arctic Sea Ice Volume at the height of the freezing season, April,was more than one standard deviation below the mean for all seasons.
    The rate of Arctic sea ice decline through the month of May was the fastest in the satellite record.
    At the end of the melt season in September, Arctic sea ice extent was the third lowest recorded. The 1st and 2nd were a few years ago.

    2005 had (by far) the lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record at the time.
    It is now the 4th lowest
    1997 was (at the time) the warmest year on record. It is now 12th.

    Australia just had a 12 year drought, followed by record flooding and then a huge hurricane, to add to the flooding.

    China and Russia both had large grain crop losses from drought.

    As of June or so last summer, there were 305 consecutive months with temperatures greater than the mean for the 20th century

    The last decade had Twice as many record highs as record lows, worldwide. That ratio has been increasing every decade since the 70s

    19 states had their warmest April-Sept in the 116 year record.

    Check out the maps at these links. They show that these numbers don’t nearly convey that nearly the whole country had very high temps,with the pacific northwest and west coast being the exception.

    NOAA State of the Climate – U.S.
    3 regions had their warmest April-Sept in the 116 year record.

    A team of researchers, led by Leonid Polyak of Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, has culled the available evidence from hundreds of studies of proxy data for sea ice extent. As reported at Science Daily, in a new paper in Quaternary Science Reviews they report their findings: that the present extent of sea ice in the arctic is at its lowest for at least several thousand years.

    1. R2 – “la la la, can’t hear you – oh, man, I’m the Quibbler, hum de hum, yeah, the Quibbler takedown comes to town; word! no warmist’s gonna be sayin’ “almost certainly” when he means “very probably” on my watch… smokin’!… look, a squirrel!”

      Can anyone write a bot program to save him the trouble?

      1. Not sure why you single me out in a comment to ‘sailrick’. I have no problem with what he posts. I dont deny the statements he has made. Does your comment have a point?

      1. Sorry. The link was:

        In the Jeff Master’s piece, the follow quotes appear:

        “The floods were worsened by a persistent and unusually-far southwards dip in the jet stream, which brought cold air and rain-bearing low pressure systems over Pakistan. This unusual bend in the jet stream also helped bring Russia its record heat wave and drought.”

        “The year 2010 also set a new record for wettest year in Earth’s recorded history over land areas. The difference in precipitation from average in 2010 was about 13% higher than that of the previous record wettest year, 1956. However, this record is not that significant, since it was due in large part to random variability of the jet stream weather patterns during 2010. The record wetness over land was counterbalanced by relatively dry conditions over the oceans.”

        So, while I am not suggesting that a warming climate is not contributing to the extreme weather events, it is also worthwhile considering the impact unusual jet stream conditions may be having, and the potential solar cause of these jet stream patterns. The link is to show the unusual solar conditions currently persisting. People who are interested in climate patterns should be interested in this link, IMHO.

        1. That graph would have been more informative if it had been matched to something, such as temperatures or incidences of storms or whatever, or in the case you mentioned above – linked to incidences of the jet stream patterns being different to usual. On its own, it doesn’t really say anything.

        2. ” unusual jet stream ”

          We hear a lot about problems with jet streams in various areas affecting weather events. What’s so special about jet streams that they’re totally immune to disruption in a way no other climate features are?

          Warming ocean temperatures have the capacity – over the longer term – to disrupt thermohaline circulation, which is a very large, century-to-millennium climate feature. Why should we presume that jet streams are exempt from any impact from long term atmospheric warming?

          Saying ‘it was the jet stream’ over and over again is starting to sound like ‘a big boy did it and ran away’.

          1. Adelady. First off, the suggestion here isn’t that solar activity is driving global warming. It is actually quite the opposite. It is that solar activity is effecting the distribution of heat caused by the jet stream. This doesn’t mean that the total temperature will change. For example, if the jet stream is blocked west of England in the winter it will mean easterlies rather than south westerly’s for England. In the winter this will create cold temperatures in England due to the change in heat distribution. In the summer this will create warm temperatures in England.

            You ask; “Why should we presume that jet streams are exempt from any impact from long term atmospheric warming?”.

            Your question needs slightly rephrasing. No one presumes the jet stream is exempt from anything. But when establishing causality between two events the null hypothesis should be that they are not connected. Temperatures have been increasing since roughly 1850. Solar flux has been low very recently and was low in the 1600s and early 1800s. The literature does not show a relationship between temperatures and blocking events but solar flux and blocking events.

            This post is about weather, not climate. The relevance of solar flux on the aggregate climate is one thing. But the relevance of solar flux on weather is another. I post the link in respect to the relevance on weather. I am not claiming warming since 1850 is driven by solar forces.

            You asked me a question about presumptions, now my turn. Weather is essentially related to the distribution of moisture and heat throughout the atmosphere. Why should we presume all extreme weather events are a result of changes to the total energy (heat) and ignore changes to the mechanisms that distribute this energy?

            1. “Why should we presume all extreme weather events are a result of changes to the total energy (heat) and ignore changes to the mechanisms that distribute this energy?”

              Which is pretty much the question I asked.

              I have no idea why you thought I might be talking solar. We’re talking about the extreme weather of 2010 which includes the infamous coincidence of Pakistan’s floods and Russian heatwave – generally attributed to an aberration in the jet stream.

            2. No I did not think you were talking solar. I got the impression you were searching for link between the change in the jet stream and warm temperatures. I was pointing out the research suggests the jet stream blocking events may be caused by changes in solar activity.

    1. Oh R2D2, are you the same as _R2D2?
      Anyway your posts remind me of the two frogs sitting in the pot of water on the stove. One keeps pointing out the fact that the trend of rising temperatures and the predictions are looking rather dangerous and that the last minute was likely hotter than any minute he can recall ever witnessing before….
      While the frog with the R2D2 tag keeps pointing out that possibly there was a this medieval hot frog pond period when frogs got kissed by princesses (probable cause of heat back then) and that really to worry about this last minute being hotter than any other on memory was pointless as there was always a statistical possibility that the next minute might be hotter than another previous one due to natural causes totally unrelated to the fire under the pot. Then points to a fly on the kitchen wall: see no problem, food is plentiful….

      1. Yip that’s exactly how things are.

        You remind me of the two people having a web discussion. One says something thoughtful and the other responds with an irrelevant, pointless and long winded analogy about frogs in a pot.

        1. And while you’re on apologies, you might want to say sorry for rushing over to Treadgold’s place and accusing me of blocking your comments. It would be interesting if you held Richard to the same standards you attempt to apply here… but I won’t be holding my breath.

        2. You remind me of the two people having a web discussion. One says something thoughtful and the other responds with an irrelevant, pointless and long winded analogy about frogs in a pot piece of specious carping.

          Now we get you!

          Do you really have such a limited capacity to see yourself from the outside?

          And is there anything more pathetic than running back home to Denialist central to claim it’s-just-so-unfaaaaaair treatment on the basis of no evidence whatsoever? We all have the WP filters block posts at random, R2. And irony; caution is something only people who believe things you don’t want to need to practise?

        3. _R2D2 said: “Yip that’s exactly how things are.” (sitting in a pot on a stove analogy)
          Well we agree then for once.

          In paraphrasing Bills thoughts elsewhere here: I really dread it if you denier frogs would manage to squander our chances to put out the fire under the pot while there is still time.
          We obviously (strangely though) disagree about the consequences of sitting in a pot on a stove but we will share the same fate, no matter what. Otherwise we could simply leave you to your own fate… sadly this is here not an option.

          1. You call me a ‘denier frog’? That’s pretty uncalled for.

            I actually do not deny a human influence on climate change. As I have said this countless times, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, humans have increased the concentration, all things equal this will lead to warming.

            However, I like to discuss the complexities of this relationship. It is not as simple as the some would pretend.

            What is simple is that moving to renewable energy is a positive no matter which way you look at it, but abandoning fossil fuels over night is not feasible. Regardless of the forecasts of climate change, a path to ‘greener’ energy overtime is sensible and unavoidable.

            As I do not ‘deny’ the science of climate change, or the need to take action, I can only assume I am labeled a ‘denier frog’ because I challenge the author of this blog on certain aspects of the climate change discussion. As others have noted I am particularly sensitive when claims are made that cannot be backed up by evidence. While I believe CO2 is a greenhouse gas, I do not believe that ‘if lightning strikes in Timbuktu, it must be caused by CO2’. The fact this makes me hated speaks more about you than me. It shows the level of group think that has become endemic in the ‘green’ community.

            (sorry for the long diatribe about myself, Thomas forces me to do this by presuming he knows me when he does not)

            (also, sorry for assuming my comment was blocked when it wouldn’t post)

            1. The Denier Frog analogy is not reserved specifically for you. Perhaps you are less of a denier than notable others then.

              But back to this post and your comments above it would seem that you are trying really hard to avoid connecting the dots and looking at the evidence of the severity and the frequency of the latest years weather events for what they are: exactly what is predicted by climate science as the sort of issues we will see more and more off during the rise of the global energy heat store. Put together with the absolutely shocking state and direction of developments in our oceans the writing could not be clearer on the wall.

              BTW: The US South West fires of 2011 are now closing in on the nuclear facilities of Los Alamos:
              “County fire chief Doug Tucker said the current blaze — which grew Monday to roughly 50,000 acres (20,235 hectares), or 78 square miles (202 square kilometers) — was the most active fire he had seen in his career.”
              The fires are closing in on large amounts of nuclear material and have overrun areas where tests involving nuclear materials were made….

              Check this out:

              It is a graph of the wildfire activity over the last 10 years in the USA. Absolutely shocking. This years fires are 3 times the nation average of the past ten years and by far the worst ever recorded. And the fire season has not even been running for very long….


              So the Catch A Fire title of this post is rather well put I would think.

            2. Back to my original post,

              “NB. The point of this post isn’t to argue that 2010 wasn’t extreme. Or to argue that it definiatly wasn’t the most extreme if a scientific study is done. It is simply to point out the folley in taking a casual observation in one post and re-posting it as a ‘probably’.”

            3. Ill up the game for you R2D2, I’d say its not only probably its more like extremely likely….

            4. Based on? A gutt feeling? Or some research you would like to point me to? Seems we are going around in circles.

            5. The point is that neither correlation nor causation is established.

              Correlation: there is no proper measurement of extreme events overtime in the blog post. In those that have been done they do not show strong trends in data that goes back more than 40 years.

              Causation: we understand as the world warms the atmosphere can hold more water, however the reason for 2010 having many extreme events may be for unrelated reasons (such as jet stream patterns). Determination is not proven to my knowledge, and is likely different for each event.

              Thomas, do you see how we are going around in circles? Are you thinking before you post these comments? You remind me of Colbert’s truthiness, speaking from the gut rather than using facts, “I know in my gut what caused it, I don’t need science to confirm anything!” (if you don’t know what truthiness is look it up). This is getting very frustrating.

            6. Well lets say that you and I disagree about the causation and also about the correlation. Its pointless to point you to the science of either as you seem to think yourself smarter than the scientists doing the math and the observations on all this (a habit you share with most of your denier friends). I might as well debate evolution with a Pentecostal believer. I and many others here have pointed you to the knowledge that you could (and based on your strong opinions really should) take to heart, alas to no avail.

              BTW I said: “Extremely likely” and “Pretty good case indeed” not proven as in mathematically proven with zero chance of error. But for me (and for most people with a conscience on these matters), “Extremely likely” is enough to get to work to do something about it. If an event is extremely likely and will spoil the future of civilization if true, then by goodness, it must even concern you.

              Happy blogging then.

  5. A bit off topic perhaps but really very related: I am listening to national radio’s discussion of the reinsurance problems for Chch. This is a debacle to observe closely. It could well be the insurance companies that will simply force the deniers among the rest of us to stop denying the creeping changes underway already. Once an area that is prone to disasters from the onset of AGW phenomena becomes uninsurable as perhaps Chch now, people will simply no longer be able to pretend that all is well……
    And the investors in insurance companies will listen to the scientific evidence, not the right wing blogs.

    1. Proof is to be considered semantic?

      If one could show that current extreme events were unusual, and that this had occurred in line with increases in temperature that would be strong evidence. Even then individual events would be difficult to show causality. This is not unusual, that is why scientists prefer large sample sizes rather than small ones. We live in a random chaotic world.

      However this is off topic. This post is about measuring current weather extremes against historical ones, and most of the comments address this issue.

      1. R2D2, you miss the point entirely. 100% proof is only obtainable in the rear view mirror on things like climate change and statistics on severe weather events. The point is that at that stage its well to late to mitigate anything. Once the harvests fall below the required amount to feed our billions the dying will happen quick and merciless. We are not far off, in fact the world at present is perhaps just one rather bad harvest form that point already.
        Judging by the extreme events of the last years (and the ones already extreme this year) this point is much closer than you will want to admit.
        We do not have time to wait until all the little R2D2’s of the world are 100% sure. Only those who are willfully ignoring the mountain of evidence will want to wait for more proof.

      1. Oi, idiots, I have never said 100% proof, and my objection in this string of posts is in regards to complete lack of evidence, not lack of 100%. As noted in my previous post. Yet you keep raising it. Attacking someone on something they haven’t said is pretty infuriating. You do this to me first on denying climate change and now on demanding 100% proof.

        “Yeah, and if such a thing were possible, they’d want 110%.”

        Arrrrggghhh! Who is they? Is this mature debate? Stop acting like a bunch of children.

        If you want my opinion: Generally 95% confidence by statistical test is enough. Here less would be acceptable as it is such a hard thing to prove. But I havent even seen a proper analysis of historical events! I havent seen 50% confidence let alone 95%! All I have seen, as pointed out, is one meteorologist who says in his 30 years this is the worst. Is that enough for you?

          1. Haha, very funny video.

            However posting that, rather than being a rebuttal, only serves to give further evidence to claim that you are acting like children and putting words in my mouth. Calling an idiot an idiot is hardly violence.

        1. R2D2 said: “…my objection in this string of posts is in regards to complete lack of evidence

          LOL, thats it, I’m out. Anybody else for a feeding frenzy…..

            1. Wow – would you credit it; from the SA article –

              The evidence is in: global warming has caused severe floods, droughts and storms.

            2. “People like R2D2” – as a robot I despise that comment.

              But also, the article you post talks about the fact that warmer temperatures will mean more heavy rain, something that is obvious and not disputed by me.

              If you actually read my comments, instead of just putting words in my speaker, you will see my objection is to the claim the year was the worst since 1816, despite the author providing virtually no evidence for this other than speculation. Your article does not address this issue. Another red hearing. How would you feel if I constantly said, “Robots like Thomas should read the following”… (link to article showing it is unlikely tropical cyclones will hit Wellington this summer) .. save me from lecturing him about how silly alarmist projections are” etc etc.

              Please read my comments before writing rebuttals to things I havent said and then claiming some moral victory.

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