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How Science Links Global Warming to Extreme Weather

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Photographer: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images

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As long as climate change has been a topic of public discussion, one question has been whether a warming globe makes extreme weather events worse. A new branch of science has emerged in the past few years that finally can offer some answers. Although precise connections between warming trends and extreme weather aren’t completely understood, this growing field of study connects climate change and greater risks of deadly hurricanes, typhoons, rainstorms, wildfires, heat and even cold.

Heat waves are the weather events most directly linked to humanity’s greenhouse gas pollution. And heat, along with drought and wind, fuels forest fires, which is why scientists have become so confident that climate change is making wildfires in the western U.S., Australia and elsewhere much worse. (The U.S. fire season is two months longer than it was in the 1970s and 1980s.) Global warming’s connection to hurricanes, in terms of both frequency and severity, is harder to pin down, given their meteorologically complex nature and how quickly they form and dissipate. But warmer water and moister air -- two results of global warming -- provide added fuel to tropical cyclones and other storms, which are expected to become more intense as the century wears on.