Climate Change Indicators in the United States
Important Concepts in This Chapter
Weather is the state of the atmosphere at any given time and place. Most of the weather that affects people, agriculture, and ecosystems takes place in the lower layer of the atmosphere. Familiar aspects of weather include temperature, precipitation, clouds, and wind that people experience throughout the course of a day. Severe weather conditions include hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and droughts.
Climate is the long-term average of the weather in a given place. While the weather can change in minutes or hours, a change in climate is something that develops over longer periods of decades to centuries. Climate is defined not only by average temperature and precipitation but also by the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of weather events such as heat waves, cold spells, storms, floods, and droughts.
While the concepts of climate and weather are often confused, it is important to understand the difference. For example, the eastern United States experienced a cold and snowy winter in 2013/2014, but this short-term regional weather phenomenon does not negate the long-term rise in national and global temperatures, sea level, or other climate indicators. It may be helpful to think about the difference between weather and climate with an analogy: weather influences what clothes you wear on a given day, while the climate where you live influences the entire wardrobe you buy.
Rising global average temperature is associated with widespread changes in weather patterns. Scientific studies indicate that extreme weather events such as heat waves and large storms are likely to become more frequent or more intense with human-induced climate change. This chapter focuses on observed changes in temperature, precipitation, storms, and droughts.
Why does it matter?
Long-term changes in climate can directly or indirectly affect many aspects of society in potentially disruptive ways. For example, warmer average temperatures could increase air conditioning costs and affect the spread of diseases like Lyme disease, but could also improve conditions for growing some crops. More extreme variations in weather are also a threat to society. More frequent and intense extreme heat events can increase illnesses and deaths, especially among vulnerable populations, and damage some crops. Similarly, increased precipitation can replenish water supplies and support agriculture, but intense storms can damage property, cause loss of life and population displacement, and temporarily disrupt essential services such as transportation, telecommunications, energy, and water supplies.
Summary of Key Points
- U.S. and Global Temperature. Average temperatures have risen across the contiguous 48 states since 1901, with an increased rate of warming over the past 30 years. Seven of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Average global temperatures show a similar trend, and the top 10 warmest years on record worldwide have all occurred since 1998. Within the United States, temperatures in parts of the North, the West, and Alaska have increased the most.
- High and Low Temperatures. Many extreme temperature conditions are becoming more common. Since the 1970s, unusually hot summer temperatures have become more common in the United States, and heat waves have become more frequent—although the most severe heat waves in U.S. history remain those that occurred during the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930s. Record-setting daily high temperatures have become more common than record lows. The decade from 2000 to 2009 had twice as many record highs as record lows.
- U.S. and Global Precipitation. Total annual precipitation has increased in the United States and over land areas worldwide. Since 1901, precipitation has increased at an average rate of 0.15 inches per decade in the contiguous 48 states and 0.09 inches per decade over land areas worldwide. However, shifting weather patterns have caused certain areas, such as the Southwest, to experience less precipitation than usual.
- Heavy Precipitation. In recent years, a higher percentage of precipitation in the United States has come in the form of intense single-day events. Nationwide, eight of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990. The occurrence of abnormally high annual precipitation totals (as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has also increased.
- Drought. Average drought conditions across the nation have varied since records began in 1895. The 1930s and 1950s saw the most widespread droughts, while the last 50 years have generally been wetter than average. However, specific trends vary by region. A more detailed index developed recently shows that between 2000 and 2014, roughly 20 to 70 percent of the United States experienced drought at any given time, but this index has not been in use for long enough to compare with historical drought patterns.
- A Closer Look: Temperature and Drought in the Southwest. The southwestern United States is particularly sensitive to changes in temperature and thus vulnerable to drought, as even a small decrease in water availability in this already arid region can threaten natural systems and society.
- Tropical Cyclone Activity. Tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico has increased during the past 20 years. Increased storm intensity is closely related to variations in sea surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic. However, changes in observation methods over time make it difficult to know for sure whether a long-term increase in storm activity has occurred. Records collected since the late 1800s suggest that the actual number of hurricanes per year has not increased.