Climate Change Detection and Attribution: Letting Go of the Null?

When Hurricane Sandy hit the New Jersey shore at the end of October 2012, news headlines abounded that questioned the connection to climate change. Sandy was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, topped only by Hurricane Katrina (more-recent events, such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, may change that line-up). When such events occur, people understandably wonder: What is the connection to climate change? Has climate change made the occurrence of events such as Hurricane Sandy more likely, and will such events become even more frequent or more severe in the future?

Climate change can be loosely defined as a change in the average weather conditions that could influence the occurrence and intensity of storms, but scientists have mainly shied away from making such connections. The argument is along the lines that there is too much natural variability in the weather and climate system to attribute individual events, such as Hurricane Sandy, to climate change. There is, however, a whole line of research investigating the linkage between what can be observed over longer time periods and climate change, referred to as climate change detection and attribution or optimal fingerprinting. For some types of observations, this linkage can be clearly made using statistical methods.

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