Extreme weather gets a boost from climate change

We're seeing hotter heat waves, drier droughts, bigger storm surges and more

Man on boardwalk during storm

Scientists are detecting a stronger link between the planet’s warming and its changing weather patterns.

Though it can be hard to pinpoint whether a particular heat wave or hurricane would have been less severe without climate change, the research is telling us more.

Here’s what we know about how climate change can intensify big weather events.

Heat and drought

The dangerous effects of heat waves, including death, occur as a result of both temperature and humidity – especially if those conditions persist for more than two days.

With temperature records being smashed month after month, year after year, it’s likely that human-caused global warming is making extreme heat events more frequent.

Higher temperatures also boost evaporation, which dries out the soil in summer – intensifying drought over many areas.

Storms and floods

As more evaporation leads to more moisture in the atmosphere, rainfall intensifies.

While scientists aren’t certain about whether climate change has led to more hurricanes, or more destructive ones, they are confident that rising sea levels are leading to higher storm surges and more floods.

Clouds that can dump a lot of rain are more common in a warmer atmosphere.

Ilissa Ocko Climate Scientist

Most of the sea-level rise comes from the expansion of warming oceans, triggered by human-caused global warming. (Like all liquids, water generally expands as it heats up.) The rest of the rise comes from melting glaciers and ice sheets.

Snow and frigid weather

cars buried in snow

A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture and can bring record snowfall.

It may seem counterintuitive, but more snowfall during winter storms indicates climate change.

Remember – a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. So when the temperatures are below freezing, snowfall can break records.

And scientists are studying a possible connection between a warming Arctic and cold winters in the eastern United States. The idea is that melting sea ice in the Arctic can weaken the jet stream, allowing frigid polar air to travel farther south.

Certain kinds of weather, and the destruction they cause, worsen on a warming planet.

Scott Weaver Chief Climate Scientist