Research links extreme summer heat events to global warming
To distinguish the trend from natural variability, Hansen and colleagues turned to statistics. In this study, the GISS team including Makiko Sato and Reto Ruedy did not focus on the causes of temperature change. Instead the researchers analyzed surface temperature data to establish the growing frequency of extreme heat events in the past 30 years, a period in which the temperature data show an overall warming trend.
NASA climatologists have long collected data on global temperature anomalies, which describe how much warming or cooling regions of the world have experienced when compared with the 1951 to 1980 base period. In this study, the researchers employ a bell curve to illustrate how those anomalies are changing.
A bell curve is a tool frequently used by statisticians and society. School teachers who grade “on the curve” use a bell curve to designate the mean score as a C, the top of the bell. The curve falls off equally to both sides, showing that fewer students receive B and D grades and even fewer receive A and F grades.
Hansen and colleagues found that a bell curve was a good fit to summertime temperature anomalies for the base period of relatively stable climate from 1951 to 1980. Mean temperature is centered at the top of the bell curve. Decreasing in frequency to the left of center are “cold,” “very cold” and “extremely cold” events. Decreasing in frequency to the right of center are “hot,” “very hot” and “extremely hot” events.
Plotting bell curves for the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the team noticed the entire curve shifted to the right, meaning that more hot events are the new normal. The curve also flattened and widened, indicating a wider range of variability. Specifically, an average of 75 percent of land area across Earth experienced summers in the “hot” category during the past decade, compared to only 33 percent during the 1951 to 1980 base period. Widening of the curve also led to the designation of the new category of outlier events labeled “extremely hot,” which were almost nonexistent in the base period.
Please take a moment and watch the second animated bell curve in action. You can *see* the trend. If you walk outside in the same place but different times (and could do it in a statistical manner similar to the way the NYTimes did this analysis of 100M results over the history of the Olympics), you could feel it.