Is extreme weather really becoming the new normal?

Weather events in recent years have been garnering a lot of new adjectives. "Extreme", "record-breaking" and "unprecedented" — even "Snowmageddon" — all words you'd use to refer to events 'other than usual'. Now, as a report is released by the National Climate Data Center, detailing the state of the climate in 2012, officials are saying that it's looking more and more like these extreme weather events are becoming a "new normal." But is that true?

There's a temptation to brush off such claims as 'overblown' or 'sensational' — it's hard to take something called "Snowmageddon" seriously, after all. However, when you really look at what's happening, this claim can't be so easily dismissed.

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Just look at what we've seen over the past year alone — the extreme drought in the U.S. Midwest, record low Arctic sea ice, Superstorm Sandy tearing through the northeast, massive snowstorms and blizzards over the winter, devastating tornadoes in the southern U.S., the near-catastrophic flooding in southern Alberta, and even two unusual flooding events in Toronto this year. And that's just in North America.

With something as chaotic as weather, we're always going to have at least some extreme events happening, and they will sometimes push far beyond what we've experienced. They become 'outliers' in the climate record — exceptional events that get noted, but usually aren't factored into the definition of climate because they're not expected to happen often.

The important part for determining what the climate is, though, is not that these things happened; it's how often they happen. If these 'outliers' start to show up more often, they influence the climate record, and that's when we can definitively point to a 'climate change'. This is what's we're seeing happening in more recent years — that more storms and weather patterns are getting to the point where they produce these extreme events — and this is why scientists are so concerned.

"The reality is we're experiencing new things," David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada, told CBC News in an interview.

"And so my sense is that if we look to the past, it won’t give us the guidance to the future," he said. "We have to recognize the climate is changing and that we have to do things differently and people who do things differently will come out winners."

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That's really what it comes down to. Although everything has been changing around us, we've just been doing the same thing (just more of it). It's time we made changes before it's too late.

If the extreme weather we've been seeing recently is actually becoming the normal, I'd hate to see what the new 'extreme' will end up being. It would be a nightmare. We'd better wake up and get something done while we still have the time to do it.

(Images courtesy: Andy Clark/Reuters, NSIDC)

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