Saturday, November 26, 2011

Erratic, extreme day-to-day weather puts climate change in new light

The first climate study to focus on variations in daily weather conditions has found that day-to-day weather has grown increasingly erratic and extreme, with significant fluctuations in sunshine and rainfall affecting more than a third of the planet.

Princeton University researchers recently reported in the Journal of Climate that extremely sunny or cloudy days are more common than in the early 1980s, and that swings from thunderstorms to dry days rose considerably since the late 1990s. These swings could have consequences for ecosystem stability and the control of pests and diseases, as well as for industries such as agriculture and solar-energy production, all of which are vulnerable to inconsistent and extreme weather, the researchers noted.

The day-to-day variations also could affect what scientists could expect to see as the Earth's climate changes, according to the researchers and other scientists familiar with the work. Constant fluctuations in severe conditions could alter how the atmosphere distributes heat and rainfall, as well as inhibit the ability of plants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, possibly leading to higher levels of the greenhouse gas than currently accounted for.

Existing climate-change models have historically been evaluated against the average weather per month, an approach that hides variability, explained lead author David Medvigy, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Princeton. To conduct their analysis, he and co-author Claudie Beaulieu, a postdoctoral research fellow in Princeton's Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, used a recently developed computer program that has allowed climatologists to examine weather data on a daily level for the first time, Medvigy said. more