New Weather Extremes Introduce Unfamiliar Terms for Climate Disaster

January 16, 2023
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

Words matter — naming things increases awareness and understanding

Flood warnings in news.
One of many flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service for California in response to the intense rainfall events resulting from atmospheric rivers. Image credit: National Weather Service

Not long ago talking about climate change was relatively simple — how hot will it get, and how soon. However, disasters in recent years have introduced a growing number of terms such as polar vortex and tipping point in addition to conversations about record highs and lows. New words describing weather anomalies are appearing with increasing frequency as the climate changes, often demonstrating how much we still don’t know about the vulnerability of the earth’s climate system and the extent of human vulnerability. Naming things also matters a lot because it makes us more likely to think about and remember them.

Recent events have inspired new words and phrases for climate disasters:

· Atmospheric river — If the term makes you think of a river in the sky, that’s very close to what it is. As defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it refers to relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics. The amount of water these floating formations can contain is enormous — roughly equivalent to the volume of water typical at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When accompanied by high winds, those atmospheric rivers containing the largest amounts of water vapor can create extreme rainfall and floods, often by stalling over watersheds vulnerable to flooding. These events can disrupt travel, bring down power lines, induce mudslides and cause catastrophic damage to life and property. Multiple such events in a short time period, as occurred in California causing at least 19 deaths, make the damage that much worse. Virtually all of the state has been on flood alert due to the intensity and recurrence of intense rain events.

· Bomb cycloneThe damage done by an atmospheric river may be magnified when accompanied by a bomb cyclone, a large, intense midlatitude storm that has low pressure at its center and rapidly extends outward, or bombs, when its central pressure decreases very quickly. This process of a rapid decline in air pressure goes by another fancy word, bombogenesis. A significant thermal contrast between the cool land and the warm Gulf Stream current, the elements required for a bomb cyclone, have been more common along the US east coast but recently contributed to the devastating flooding and record snowfall in California. Both atmospheric rivers and bomb cyclones are noteworthy for their potential scale; “The incidence of deadly flooding events from atmospheric rivers has extended from the West Coast into Kentucky,” while “the frigid cold from Arctic bomb cyclones extends as far south as Texas, as far west as the Rocky Mountains and as far east as coastal New England coastline.”

· Climate whiplash — Wild swings in weather such as from droughts to intense rainfall events are symptomatic of a phenomenon, variously known as climate whiplash or “weather whiplash,” that scientists say is likely to increase as the world warms. The potential consequences are diverse and complex including the collapse of California’s aging levee system as the weather whipsaws between desiccating drought and intense downpours. Heavy rains loosen trees making them more likely to fall in high winds. The risk to water systems is being described as “hydroclimate whiplash.” “We’re going to need water systems that are more flexible, that can recharge our aquifers at the same time that we mitigate flood risk to urban areas,” said climate scientist David Swain. The transitions from one extreme to another can happen very rapidly, making forecasts extremely difficult.

· Climate endgame — The increasing frequency of climate disasters, often with synergistic effects, has led some scientists to talk about the need to consider the possibility of worst-case scenarios, such as a deadly heat wave following destruction of the power system by storms — what they term a climate endgame. A recent scientific assessment of this scary possible future warns that such possibilities are a “dangerously underexplored topic” They outline a research agenda to better understand and prepare for the worst as the basis for an “integrated catastrophe assessment.”

· The new normal — Some terms become quickly outdated or acquire new meanings as climate change evolves in unexpected ways. For example, climate scientists used to refer to the new normal when describing changing weather patterns, but as the pace of change accelerates it is apparent there no longer is a normal, in the sense of a consistent and predictable weather future, while some articles further confuse matters by describing the absence of predictable seasons as the new normal.

· Threat multiplier, managed retreat, and carbon bomb — Discussion of climate change impacts are also resulting in some new vocabulary. One example is threat multiplier, a concept introduced by the Defense Department to warn that climate change would exacerbate conditions that can enable terrorist activities and other forms of violence. Another example is managed retreat, a reference to the recognition that for some coastal locations subject to damage from flooding and high winds the preferred solution will be moving inland rather than structural engineering.

New terms for climate disasters typically emerge from researchers and find their first use among scientists accustomed to technical terminology. As a result, they don’t always communicate effectively when reported in newspapers and spoken by tv weatherpersons, a problem when there is a threat to public health and safety. Compare, for example, the system for categorizing and naming hurricanes, which simplifies and amplifies warning of dangers (although the accelerating speed of those events is also making effective warnings increasingly difficult). An NGO, the Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center, is urging cities to name extreme heat events the way we do hurricanes. Last year Seville, Spain experienced a deadly heat wave for two weeks with temperatures reaching as high as 100 degrees and named it Zoe.

As climate disasters appear likely to occur more frequently, deciding how to make warnings more effective is certain to be yet another major challenge of climate change and its changing vocabulary. Words matter!

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.

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