The effects of climate change and extreme weather

We spoke to leading experts to find out how climate change is impacting weather and what we can do to be better prepared

It may be hard to name a spot in the U.S. that hasn't felt the effects of extreme weather in recent years. The summer of 2023 delivered a barrage of devastating weather events and the hottest month on record. In Hawaii, wildfires destroyed the town of Lahaina in a matter of hours. Los Angeles was hit by a rare tropical storm, the first in decades. A deluge of rain flooded New Hampshire and Vermont, damaging towns and crumbling roadways. Hurricane Idalia ripped across Florida, the eighth Category 3 or higher hurricane to land in the U.S. since 2017.

Many Americans are seeing these types of events and growing more worried about the impact of severe weather on their communities. A Yale Program on Climate Change Communication survey found that 64% were at least somewhat worried about climate change. Additionally, 65% think climate change is affecting the weather, and 72% are worried that the extreme heat could harm their communities, just one of many weather events they feel some climate anxiety about.

While many might still be questioning the role of climate change in weather, the experts we spoke to agree that climate change is creating more extreme weather. They offered insight into ways we can improve our climate resiliency to be better prepared (and recover faster) when an extreme weather event hits close to home.

Key takeaways:

  • Extreme weather events are increasing in intensity and severity due to global warming
  • Experts say the wet is getting wetter and the dry is getting drier around the world
  • Both communities and individuals can make preparations and create climate resiliency plans to anticipate extreme weather

Who we spoke to

How climate change fuels more frequent weather events

Extreme weather can be defined as any weather event that impacts society negatively, causing economic and potentially human loss, says Jana Houser, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Ohio State University who studies severe weather, thunderstorms, and tornadoes.

"Extreme weather can take a variety of different forms," she says, depending on your region. "So, events can include wildfires, it can include droughts, it can include severe winter storms and tropical cyclones." And climate change, she adds, directly correlates with the increased frequency and severity of the extreme weather events we are experiencing.

Melissa Gervais agrees with this assessment. An assistant professor of meteorology and atmospheric science at Penn State who studies the earth's climate, Gervais, says climate change drives much of the extreme weather we are experiencing.

"Weather is going to happen, regardless," she says. "But climate change can make the odds of something [extreme] happening more likely."

The effects of global warming are increasing the intensity and severity of weather

According to scientific consensus, global warming is the biggest culprit causing weather pattern changes. In the U.S., average temperatures have risen steadily across the contiguous 48 states since 1901. Since 1896, average winter temperatures have increased by nearly 3° F and spring temperatures by about 2° F. Summer and fall temperatures have risen by about 1.5° F. In the last 50 years, unusually hot summer days are increasing, and hot summer nights — which prevent the air from cooling back down — are rising even faster.

"As the surface of the earth gets warmer and warmer, there's more available energy in the atmosphere," says Charles T. Driscoll, a professor of environmental engineering at Syracuse University. "That energy causes factors to get more variable — and more intense. So there'll be larger changes in temperature, [and] precipitation events will be more variable."

"There are some exceptions to this," he adds. "But the rule of thumb is that the wet areas like the Northeast or the eastern U.S., areas that are traditionally wet are getting wetter, and the areas that are dry, like we see in the Southwest, are getting drier."

Dr. Houser says that events like floods, droughts, and wildfires are most easily linked to global warming because they are associated with long time and space scales which are directly relatable to climate patterns. Furthermore, these events are related to the hydrological cycle, which is also affected by large, climate-scale processes and events. A warmer climate increases evaporation, which can promote long-term drying conditions in some regions. The evaporated moisture is transported elsewhere by the atmosphere, sometimes resulting in preferential regions of precipitation causing floods. Also, warmer air can hold more moisture physically than colder air so the warmer temperatures exacerbate these drought and flood scenarios."

"There's a direct correlation between the amount of moisture that the air can hold and the temperature," she says. "So warmer temperatures correlate with more moisture. Under a warming climate scenario, we have both of these things going on. We have an increase in evaporation and an increase in temperature and then, consequently, an increase in the ability of the air to hold the liquid itself."

What happens next — whether from conditions being too wet or too dry — she equates to a snowball effect. "There can be feedbacks that occur where you might have an area where there's a lot of intense heating, like deserts or drier areas of the Pacific," she says. "And you have this cycle where the drying actually reinforces itself and the drying conditions lead to other conditions that promote further drying. So you get this scenario where you're building upon an extreme event and the extreme event itself is causing it to become more intense. We are seeing more intense droughts, we are seeing longer duration droughts, we're also seeing an increase in frequency of extreme flooding events."

Houser says we also see extreme weather events in more places. "Now we're talking about an increase in geographical distribution," she says. "So instead of three states, now we're looking at seven or eight states being impacted."

Another example of shifting weather patterns can be seen in a variable tornado season. She says tornadoes typically don't occur in December and January. "But those are exactly the months we're seeing the greatest, most dramatic impacts and changes to the distribution of tornadoes."

Looking forward — enduring and preparing for extreme weather

Wouldn’t it make our lives easier to know how many extreme weather events we'll likely face over the next few years? Unfortunately, as sophisticated as weather technology is, it still can’t predict with 100 percent accuracy when an extreme weather event is likely to occur.

"It's relatively hard to project the quantity of precipitation, and it's virtually impossible to project extreme events," Driscoll says.

Despite our inability to control and predict extreme weather events, we can — as both a community and individuals — be better prepared for them by establishing better communication plans and building a more climate-resilient infrastructure before disaster strikes.

Creating a climate-resilient community

Each city, state, and region faces unique threats from climate change and weather. You likely already know your community's particular vulnerabilities, whether hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, or floods. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says climate resilience is essential to meeting these threats: "Climate resilience is about successfully coping with and managing the impacts of climate change while preventing those impacts from growing worse." For the UCS, resilience means mitigating climate change when and where possible, adapting to it, and protecting people from the harm caused by it.

As an individual living in a world where intense weather events are likely to happen, making a disaster plan for your immediate family is imperative. Just as critical is knowing how your local government will alert and assist you in case of an extreme weather event. You should also know what officials are doing to create a long-term climate resiliency plan for the community.

"The failure of some of these more catastrophic events almost always comes down to a lack of preparation at the community or city-based level," says Houser. "The whole country needs to have communication and discussion among the local leaders and the community members to address the potential threats that are directly applicable to their communities."

With the unpredictability of extreme weather events, preparation becomes even more important. Sadly, the recent Maui wildfires showed the deadly impact a lack of preparation and communication can have. While the fire's cause is still under investigation, many residents have questioned whether a lack of communication and response during the first critical hours contributed to residents not evacuating in time.

Dr. Houser says communication is the most critical aspect of a preparedness plan from the governing body and the community. "The communities need to learn to trust the governing officials well before an event occurs, and there needs to be consistency in planning efforts [which means having] very clear, designated plans in place."

Most states, cities, and counties have emergency management departments that share information about preparedness on their websites. More and more are adopting climate action plans and creating resilience offices to develop long-term strategies and implement solutions. For communities that have yet to take that step, the federal government offers a Climate Resilience Toolkit for creating a resilience plan. A climate mapping assessment tool even lets you see threats like extreme heat, drought, wildfire, and flooding at the address level from today through 2099. You can start the process if your community doesn't have a climate resilience plan yet. You can attend community meetings and send emails to ask questions and raise awareness.

Climate resiliency often starts with better building codes

Building codes may not be your first thought during extreme weather, but they’re the best tool governments have to protect residents from natural disasters. Local building codes establish minimum safety standards and regulate every aspect of construction, from location and height to parking and fire safety. But, like climate resiliency and emergency preparedness plans, building codes are inconsistent across the country because they’re created and enforced at the local level.

Michel Bruneau, a civil engineering professor at the University at Buffalo and author of "The Blessings of Disaster: The Lessons That Catastrophes Teach Us and Why Our Future Depends on It," says this patchwork of local codes can impact our climate resiliency as a whole.

"The cities have the ultimate power to adopt or not adopt the building code, which has resulted in a mosaic of different approaches across the country," he says. "Some places are proud to say they have no building code, and others are proud to say they have the latest and greatest knowledge on how to build structures to withstand these kinds of extreme events."

A recent Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) survey rated state codes and their ability to withstand hazards like floods, damaging winds, hurricane winds, tornadoes, and seismic activity. The agency found that 19 states rated a 0, the lowest, and only 10 received a 99, the highest any state ranked. While vulnerable states like California and Florida ranked at the top for hazard resilience, other disaster-prone states like Louisiana and North Carolina showed an alarming lack of preparation and planning in their codes.

Updated, hazard-resistant building codes enforce better construction quality and structural integrity, and may reduce overall insurance costs for a city and its residents.

Preparing for extreme weather events as individuals

No matter what your local government has planned (or not), you can prepare yourself and your home for climate resiliency.

Your first step is creating an emergency plan with your family. Consider what you'd need in case of a disaster and how you'll contact and connect with each other if you're not together when disaster hits. Your plan should include:

  • Phone numbers for local family and out-of-town contacts you can call if you get separated
  • An emergency meeting place or shelter in your area
  • A safe evacuation route if you have to leave
  • Extra supplies of medicines
  • A plan for your pets
  • An emergency pack includes batteries, water, non-perishable food, flashlights, and first aid kits

You should also know how to receive alerts and warnings. Some older cell phones might not be equipped to receive wireless emergency alerts from state and local officials. You can contact your wireless provider to find out.

Another way to prepare is by making your home more hazard-resistant. Driscoll suggests consulting with construction professionals and researching new building techniques and technologies. Builders often know a lot about new options but can be reluctant to make expensive recommendations. However, upgrading your home now would be money well spent in the long run if it can lessen the impact of a big weather event.

We often don’t know when the next extreme weather event will impact us and our communities or how bad it will get, but we can immediately start adapting to these potential hazards.

In some cases, you can make minor adjustments, such as adding storm shutters, while other solutions may need a longer timeframe, such as building a new home at a higher elevation. Awareness and planning are key as we face the effects of extreme weather head-on.