Hurricanes Irma and Harvey have reignited discussions about link between global warming and extreme weather, with climate scientists now saying they can show the connections between the two phenomena better than ever before.
“A warmer ocean makes a warmer atmosphere, a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture,” says Gabriel Vecchi, a professor of geosciences at Princeton University who studies extreme weather events. “So, all other things equal, the same storm in a warmer planet would give you more rainfall.”
In a warming world the vapour capacity of the atmosphere increases, and more extreme rainfall, like Texas is witnessing right now, is to be expected as a result. This leads many to conclude that climate change exacerbated the impacts of hurricane Harvey.
It is very appropriate to highlight that this is the kind of event we expect to see more of in a warming world. However, to apply this argument directly and attribute (and quantify) the impacts from Harvey itself to human-induced climate change, neglects that climate change is not just about warming.
In a changing climate, two effects come together: not only does the atmosphere warm up (thermodynamic effect) but the atmospheric circulation, which determine where, when, and how weather systems develop, can change as well (dynamic effect).
Dynamical factors and thermodynamic aspects of climate change can interact in complex ways and there are many examples where the circulation is as important as the thermodynamics.
Hence, while it is very likely that climate changes played a role in the intensity of the rainfall, it is far from straightforward in practice to quantify this role. As such, determining the role of climate change in increasing or decreasing the present and future likelihood of a rain storm like Harvey presents a challenge.