WEATHER

Disasters in U.S.: An extreme and exhausting year

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While the hurricanes and tornado outbreaks don't seem to have any clear climate change connection, the heat wave and drought do, said NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt.

Damage in Joplin, Missouri after a tornado struck. (Photo: Associated Press)

This year, there's been a Pacific Ocean climate phenomenon that changes weather patterns worldwide known as La Nina, the flip side to El Nino. La Ninas normally trigger certain extremes such as flooding in Australia and drought in Texas. But global warming has taken those events and amplified them from bad to record levels, said climate scientist Jerry Meehl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Judith Curry of Georgia Tech disagreed, saying that while humans are changing the climate, these extremes have happened before, pointing to the 1950s.

"Sometimes it seems as if we have weather amnesia," she said.
Another factor is that people are building bigger homes and living in more vulnerable places such as coastal regions, said Swiss Re's Schrast.

Worldwide insured losses from disasters in the first three months this year are more than any entire year on record except for 2005, when Hurricane Katrina struck, Schrast said.

Unlike last year, when many of the disasters were in poor countries such as Haiti and Pakistan, this year's catastrophes have struck richer areas, including Australia, Japan and the United States.

The problem is so big that insurers, emergency managers, public officials and academics from around the world are gathering Wednesday in Washington for a special three-day National Academy of Sciences summit to figure out how to better understand and manage extreme events.

The idea is that these events keep happening, and with global warming they should occur more often, so society has to learn to adapt, said former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, NOAA's deputy chief.

Sullivan, a scientist, said launching into space gave her a unique perspective on Earth's "extraordinary scale and power and both extraordinary elegance and finesse."

"We are part of it. We do affect it," Sullivan said. "But it surely affects us on a daily basis - sometimes with very powerful punches."

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