On “weather whiplash” in Midwest: Jeff Masters

Climate change skeptics often scoff at the idea that climate change could lead to extremes of both drought and flooding. It is counter-intuitive, but all too real a phenomenon.

Dr. Jeff Masters gives it a name — "weather whiplash" — and explains how it happens: 

I'm often asked about the
seemingly contradictory predictions from climate models that the world
will see both worse floods and worse droughts due to global warming.
Well, we have seen a classic example in the Midwest U.S. over the past
two years of just how this kind of weather whiplash is possible. A
warmer atmosphere is capable of bringing heavier downpours, since warmer
air can hold more water vapor. We saw an example of this on Thursday
morning, when an upper air balloon sounding over Lincoln, Illinois
revealed near-record amounts of moisture for this time of year. The
precipitable water–how much rain could fall if one condensed all the
water vapor in a column above the ground into rain–was 1.62", just
barely short of the Illinois April record for precipitable water of
1.64" set on April 20, 2000 (upper air records go back to 1948.)
Thursday's powerful low pressure system was able to lift that copious
moisture, cool it, and condense it into record rains. So how can you
have worse droughts with more moisture in the air? Well, you still need a
low pressure system to come along and wring that moisture out of the
air to get rain. When natural fluctuations in jet stream patterns take
storms away from a region, creating a drought, the extra water vapor in
the air won't do you any good. There will be no mechanism to lift the
moisture, condense it, and generate drought-busting rains. The drought
that ensues will be more intense, since temperatures will be hotter and
the soil will dry out more.

The new normal in the coming decades
is going to be more and more extreme flood-drought-flood cycles like we
are seeing now in the Midwest, and this sort of weather whiplash is
going to be an increasingly severe pain in the neck for society. We'd
better prepare for it, by building a more flood-resistant infrastructure
and developing more drought-resistant grains,
for example. And if we continue to allow heat-trapping gases like
carbon dioxide continue to build up in the atmosphere at the current
near-record pace, no amount of adaptation can prevent increasingly more
violent cases of weather whiplash from being a serious threat to the
global economy and the well-being of billions of people.

It's hard to comprehend the scale of the threat, as is so often the case with climate change. Here's a NASA image, from the Precipitation Measurement Mission, to try to help:


Related articles

'Weather whiplash' swamps Midwest
Wild Weather Swings May Be a Sign of Climate Change
Extreme Drought To Extreme Flood: Weather Whiplash Hits The Midwest
The Drought-Stricken Midwest's Floods: Is This What Climate Change Looks Like?

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

2 thoughts on “On “weather whiplash” in Midwest: Jeff Masters

  1. I’ve lived in Michigan, Nebraska, Colorado, Florida and Texas. Each state once had its own definitive weather. Now they all blur in to flood-drought cycles. Not good.


  2. Out here in CA, it’s May and we’re having Santa Ana winds and a 6000-acre fire. Maybe this has happened before at some point in history, but not in the twenty-odd years I’ve lived here. The county’s FD forthrightly says there used to be a fire season (which ran with the Santa Anas, from roughly October to February) but now it’s fire season all year round.

    As you remark, not good.


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