Greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, forest destruction and other human activities are trapping heat and putting more energy into the climate system.
Hotter air means heatwaves are much more likely. For example, scientists now say the unprecedented heat and wildfires across the northern hemisphere in 2018 “could not have occurred without human-induced climate change”. In Australia, the scorching summer of 2016-17 in New South Wales was made at least 50 times more likely by global heating, linking it directly to climate change.
Hotter air can also carry more water vapour, meaning more intense rain and more flooding.
Another important factor in the northern hemisphere is the impact of changes in the Arctic. The polar region is heating more rapidly, reducing the temperature difference with lower latitudes. There is strong evidence that this is weakening the planetary waves (including the jet stream) that normally meander over Europe, Asia and North America.
When these waves stall, weather gets fixed over regions and becomes extreme. This has been linked to past floods in Pakistan, heatwaves in Russia and drought in California.
Most of the planet’s trapped heat goes into the oceans and rising sea temperatures mean more energy for hurricanes and typhoons. Record-breaking cyclones hit Mozambique in March and April. The deluge delivered in the US by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was made three times more likely by climate change. Rising sea level also means storms cause more coastal damage.
Global heating does not influence all extreme weather – natural variability still exists. Carbon Brief analysed more than 230 studies and found 95% of heatwaves were made more likely or worse by climate change. For droughts, 65% were definitely affected by our hotter world, while the figure for floods was 57%. It is now undeniable that global heating is causing more extreme weather.