The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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Retrospective

Hello. Sorry this post is a few days late.

I set out to write a retrospective of the year, as I have for at least some of the other years of this blog. But I noticed something funny, when I looked over my writings of 2016. In brief, there wasn’t a whole lot to retrospect.

Most of my posts this past year were opinion pieces, science explainers, or climate fiction–or politics. There was a lot of politics. I covered very few actual events.

Of course, there was weather. Remember that hurricane in January? The cyclone that literally blew around in the Pacific (as in its track made a circle)? The terrible flooding in Britain and then the rest of Europe? The fires? No, I did actually write about fire last year, but I remember the fires in the Smokies, anyway. Yes, fire counts as weather in the same way that flooding does, for one is a symptom of too much rain and the other a symptom of too little. But increasingly, I’m getting reluctant to write about weather here, because it’s always the same story. Climate change increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather, here is extreme weather happening, please stop causing climate change. Over and over again. And again.

There was the California methane leak, which I wrote about in January. It was finally sealed towards the end of February, a little earlier than some experts had feared. Two months later, some area residents still had not returned, worrying about lingering contamination. Some still had health problems, probably caused by poisoning from some combination of mercaptan, heavy metals, and benzene, all of which were present in the gas plume from the leak (methane itself is not toxic, but it is a dangerously powerful greenhouse gas). I don’t know what has happened since, how the lawsuits have turned out or if there have been any policy changes involving methane storage, because the newsmedia seem to have totally lost interest.

There was the oil and gas exploration policy process, which we more or less won. Not only was the Atlantic excluded from oil and gas exploration, so was the Arctic. How long any of that will last in the new political climate seems unclear, though.

There was the Dakota Access Pipe Line, which I’ve mostly avoided writing about because it’s not my story to tell, but it is an important and ongoing issue.

And there was the disaster that is Donald Trump and the new Republican Congress.

Look, people, we’re going the wrong way. We need a climate-sane government and we don’t have one yet. We don’t even have much of a popular movement in that direction. The pushback against Mr. Trump seems largely organized around women’s rights, LGBT rights, the civil rights of racial and cultural minorities, especially immigrants…but what no one is saying that if Mr. Trump disassembles President Obama’s climate legacy, members of all those groups will be directly and terribly affected. Climate change is a women’s rights issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It is an economic issue. There is no way to win on any of those other fronts if we lose on climate change.

And yet 2015 gave us a series of climate marches last year to which virtually nobody showed up. Not surprisingly, 2016 gave us an election cycle in which the issue was hardly  raised. We now have a Congress who has no particular reason to believe there is any political will to support climate action.

I am more than ready for 2017 to pleasantly surprise me.


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Closer to Home

This week, the photos of drowned cars and pondlike streets have depicted places just up the road from me–a couple of days of hard rain sent the Pokemoke River rising out of its banks and washing out roads. As far as I have been able to gather, this isn’t really a disaster, more of a dramatic and expensive inconvenience, but still. I’m used to this sort of thing happening to other people, not to my neighbors.

Next week, we may be hit by a hurricane.

I’m not going to link to a source, here, because the various weather websites are constantly being updated and you wouldn’t be able to see the same thing I read. What I’m seeing is that the storm is going to roughly parallel the East Coast of the United States at least at far as the Carolinas, before veering somewhat more offshore. They still aren’t sure exactly what track the hurricane will take, and slight variations matter. A couple of miles to the East or West could be the difference between real disaster and a sort of inclement day or two. We’ve had hurricanes here before, but we’re unusually vulnerable right now because our soils are still completely saturated. It won’t take much rain for us to flood all over again.

This kind of weather always makes people more aware of climate change. It’s enough to make a doubter wake up to the severity of the situation. Cooler heads may point out that weather and climate are different, that it is difficult or impossible to tie any particular weather event to climate change. And all that is true.

But the flip-side of that truth is that even when your particular area is having a calm, clear, wonderful day, climate change is still happening.


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Gone with the….

Wind has been in the news lately.

Cyclone Winston  became a named storm on February 10th and then spent 12 days blowing around the South Pacific–literally, the storm track curved back on itself and made a big loop, something I personally hadn’t known was possible. It crossed over Fiji as a Category 5 storm, killed 21 people, and literally leveled whole communities–a kind of destruction more typical of powerful tornadoes. At one point, the storm packed sustained winds of at least 186 mph. That’s the most powerful storm ever measured in the southern hemisphere.

Then, on February 23rd and 24th, a swarm of tornadoes swept through the United States, killing at least three and injuring many more. The storms (though not the tornadoes) actually passed over my area, giving us high, gusting winds and thunder. In February.

Of course, some kind of extreme weather probably occurs somewhere on the planet every day. It’s a big planet, after all. But these are both extreme extremes–Cyclone Winston was one of the most powerful tropical cyclones ever measured. And the tornado outbreak was in February. And they both relate to climate change–although, so do all other weather events, extreme or otherwise, since the climate changes on the just and unjust alike. Still, it’s interesting to look at the actual connections.

First, Winston. As I’ve written before, tropical cyclones with sustained winds of 75 mph or more are called different things in different ocean basins and different basins also have different storm seasons, and different storm behavior. In the North Atlantic, these storms are called Hurricanes. Winston was called a cyclone because it existed in the South Pacific where it is now late summer. So if it seems like we’ve heard about the “world’s most powerful storm” rather often recently, that’s in part due to the fact that we’ve had multiple basins turning up extraordinary storms, not multiple records being set and broken in just a few months. Still, we do seem to be seeing a lot of big storms lately.

As I’ve written before also, it is hard to tell for sure if tropical cyclones have been getting worse because we only have a few decades of quality data–and the way meteorologists study these storms vary from one ocean basin to another, too, which means that much of the data we do have cannot be pooled. We know that climate change should be making tropical cyclones stronger, more frequent, or possibly both, because the new climate involves warmer water and more humid air, both of which are what makes tropical cyclones happen–we just can’t actually see the changes yet because of the data problem.

But Winston was actually the result of multiple atmospheric cycles working together. Tom Yulsman write a clear and interesting article explaining these cycles. You can find his article here. To summarize, both global warming and El Niño were involved in the unusually warm water that fed the storm while an even shorter cycle, the Madden-Julian Oscillation, that changes over just weeks, made the atmosphere more stormy at just the right time. Day-to-day weather changes then steered the storm through its bizarre circular track and right over Fiji.

So the simple answer is that yes, while we don’t have the data to confirm it, we can be pretty sure that these record-breaking storms have some degree of extra edge due to climate change–and at the same time, other patterns also influence the situation.

Meanwhile, Cyclone Winston exemplifies another pattern–no matter how strong or weak a storm is, it’s going to be worse for impoverished people. Wealthy people can afford to rebuild and wealthy countries can afford to provide extensive aid. Many of those in Fiji can access neither wealth nor extensive aid–they are literally asking for help from the world. And because Fiji is very small and very far away from many of my readers’ countries, it’s all too easy to forget about them.  Please help if you can and spread the word.

As to tornadoes, again we have a serious problem with a lack of quality data. It’s hard to tell whether there are more tornadoes than there used to be when until recently there was no way to tell a tornado had happened unless somebody was there to see it. But recently some researchers have teased out a changing pattern. Apparently, the number of days per year that have tornadoes on average are stead or dropping, but the number of tornadoes per outbreak is going up. That is in keeping with the warmer, more humid air, which should make storms more powerful, and a simultaneous decrease in wind shear, also a result of global warming, which makes tornadoes less likely. So, fewer days when tornadoes can form, but on those few days, the storms are worse.

But February?

Tornado swarms in February are rare but hardly unheard of. But what some writers are saying–that the atmosphere is behaving “as though it were May“–is very striking. It’s an acknowledgement that this past week’s storm is part of a pattern that we usually don’t see and it is directly related to warmth. Specifically, the Gulf of Mexico grew unusually warm and did indeed create a kind of weather more typical of a warmer month. Given that the world is warming, these storms are a bad sign of things to come.


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Your Tuesday Update: Hurricane Alex

Hello, all! Welcome to your Tuesday update! Did you notice the hurricane?

Yes, there was a hurricane out in the Atlantic last week. While there are parts of the world that get tropical cyclones any time of year, the Atlantic isn’t one of them. Typically, the season runs from June to November, with storms at the beginning and end of that season being rare. For a hurricane to form, the water underneath must usually be at least 80° F., something we rarely see in January. Nevertheless.

Alex formed as an extra-tropical storm near the Bahamas, crossed the Atlantic, and then moved over warm water near the Azores, developed tropical organization and eventually grew into a strong Category 1 storm before crossing the Atlantic again, becoming extra-topical, and ending up over the Canadian Maritimes where it sucked cold air south and gave the Eastern US a taste of actual winter for a change.

So, if anybody makes a “where is global warming” joke this week over the cold temps, you can explain that it’s cold because of a January hurricane.

Does Alex really have anything to do with climate change? As usual, that is the wrong question and the right question–are out-of-season tropical cyclones becoming more common–is impossible to answer because, as usual, there is no baseline data. Alex was only the third January hurricane ever recorded, but we really haven’t been recording hurricanes very long and until recently a lot of storms that never made landfall must simply have been missed. With no baseline, we can’t tell if anything has changed. And for events that only happen a few times a century anyway, it would take a long time for a new signal to show itself even if we did have a baseline.

So, all we can really say is that January hurricanes are rare and we just had one.

But it just seems weird.

 


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If We Stopped Tomorrow

What would happen* if we stopped causing climate change tomorrow?

It’s a fantasy, obviously, though an appealing one. It’s also food for a lot of interesting thought. What would life be like? What kind of climate would we be left with? Would climate change stop right away, or would there be residual change? Here, I’m going to explore the climate part of the question; if humans stopped producing greenhouse gas emissions right now, how would the climate respond?

For simplicity, our scenario is that all humans everywhere simply vanish and that all our machinery shuts itself down safely at once–I’ll ignore complications caused by unattended machinery blowing itself up and so forth. I want to be clear that I do not actually think my whole species should go extinct, I just don’t want to get pulled off topic by an overly complex scenario.

When do greenhouse gas emissions stop?

Emissions of different greenhouse gases stop at different times in our scenario. These gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and two groups of related gases, the chlorofluorocarbons and the hydrofluorocarbons (CFCs/HCFs), plus water vapor. I’m going to ignore water vapor here because the primary way its atmospheric concentration varies is not from emissions but from changes in the hydrologic cycle.

So, in our scenario, fossil fuel use and its carbon dioxide emissions stop immediately–but that’s only 57% of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by weight. Another 20% of the total is carbon dioxide from other sources, such as forest fires or aerobic decomposition. 14% is methane, 8% is nitrous oxide, and 1% is CFCs/HCFs. These gases come from different processes and some of these processes would continue a while.

Nitrous oxide comes largely from the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer. Its emissions should therefore drop off pretty quickly in our scenario. CFC/HCFC comes from industry and refrigeration and would therefore drop off much more slowly as abandoned refrigeration units slowly broke down and leaked. But the real issue would be methane and non-fossil-fuel-related carbon dioxide.

If the world were simple, then after our piles of wood and paper and other biomas finished burning or rotting (that might take a few years), atmospheric carbon oxide levels should stabilize. The only remaining emissions would be from natural wildfire or decay and that carbon would be taken up again as other plants grew. But the world is not simple. One of the things climate change is doing is shifting some places from forest to savanna. It’s unclear how much of that shift has happened yet, but it’s quite possible that some of our forests are essentially dead trees walking, so to speak. They won’t get the rain they need to survive and when they die they will be replaced by grass, shrubs, and the occasional tree, not forest. In that case, their carbon won’t be recovered, driving the atmospheric concentration up. One of the nightmare scenarios we’re looking at is if climate change caused by forest dieback becomes enough to cause further dieback–a runaway positive feedback cycle in which the planet starts warming itself.

If that nightmare feedback loop has not started yet, I doubt it would under our scenario, given the substantial emission cuts from the end of fossil fuel use. But elevated CO2 emissions will persist at least as long as it takes those forests doomed by climate change to die and rot or burn.

Methane levels might actually not drop in our scenario. Methane occurs as a fossil fuel and is also produced by anaerobic decomposition at the surface. Agriculture is a major source, mostly from rice cultivation and animal husbandry, and these emissions would probably taper off pretty quickly. Our vast herds of cattle are not going to survive us for very long. But landfills and leaky fossil fuel facilities will keep producing methane for a long time–only we won’t be here to capture and burn off those emissions (burning converts methane to carbon dioxide, which is actually a good thing because methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas). So those emissions could actually increase without us. I do not have enough information to calculate what the net result would be. And the nightmare scenario is that melting permafrost liberates enough methane to warm the planet enough to melt more permafrost and release more methane….

So, what we’re looking at is that if humans vanished and neither nightmare cycle has begun yet, total greenhouse gas emissions would drop immediately by somewhere around 60% and then probably decrease further over a period of years. When the system would reach equilibrium seems unclear. The relative contributions of each gas would change dramatically as well, with methane becoming co-dominant with CO2 by weight. Since methane is both more powerful and less persistent in the atmosphere, this shift would be very important to anyone running climate models of our scenario.

How long will the climate keep warming after emissions stop?

Even if the atmospheric concentrations of all the greenhouse gases stabilized today (which under our scenario they would not), the global climate would continue to warm for a period of years. This lag between cause and effect is actually a very familiar principle; if physics didn’t work this way, cooks would not have to use timers because food would become fully cooked the instant it went on the stove or into the oven. Earth’s climate has a longer lag than it might otherwise because we have oceans and water can swallow a huge amount of energy before changing temperature, but basically things just take a while to warm. The experts aren’t sure, but Earth’s lag is probably around 40 years–which means we are now experiencing the consequences of the greenhouse gas emissions of the 1970’s.

In our scenario, then, the loss of humans does not start to show on our climate for another couple of decades. Only then will the planet start responding to the dramatic decreases in emissions.

How long will sea level keep rising after the warming stops?

Here is another familiar principle: ice takes time to melt.Glacial dynamics are a bit more complicated, since they receive new snow as well as lose meltwater and they move, but when scientists say a certain amount of melting is “locked in,” that basically means that a certain amount of ice already has the conditions necessary to melt. It’s like an ice cube set out on the table at room temperature; that ice cube is going to melt away to nothing even if the air in the room does not get any warmer. Because glaciers are very big, some of the melting now locked in might take thousands of years–or it might go faster. Scientists aren’t sure, and of course the rate of melt is likely to increase because the temperature will keep rising (for at least 40 years!), but however long the process takes, the melting we have already triggered will cause at least three feet of sea level rise, probably more.

How long will greenhouse gas levels stay elevated?

Under our scenario, and assuming those cycles of viciousness aren’t in operation yet, greenhouse gas levels would level off as soon as emissions stopped and then eventually start falling. How long would it take for the atmosphere to return to something close to what it was before? The answer depends on which gas you’re looking at.

CFCs/HCFs and their kin vary a lot. Some can stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years, some for less than a year. I do not know how many of each kind we have up there and in what proportions, but we’re looking at a process that begins immediately and lasts for a very long time. Nitrous oxide breaks down in the stratosphere and takes just over a century to do it. Methane is quick, lasting only about 12 years (my source does not say what any of these chemicals becomes afterwards–I am suspicious that methane may become carbon dioxide, a complicating factor!).

Carbon dioxide is the tricky part, since it can leave the atmosphere by several different means. Much of it is absorbed into the ocean pretty quickly, where it no longer causes the greenhouse effect but instead causes ocean acidification. Also, this mechanism only works if there is more CO2 in the air than what the water near the surface can absorb. The upper layers of the sea are getting “full” now, meaning that not much more CO2 will go into the water until ocean mixing brings new water up to the surface. Chemical weathering of rocks also absorbs CO2, as does, of course, photosynthesis. And that last is the complicated one.

If the distribution of plants across the globe is roughly stable, then carbon sequestration by photosynthesis will be roughly matched by carbon emissions from fire and decay. But reforestation–and the re-establishment of wetlands–could become a powerful force for carbon sequestration with humans out of the way. Unless environmental damage has in some way precluded regrowth, which is possible, and unless the nightmare cycle has begun.

Without factoring in regrowth, somewhere above 65% of our carbon dioxide will be absorbed by the oceans in the next 20 to 200 years and the rest will drop very gradually, finally reaching equilibrium after a few thousand years. If plant regrowth proves significant, the process could go faster, maybe much faster–there is evidence that reforestation following the conquest of the Americas caused the Little Ice Age. In our scenario, it would be the entire world regrowing.

So what’s the scenario?

Bringing all of this information together, we can fill out the details of this scenario.

Humans either vanish or somehow become ecologically negligible in November of 2015. Right away, that very month, greenhouse gas emissions drop by about 60% and then continue dropping gradually over a period of years. Atmospheric concentrations of these gases also start to drop right away, though more gradually. Within a few years, meaningful reforestation begins in some areas, possibly balancing out climate-related deforestation elsewhere.

But the global average temperature keeps climbing–and it’s climbing faster than ever because the oceans have absorbed enough energy that now they’re warming rapidly, too. Extreme weather gets more so. If there are any humans left, they are having a very rough time of it. Somewhere around 2055, the climate begins to stabilize, although what it looks like by that point is anybody’s guess.

But by that point the atmospheric concentration of methane has fallen and leveled off at whatever its new normal is. Carbon dioxide levels are starting to fall meaningfully. I don’t know whether there is the same lag on cooling as there is on warming, but by sometime around the turn of the century I’m guessing the planet has started cooling again–and the cooling gradually accelerates over the following century as nitrous oxide starts to break down and as more and more carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans and by growing plants.

All this time, the sea level is rising. Water creeps gradually across the hurricane-ravaged ruins of many of the world’s major cities and upstream into previously fresh areas of the world’s rivers. Oysters grow on the streets of Manhattan.

I’m guessing that the cooling will take much longer than the warming, because greenhouse gas levels will stay somewhat elevated for thousands of years. The  planet would also see a lot of delayed effects of the warming–along the lines of changing plant growth patterns or changing ocean salinity triggering various feedback loops. I don’t know what those loops would be or when they might occur. At some point the pace of change would slow enough that the biosphere will start to recover–but recovery from a mass extinction takes about ten million years.

Feeling depressed?

I don’t mean this as an exercise in pessimism. I mean it as an illustration of what optimism looks like at this point, what we can look forward to in the best possible scenario we can anticipate. If being limited to this as optimism bothers you, consider how the next generation will feel if we do not get our butts in gear right now.

 

  • Note: After writing this, I’ve thought of a bunch more complications that might change the details of the picture I’ve given. I stand by my factual statements, but my suppositions might be muddy. Creating a detailed, accurate climate projection is not my intention, though–that requires a supercomputer I don’t have. The point is to draw attention to the questions, to the issues of lag and lingering emissions–to provide food for thought.


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Your Tuesday Update: Windy Fudge

NRP just ran a story on why Hurricane Patricia can’t be blamed on climate changebecause it is just one event and single events can’t be definitively pinned on a trend.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard that before. And it’s entirely correct. Yes, this record-breaking storm is clearly related to a powerful El Niño, and no, we don’t know what the relationship between El Niño and climate change is. I’ve addressed all of that before, and probably so has every other climate change writer on the planet.

But that isn’t what people mean when they ask if this is climate change.

They’re not asking for a lecture about the difference between climate and weather or the definition of “trend” or any of that, they’re asking is climate change real? and is this the sort of thing we can expect more of? And the answer to both of those questions is unequivocally YES.

No, we don’t know if there has been a statistically significant change in hurricane behavior yet because we have no good baseline data to compare against. So while we can say Patricia was startling, we can’t really get a handle on how unusual the storm was. It had the highest winds of any storm measured, but we haven’t been measuring storms very well for very long. Yes, El Niño is a complicating factor. It’s important for anyone interested in seriously discussing climate change to understand these details so that we won’t be caught hanging when some climate denier twists them up for use as semi-true window-dressing for propaganda.

But all of that is a footnote to the story. The story is that unusually warm water produces unusually powerful hurricanes. Global warming includes the waters of the globe. This is what climate change looks like, among other things–monster hurricanes.

No single events will ever be pinnable to any trend because trends are only visible in multiple events. That isn’t going to change. It isn’t news. So, to NPR and every other journalist working on the topic, please stop misframing public questions in a way that allows you to answer “no” when the true answer to the real question is “yes.”


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When the Sky Does Not Make Sense

As I explained on Tuesday, the East Coast of the US has been pummeled recently by horrible weather. The worse of the flooding struck South Carolina, but the storm caused flooding every state from Georgia north to Maine and inland as far as Ohio. The storm was remarkable for many reasons, not least because of its vast size and the shear amount of water that fell out of it:

  • In Maine, Caribou, Millinocket, Houlton, and Portland all broke daily rainfall records–Portland’s new record is double the previous record, which was set in 1922. One area, Searsport, received more than ten inches in total from the storm.
  • In Massachusetts, Boston almost doubled its daily rainfall record, previously set in 1899. The worst of the rain had not get moved through the state at that point.
  • In Rhode Island, Provincetown set a new daily record and New Bedford had to shut down Route 18 for two hours due to flooding.
  • Some parts of South Carolina got one or two feet of water out of the storm in total. Dams breached, highways flooded, and caskets literally floated up and out of their graves.

Coastal flooding–a storm surge driven by wind–was just as bad and, in some areas, worse. Just as unprecedented as the flooding was the storm’s structure–record-breaking floods in this part of the world are categorically hurricanes or tropical storms, but this was neither. There is simply nothing in the record-books remotely comparable.

There was a hurricane involved, though.

Hurricane Joaquin was an extremely strong Category 4 storm–its strongest sustained winds were just 2 mph shy of qualifying as a Cat 5. Hurricanes of this intensity are extremely rare–the last one in the Atlantic was five years ago. It hammered the Bahamas and sank a cargo ship with all hands. It never made landfall in the US, but its influence sent high surf along the length of the Eastern Seaboard (in Maine I heard surf about a mile inland–and the closest water is a protected cove that typically has no waves) and contributed to the huge storm surge in the South. The hurricane and the un-named storm were close enough to influence each other, with the monster un-named stormed steering Joaquin and the hurricane funneling moisture into its extratropical partner. This relationship between two storms was also highly unusual and was one of the reasons that meteorologists had trouble developing forecasts for Joaquin.

Detractors sometimes complain that any time the weather gets weird, somebody cries “climate change.” The reason for that is that an altered climate means weird weather. A climate is essentially the normal pattern of weather in a given area–or across the entire planet. When the pattern of typical weather changes, that is, by definition, climate change.

But what are the links between this particular weather event and the greenhouse effect?

Most directly, the sea is higher. Any time you get a storm surge, that surge is worse than it would have been because the sea starts out higher. The difference is only about eight inches (some areas see much greater effective rise because the land is also subsiding), but that is enough to have a huge effect. Anyone who doubts that should imagine the difference between zero and eight inches of water in their living room. Or, for that matter, the difference between zero inches and one inch! Last week’s storm pushed seawater up onto the land in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Today I saw, posted on Facebook, a video of a shark cruising down a flooded street in West Ocean City less than ten miles from my house. People who live in the affected areas can now go out and see exactly what climate change looks like simply by holding a ruler up to the high water marks. That’s about as unambiguous as it gets.

Secondarily, the sea over which Joaquin intensified was unusually warm–at least as of August, that area actually had record-breaking warmth. Warm water feeds hurricanes, so this pool of warm water explains Joaquin’s unusual strength. And Joaquin helps explain the huge amount of moisture in the un-named storm. Pools of warm water, like pools of warm air (heat waves) come and go, but global warming means they are more intense and more frequent now.

Third, a warmer planet means more extreme weather, including more extreme rain events. Again, the issue is frequency. This past week’s event was a thousand-year storm–that’s not a schedule but an expression of probability. The chance of such a storm occurring in any given year is about one in a thousand or 0.1%. Yes, it was certainly possible to get more than one per millennium, just as it’s possible to flip a coin and get heads seventeen times in a row, but you wouldn’t expect it. With extreme rain events happening more often, now we can expect these more often. I doubt this past week’s records will be broken any time soon, these things are still going to be pretty rare, but what isn’t going to be rare is the breaking of some record somewhere, especially those that involve precipitation (including snow!) or drought, or heat.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before!” is what climate change sounds like.