Explore the science of extreme weather and climate change 

With flooding, storms and even tornados hitting UK shores this year, Hayley Jones from the Met Office explores the link between extreme weather and a changing climate.

Weather and climate are of course intrinsically linked, but they are not the same thing.

An unscientific analogy we often use is to think about weather as the clothes you might need for today, while climate refers to what clothes you might need for your wardrobe.

So, what’s a more scientific description of the link between weather, in particular extreme weather, and climate change?

Attributing severe weather to climate change

There is clear evidence that our climate is changing, and the Met Office Climate Dashboard includes data on extremes which indicate some of the trends being seen globally. When it comes to individual extreme weather events, the practice of linking weather events to human-influenced climate change is called attribution.

In July 2022, the UK experienced an unprecedented heatwave during which the temperature records of many long-running weather stations were exceeded by wide margins.

Multiple stations across England recorded temperatures of over 40 °C on 19 July including a new record temperature of 40.3 °C in Coningsby (Lincolnshire). Climate modelling showed that, in a climate unaffected by human influence, it would have been virtually impossible for temperatures in the UK to reach 40 °C.

Meanwhile, a 2022 study showed for the first time that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions are directly responsible for the long-term trends of drying in the Mediterranean and increasing rainfall over the rest of Europe during winter.

What does the future hold?

The current and expected future impact of climate change varies around the world. Here in the UK, climate projections indicate that we can expect hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters, although we will still see the natural variability.

In the UK and globally, we can also expect an increase in extreme weather events. For example, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that “the frequency and intensity of hot extremes will continue to increase and those of cold extremes will continue to decrease…with increasing global warming levels.”

In the UK, we can, for example, expect the intensity of summer rainfall to increase, so will need to prepare for summer flooding as well as droughts.

With regards to storms, there is a lot of year-to-year variability, so trends are not yet visible. Climate projections do, however, generally indicate a slight increase in storm numbers and intensity – whilst they are expected to continue to be highly variable, they will be compounded by higher rainfall totals and rising sea levels.

The impacts of a changing climate

We all know the impact extreme weather can have on our lives and livelihoods. Recent storms will still be very fresh in the minds of those who were severely impacted by flooding and high winds.

Extreme heat also has a significant impact to people’s health as well as infrastructure, and recent British Red Cross research highlighted the changing risk in the UK and how people can increase their resilience to heat extremes.

As highlighted in the attribution examples above, we are already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate and will continue to do so in the decades ahead.

Nationally and internationally, people and communities need to consider how to adapt to these changes to improve resilience to the impacts of extreme weather. We can also help reduce the worst impacts of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming.

Look out for our second guest blog post in which we will share more on how we can improve our resilience to extreme weather and take action to reduce our impact on the climate.

More on storms in the UK...

Here for humanity this winter

In the UK and around the world, we're protecting vulnerable communities from the biting effects of winter. If you can, please support our vital work.