Climate scientists at Oxford University Physics say they demonstrated in a first-of-its-kind study how high tech weather forecasts can be used to connect global emissions and their impact on extreme weather.

In new studies of recent events in both the United Kingdom and the United States, they assessed the impact of global warming at a local scale and found that human activity both worsened specific weather events and made them more likely to happen.

“We have shown for the first time that the same top-quality models used for weather forecasting, which are tested relentlessly every day, can be used to show the impacts of global warming,” said Myles Allen, who leads the Oxford University Physics research team.

“Weather forecasters could — and should — both warn people of extreme weather and explain how it is being affected by climate change,” Allen added. “It isn’t a simple case of climate change making all weather worse: some events, like prolonged winter cold, have become less likely.”

The National Weather Service in Salt Lake City, in fact, issued a warning Wednesday about Utah heat in a social post.

Researchers say their findings showed a direct connection between human behavior and extreme weather events, such as relentless heat waves.

“Climate change and human influence is having a very clear impact on certain extreme weather like storms and heatwaves,” said Nicholas Leach, who led the U.S. study. “Human influence made this 2021 heatwave at least eight times more likely, and we also found the risk of similar heatwaves occurring is doubling every 20 years at the current rate of global warming.”

The study published in late May in Nature Communications applied the same approach to the U.S. Pacific Northwest heat wave, thought to have killed over 800 people in June 2021.

The heat persisted nearly 30 days and caused an estimated $8.9 billion in damage, helping to fuel wildfires that charred more than 18 million acres.

Another study published in April detailed the dangerous effects of the heat dome that swamped the Pacific Northwest and warned that extreme wildfires could easily outpace the resources available to quell them.

Resulting smoke swamped the West, including Utah — driving up dangerous levels of harmful pollutants like PM 2.5, for fine particulate matter.

Firefighters battle a wildfire from the ground as a helicopter drops water above them in Springville on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. The fire started when a man tried to burn a spider with a lighter. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
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The exceptional heat and wildfires have undercut many of the pollution-reduction achievements made under the Clean Air Act, with a study by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration pointing to widespread impacts in 2020.

That year on a day in August, 43 million people felt the effects of harmful pollutants, with 68.5% of the West suffering under heat and wildfire smoke.

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Such extreme weather events do not come without costs and risks to public health.

In the United States, the cost of dealing with 28 separate weather and climate disasters in 2023 alone topped a record $90 billion, according to the National Center for Environmental Information.

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The Oxford study underscored the uncertainty built into modeling, but researchers say they overcame that by using high-resolution weather forecasting models to simulate extreme weather as if it had occurred in a world without human influence on climate, and in a warmer world of the future. Their models could simulate and predict even unprecedented weather events and can also be used to understand and quantify how human behavior is changing them, according to researchers.

Logan Mitchell, climate scientist and energy analyst with Utah Clean Energy, said the Oxford study represents important research that will inform the public.

“Utilizing weather forecasting tools to better understand how the changing climate is contributing to extreme weather events will help us get a better understanding of the true societal costs of continued emissions of greenhouse gases,” he said.

Mitchell added: “Historically, weather forecasters have been more cautious about attributing extreme weather to the changing climate. This new research shows how weather-forecast based climate attribution can be done, which will help educate the public and policy-makers about the significant impacts that the changing climate is having already and will increase in the future.”

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