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Florida's State Climatologist: Be Careful in Attributing Specific Weather Events to Climate Change


Some have claimed that storms like Hurricane Harvey are the result of global climate change, which is likely to mean more dangerous weather events in the future. So we checked in with the State of Florida’s climatologist to get his take on that argument.

Florida’s State Climatologist is David Zierden. His office is on the 2nd floor of Florida State University’s Research Building “A” at Innovation Park. And Zierden said, although there are many things we don’t know about climate change, there is one central tenant that is a scientific certainty.

“Climate is changing. The global climate is warming. There are other changes going on and it is the result of human activity and the burning of fossil fuels,” he stated with finality.

Although many American politicians are still hotly debating even that statement of fact. Still, Zierden was quick to urge caution when it comes to blaming any single situation on climate change.

“Attributing any one weather event to climate change is always a tricky thing,” he explained. “Climate change is not bringing any new threats so far. All these threats: hurricanes, floods, droughts, extreme heat, have existed all along and I’d even make a case that we’re not adequately prepared for the existing threats or the historical threats.”

Still, Zierden said one big question remains:

“Now is climate change exacerbating some of these? The answer is probably yes, including this one. But we really won’t know until we do detailed attribution studies and really examine all the factors behind this storm to say just how much climate change may have contributed to the disaster that’s unfolding right now.”

Part of the problem, said Zierden, is that figuring out why a particular weather event turns out the way it does is fiendishly complicated business.

“There’s a whole set of other atmospheric factors that need to align to get a storm like this. So warmer ocean temperatures in and of themselves just won’t do it.”

Although warmer ocean temperatures do provide tropical storms with more fuel and therefore more potential intensity. But again, Zierden said there are other contributing factors that need more research.

“Is our overall circulation changing? And there have been some papers published saying, ‘Yes, this is happening,’ others that kind of say, ‘Wait, not so fast!’ But it is a big question to science that’s being explored and that really is an unanswered question right now.”

But Zierden insisted people shouldn’t wait until all the questions are answered. He’s urging everyone from everyday folks to public policy makers to adopt a two-pronged action plan now.

“Adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation refers to the long-term view of limiting our greenhouse gas emissions so we can slow the process of climate change that’s going on now. Adaptation is making communities and our infrastructure more resilient to existing and potential threats down the road. Action needs to be taken on both of those fronts to adequately prepare ourselves and make our communities more resilient to these extreme events.”

Which, as Florida’s State Climatologist David Zierden has already said, may very well become more extreme and more numerous in the future.

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Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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