The Insane Rainstorms We've Seen This Week Are What Climate Change Looks Like

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Massive flooding on the Florida panhandle. More rain in New York's Central Park on Wednesday than it saw during Hurricane Sandy. Big storms with lots of rain is one of the things that we can expect more of as the world gets warmer.

Environment America

In 2012, Environment America released a report documenting the increase in "extreme precipitation" events between 1948 and 2011. Over that time period, as you can see in the map, the number of extreme rain- and snowfalls nearly doubled in the Northeast. (What constitutes "extreme"? Events "expected to occur no more than once per year on average at a particular location based on the historical record.") Climate Central, writing about this week's storms, created a slightly different map, showing the percentage of increase in heavy rain events by region of the country.

"It probably wouldn't be correct to say that climate change caused" the floods in Florida, Slate's climate expert Eric Holhaus wrote on Wednesday, "but it surely made them more likely." Why? Because "as the atmosphere warms, it can hold more water vapor."

Possible future unusual precipitation events at various concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. (IPCC)

In its most recent report, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change listed (in its typically reserved language) the link between precipitation and human-caused climate change.

Anthropogenic influences have contributed to observed increases in atmospheric moisture content in the atmosphere (medium confidence), to global-scale changes in precipitation patterns over land (medium confidence), to intensification of heavy precipitation over land regions where data are sufficient (medium confidence) … 

Extreme precipitation events over most of the mid-latitude land masses and over wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent by the end of this century, as global mean surface temperature increases.

"Mid-latitude land masses" is where you live. Or, if it isn't, if you're visiting our humble website from Kenya or Alaska, here's how you can expect precipitation to change in your area, depending on how much more carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere.

What's worse is that the increased precipitation will be paired with higher sea levels. As Arctic ice melts and as ocean temperatures increase, sea levels will continue to rise. Which will mean more images like the one below. Is this rain flooding? Sea flooding? Storm surge? Does it matter?

If you live out West, by the way, you may have noticed that your fate will likely be different. Precipitation in already-dry parts of the country will likely drop — although there will still likely be more precipitation in rarer storms. Meaning a higher likelihood of drought in a warming world. But that would never happen, right?

A woman in Alabama. (AP)


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