Weather Warnings For A 'Climate Changed Planet'

The Weather of the Future

Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet

by Heidi Cullen

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The Weather of the Future
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Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet
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This summer of record breaking heat followed a spring that brought some of the most extreme weather on record. Climatologist Heidi Cullen writes, "It's time to face the fact that the weather isn't what it used to be."

Cullen is the author of the book The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet, which has just been published in paperback. She's a senior research scientist with Climate Central, a journalism and research organization.

Cullen talks with Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how climate change appears to be creating extreme weather in winter and summer. She'll also discuss a couple of the cities likely to be the most vulnerable to extreme weather.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

This summer of record-breaking heat followed a spring that brought some of the most extreme weather on record. My guest, climatologist Heidi Cullen writes: It's time to face the fact that the weather isn't what it used to be.

She's the author of the book´┐Ż"The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet." It's just been published in paperback. And she's a senior research scientist with Climate Central, a journalism and research organization.

We're going to talk about how climate change appears to be creating extreme weather in winter and summer. And we're going to consider the cities Cullen says are likely to be the most vulnerable to extreme weather.

Heidi Cullen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

What makes this month's heat wave in the U.S. unusual - different from other heat waves?

Ms. HEIDI CULLEN (Research Scientist, Climate Central): I think what's really special about this heat wave is just the sheer size and scope of it. I mean, it basically at one point it was affecting more than 140 million people here in the U.S. And so it's massive in size. It's been a long heat wave and so in many respects this is exactly the kind of thing we can expect to see a lot more of as the planet warms up.

GROSS: Before we get to why you think this is a result of climate change, which is, I think, what you're saying, what are some of the records that this month's heat wave has set so far? And I'll say, we're recording this on Friday, July 22nd. So...

Ms. CULLEN: Yeah. So we could see even more records set today. But, you know, for example, Wichita Falls, Texas had over 54 days of 100 plus temperatures, 27 consecutive days reaching at least 100. Tyler, Texas, we saw 32 days this year of 100 degree readings. So, I mean, it's just that the magnitude and the length of what we're seeing here - Mobile, Alabama, 50 consecutive 90-degree days. So it has just been excruciatingly long period of hot weather.

And I think what's really interesting is that it's one of these things where you really get the sense that everything is connected. Because the heat is remarkable, but the other thing that's really special about this heat wave is the fact that the water vapor, the moisture is so high. And that actually ties straight back to the spring and when we had, you know, epic flooding and the fact that, you know, all of this floodwater that's been, you know, seeped out into the ground, these high temperatures, kind of like a blast furnace, is evaporating that moisture and that's leading to these really high dew points and these high overnight temperatures.

And those are the kinds of things that, you know, public health officials get really, really worried about.

GROSS: OK. I think maybe I lost you. So maybe you can explain that a little more. How did the floods from the spring contribute to the heat we're experiencing now and the high temperatures at night?

Ms. CULLEN: Yeah. So, basically we've just got really wet soil in the Midwest. And so, you know, a lot of these high temperatures that we saw in places like Detroit and Chicago, the Midwest region in general, you know, we've just ground that's incredibly wet. We've also got, you know, corn fields that are evaporating moisture. And so the high heat basically sends this additional moisture into the air. And so now we've not only got high temperatures, but also really high humidity levels.

GROSS: And that contributes to the heat? The high humidity?

Ms. CULLEN: Well, that's where your heat index comes from. And so, for example, a place like Moorhead, Minneapolis, it actually recorded a temperature of - a heat index temperature of 134 degrees on July 19th, which made it the hottest place on Earth on that day.

GROSS: Wow. And does the humidity make it more difficult for the atmosphere to cool off at night?

Ms. CULLEN: You know, it means we've got these high overnight temperatures. And, you know, it's, you know, public health officials in cities especially get really worried when they see these, what we call high dew points, these high moisture levels because, you know, for older folks and for, you know, young children, just, it makes it really hard for your body to sweat and to cool off.

And so, you know, when we look back to these, you know, these really epic heat waves that we've seen in the past where hundreds of people have died, like, say, Chicago in 1995, it was, you know, this incredibly high moisture that led to these high mortality rates.

GROSS: Your sweat doesn't cool you when the humidity is high because it doesn't evaporate because the atmosphere already has so much moisture in it?

Ms. CULLEN: Yep. Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: I was really surprised to read in - I forget whether it was one of your articles or in your book - that heat kills more people in the United States than any other weather-related event. And that astonished me, considering how dangerous blizzards and hurricanes and tornados are.

Ms. CULLEN: Yeah. I think it's one of those statistics that definitely surprises a lot of people. Because, you know, we have a tendency, you know, our visual strength, you know, we always want to see these extreme events. And so things like tornadoes and hurricanes, these incredibly visual weather events, we just associate them with being more deadly. And that's always been sort of the sinister aspect of heat, which is, you know, from a television standpoint, you know, what kind of imagery do you show to really make people understand that this is an incredibly deadly situation?

It's a really tough kind of thing to convey with visual images. So you just, you see images like water fountains spraying water and people at the beach, but those are not necessarily the things that our brain thinks of as dangerous. But it really, really is.

GROSS: So people are dying, like, in un-air conditioned homes, people who are elderly?

Ms. CULLEN: Well, and this is - you know, this is one of the things that folks talk about a lot, which was, you know, for example, during the Chicago heat wave, there was this sort of epidemic of older people dying alone. And it was sort of an indication that our social network had broken down. And it's, you know, really interesting to see that, you know, since then, cities like Chicago, cities like Philadelphia have taken enormous measures to be really responsive during epic heat events like we're seeing.

So, for example, in a city like Philadelphia, they will be sure to keep the electricity running so that folks can leave their air conditioning on even if they haven't paid their bills. They will have a buddy system where they send folks out to check on elderly neighbors. Because we've learned from, you know, circumstances in the past that tell us that we really need to have mechanisms in place to keep people safe. So, cooling shelters are open. It's a disaster that doesn't necessarily look like a disaster, but we've learned from past mistakes and cities are taking really strong measures to prevent deaths.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Heidi Cullen. She's a research scientist at Climate Central, which is a journalism and research organization. And she's the author of the book "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet." The book just came out in paperback.

So you implied that you think this July heat wave that has overcome so much of the United States can be attributed to global warming. How can you make that analysis? Like, what information do you use as a climatologist to figure out what's just a normal, weird weather pattern? You know, when I say normal, I mean there's a certain amount of extreme weather that is normal to have over a period of time. So how do you know whether this heat wave is part of that or whether it's attributed to climate change?

Ms. CULLEN: You know, I think the easiest way to make a comparison and, actually, the way climate scientists try to attribute a specific weather event to something like climate change, it's based on techniques that we use in epidemiology. So in the same way that we'll do, you know, an autopsy on someone's who's died to try to understand, you know, the cause of death, we do the same thing with weather events. So we essentially do weather autopsies.

And, you know, one of the things that we know very well about climate change and the way it connects to our weather is that climate change makes weather more extreme and specifically we know that climate change has a tendency to produce more frequent heat waves, larger heat waves, just more intense heat waves. And I think that that's kind of the way we have to look at the fact that, you know, climate change, the fact that we are burning fossil fuels is literally working itself into our weather. And so the same way we know that cigarettes cause lung cancer, we know that climate change causes more extreme heat.

GROSS: But I know a lot of scientists say you can say that a long-term pattern is attributed to climate change, but you can't say any specific event. You can't say any specific hurricane or heat wave or blizzard is part of global warming - so, you know, is attributed to global warming. So when you do an autopsy on this summer's heat wave what are you investigating to decide whether it's, you know, attributed to climate change or not?

Ms. CULLEN: Man, that's such a great question. I think that's sort of one of the hard things about climate change to wrap your head around is the fact that, you know, we have this tendency, especially in journalism, we want to have this kind of lone gunman theory where, you know, was this climate change? Was it caused by climate change? Well, we have to keep in mind that all weather essentially is now borne into this warmer moisture environment that weve produced over the past century. And so, you know, overall the tendency is for more extreme weather then its now.

When climate scientists approach an individual weather event and sort of attempt to do this weather autopsy, what they really need to do is a very complex analysis where they take a climate model that strictly Mother Nature -just all natural - and then they have a climate model that has human activity in it. So specifically the burning of fossil fuels that release heat-trapping pollution, and then we ask the question: to what extent did human actions increase the likelihood of that event happening? And so, for example, with the European heat wave of 2003, we know that human action, that our presence on this planet, doubled or possibly quadrupled the likelihood of that event happening. And it becomes a thought experiment, essentially, where as we move into the future, basically something like, you know, the weather event that we're seeing right now with the European heat wave of 2003, it essentially becomes the new normal.

And I think with climate change, it's so hard for a lot of us to just wrap our brains around what it means. But it's one of these things that literally works its way into our weather, and as we move forward in time, our weather just gets tougher to deal with, essentially.

GROSS: But when you look at blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, cold waves, do you see extreme patterns in all of those weather phenomena?

Ms. CULLEN: We can see it clearly in some of those. So for example, wildfires, we can already see an increase in wildfire activity. That falls straight out of the physics - is as you warm up the planet, the more likelihood of wildfires is expected to increase in the Western United States. We can actually also seek it in precipitation. So if you look at data sets of rainfall and of the heaviest types of rainfalls, starting in the 1950s, we can see a clear increase in the number of extreme rainfall events.

And in a place like the Northeast, we've seen a roughly 65 percent increase in these very extreme storms. And these are the kinds of storms that, you know, that floods cities, that overflow storm drains, that, you know, make it tough for city planners to deal with. And, you know, when you - as you move forward in time again, more of these kinds of storms are going to be happening. And it's just one of these things where, you know, we can procrastinate or we can start to deal with it now.

GROSS: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just released what it calls its set of new climate normals. What are climate normals?

Ms. CULLEN: So climate normals are basically the 30-year average of weather, essentially. And I think this is where one of those areas where for a lot of people it's tough to understand, you know, just the difference between weather and climate. And I think, you know, Mark Twain said it best: climate is what you expect, weather is what you get. And so every 30 years NOAA basically recalculates the climate normals. So last year we were dealing with the period from 1971 to 2000. And now we've got the new normal, which goes from 1981 to 2010.

GROSS: So if Noah is looking at temperatures over the last 30 years, what is it giving us, average temperatures per day? Per year? What are we getting?

Ms. CULLEN: It is giving us average temperatures, average high temperatures, average low temperature, average rainfall. And this is for, you know, roughly 7,500 cities across the United States. So it's a really nice, you know, just kind of the pulse of how our climate is shifting with time.

GROSS: So what do you find most impressive about the set of new normals that was just released?

Ms. CULLEN: Basically that every state in the Lower 48 has gotten warmer, which is completely consistent with what we expect from climate change, from the fact that we are burning fossil fuels and warming up the planet. You know, it's just again, sort of just this nice evidence of the forecast that we're making for the future. So basically, you know, the 2000s, the decade of the 2000s was about one-and-a-half degrees warmer than the decade of the 1970s and it's just, you know, this kind of snapshot of a restless climate and how it's changing and, you know, the fact that we can basically expect it to continue to warm as we move forward.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Heidi Cullen. She's a research scientist at Climate Central, which is a journalism and research organization. And she's the author of the book "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet." The book has just come out in paperback.

Heidi, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. Okay?

Ms. CULLEN: Okay.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Heidi Cullen. She's a research scientist at Climate Central, which is a journalism and research organization and she's the author of the book "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet," which has just been published in paperback.

Now I want to ask you about the wave the tornadoes that hit the Midwest earlier this year. What was unusual about that pattern of tornadoes?

Ms. CULLEN: Ah, it was interesting, because first of all, you know, there was so many. We broke records with this past tornado season and, you know, they were incredibly powerful. And interestingly enough, you know, they were all shifted to the east, which meant that they were sitting over higher population centers and so just, you know, the fatalities were enormous. I mean it was just - it was an incredibly deadly tornado season and, you know, again it just when we see these kinds of extremes it raises all kinds of questions about, you know, what does this mean for the future?

GROSS: So what causes a tornado and how does that relate to climate change?

Ms. CULLEN: So - it's a really good question. And, you know, basically two key ingredients for tornado are youve got fronts colliding together and just so a massive exchange of energy. And two ingredients that you need, that global warming affects, is wind shear, which is changing wind speed and direction with height, and the other is water vapor. Tornadoes really like lots of moisture. And we know that global warming is going to affect both of those things. We expect water vapor to increase. As I said before, we expect our planet to get, not just warmer but also moister. The thing we don't really know is we don't how climate change or global warming is going to impact wind shears. So the jury is kind of still out with respect to tornadoes.

We know that La Nina, which is a natural climate phenomena, definitely played a role in this year's tornado season, but we don't really know exactly how climate change is going to impact tornadoes as we move forward into the future with respect to, you know, the kinds of quantities we care about - things like the frequency of tornadoes, the overall geographic location of tornadoes and the intensity. And that's basically one of these areas of intensive research right now.

GROSS: So you can't say for sure that the wave of tornadoes that we saw this year can be attributed to climate change.

Ms. CULLEN: Yeah, I mean tornadoes are tough, just because the data, the records aren't so great, Doppler radar wasn't really invented until the 70s. And so, you know, it's just we don't have a long enough record to really get a sense of, you know, the changes over time in tornadoes. But like I said, these two key ingredients, wind shear and water vapor, we know that global warming is going to mess with both of those. It's just a question of, you know, whether it will mess with them in such a way that we see more frequent, more intense tornadoes. And that's, you know, it's going to be interesting to see where the science comes out on that.

GROSS: So I live in Philadelphia, which gets, you know, it gets some snow in the winter. And I don't like very cold temperatures. I don't really like snow. So when I hear, you know, that because of climate change cities like Philadelphia are getting warmer in the winter, part of me thinks well, at least there's a, you know, an upside to climate change.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, it'll be warmer in the winter.

Ms. CULLEN: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But that doesn't necessarily mean there's going to be less snow, right?

Ms. CULLEN: That's right. In fact, you know, one of the really interesting research questions right now is to what extent does sea ice melt in the Arctic open up the potential for snowier winters in the Northeast? And that's one of these active research questions right now. And so basically what scientists are looking at is the fact that okay, as we expose more ocean in the Arctic to the atmosphere, that's another potential source of moisture and you have the potential for, you know, epic snowstorms. And so the question of how does melting Arctic sea ice contribute to snowier winters is, I think, a really fascinating research question.

GROSS: So it's possible that in Northeast cities the temperature will be a little warmer but there will be more blizzards and snowstorms.

Ms. CULLEN: That's right. I mean in terms of the temperature connection, you only need it to be still cold enough for snow to happen. But if you have more moisture to fuel these storms, then we could potentially see snowier winters.

GROSS: Now people who live in cold climates, I think it's fair to say, really look forward to spring. You say that there have been early spring in many places in the United States, and that always sounds like good news to me. You know, like oh, maybe that's the upside of climate change, early spring. What's the problem with early spring?

Ms. CULLEN: Well, you know, the problem with early spring is just the timing of water releases, essentially. So, okay, if spring comes earlier, it sort of comes on with a vengeance. For example, you know, the Midwest flooding that we've seen, you know, a lot of colleagues in the climate field right now are saying that these flooding events that we've been seeing in the Midwest, it's part of the new normal. And that's a problem. And in a place like California, for example...

GROSS: But relate that to early spring. Like what's the connection?

Ms. CULLEN: So, you know, basically if you have snow pack melting earlier and melting quickly, then that's when you see the potential for significant flooding events. And that was one of the risks that we saw play out this past spring. And even just from, you know, the larger standpoint of say water resources, the question of how we are going to manage our water resources in the U.S. Southwest, a place where, you know, the population is growing dramatically. When spring comes earlier and Sierra's snow pack melts a lot sooner, that means you've got a lot less water left in your bank account come summer, and that creates, you know, a whole set of problems that need to be managed.

GROSS: Heidi Cullen will be back in the second half of the show. Her book "The Weather of the Future" has just been published in paperback. She's a senior research scientist with Climate Central, a journalism and research organization.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with climatologists Heidi Cullen. We're talking about extreme weather and other consequences of climate change. She's the author of the book "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet." She's a senior research scientist with Climate Central, a journalism and research organization, and a visiting lecturer at Princeton University.

In your book, you do an analysis of the five cities most vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change. And those places include: New York City, Miami, the Central Valley of California, which is the Sacramento, San Joaquin Delta, Fairbanks, Alaska and Las Vegas.

Let's talk about a couple of those cities and why you think they're most vulnerable to climate change. Can you start with New York City?

Ms. CULLEN: Absolutely. And, you know, I'll just say that the reason I wanted to look at specific cities is because ultimately climate change is going to be one of these problems that's going to be dealt with at the local level. And, you know, I was at the Weather Channel...

GROSS: When you say dealt with, you mean adapting to it. You don't mean changing the climate.

Ms. CULLEN: I mean adapting to. And I think a lot of the, you know, energy and just a passion that were seen to solve this problem is happening in our cities. So mayors...

GROSS: True. Mm-hmm.

Ms. CULLEN: Like Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia and Mayor Bloomberg. It's the mayors who are really, you know, they're dealing with the impact. They've got to deal with these heat extremes that we're seeing, for example, and they're dealing with the fact that their infrastructure is getting older. And so, you know, I think cities are a really great place to look.

And, you know, when I was at the Weather Channel, I was they're during Katrina and it was one of these situations where I was the expert and, you know, the meteorologists have this tremendous job of trying to communicate to the public that, you know, the Gulf Coast was extreme risk, you know, incredible vulnerability. And as the climate scientist, it was one of the situations where, you know, I could point to case studies that were done 20 years earlier say eventually a hurricane is going to hit New Orleans and this is what is going to play out if we don't do something right now. And so it was like all of these classic kind of scientific projections just playing out on live TV in the sense that, you know, we saw all of this coming and if we had just begun to work on reducing the vulnerability of that city upfront, we would have seen so much less damage.

And the same thing applies to, you know, places like the San Joaquin Delta, where, you know, right now the Delta provides water for two out of three Californians. It grows about 90 different crops. It is literally is the hub of California's water supply system and its agricultural system. And, you know, it's just one of these places, a lot like New Orleans, that's just incredibly vulnerable because it's a levy-based system. And so, you know, between the kinds of flood events, because of earlier spring that we could see more of in the future or even a catastrophic earthquake, we know that that area, which is incredibly critical to California's economy, is at tremendous risk.

And, you know, right now for example, calculations show that the probability is roughly two and three, that during the next 50 years a large flood or an earthquake will hit the Delta. So the Delta is just a perfect example of a place that is becoming increasingly vulnerable but is incredibly critical to California's water infrastructure.

GROSS: So let's get back to New York City. Why is New York City especially vulnerable to climate change?

Ms. CULLEN: Well, the island of Manhattan, you know, large population, coastal area. We know, for example, as the planet warms up, you know, heat extremes are going to be a problem. Electricity is going to become a problem. And even, you know, things like flooding events, storm surge, these are the kinds of risks that we expect to see more of and the creeping sea level rise issues. So, you know, New York City has all of these different factors in play and, you know, it's again, it's an incredibly important center, so it becomes a place that, you know, Mayor Bloomberg has already put plans in place to reduce energy usage, to become more efficient and to invest in infrastructure to just reduce the overall vulnerability of the city.

GROSS: The infrastructure in New York, like the sewer system in so many places, is so old it's not equipped for the new amount of precipitation that we're getting.

Ms. CULLEN: Exactly. Exactly. And so the significant concerns from flooding subways, from flooding tunnels, from, you know airport runways that are very close to sea level. So it, you know, it becomes incredibly important to think through - if we're seeing the hundred-year flood, for example, occur more and more frequently. A city like New York, it's going to have to be able to respond to that changing climate, that new normal, for example and rebuild its infrastructure.

So, you know, one great example is, you know, a power plant in New York City, in fact. They're building a new power plant and they've incorporated sea level rise. This is a power plant in Sunset Park and they're going to build it four feet higher just to, you know, address the fact that sea level rise is expected to be about one foot higher. Sea level is expected to be one foot higher by 2050. And, you know, again, it's just stuff that we know is going happen, so the sooner we can plan for it the better.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Heidi Cullen. She's a research scientist at Climate Central, which is a journalism and research organization. And she's the author of the book, "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet."

Let's take a break here, then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Heidi Cullen. She's a research scientist at Climate Central, which is a journalism and research organization. And she's the author of the book, "The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and other Scenes from a Climate Changed Planet." It's just been published in paperback.

Miami is one of the five cities you describe as being most vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change. Why Miami?

Ms. CULLEN: Yeah, Miami again, you know, low-lying city, low-lying city on the coast. You've got hurricane risk. You've got storm surge, flooding risk. I mentioned before that we're already seeing more extreme rainfall events. And so when you talk to city planners in Miami, for example, they're already seeing, you know, flood events that fill up the streets happen more and more frequently.

Other interesting thing about Miami is that, you know, its water is very vulnerable to creeping sea level rise - so something called saltwater intrusion. And, you know, again, when you look at cities really going out there and working on, you know, creating a more sustainable future, Miami has a plan in place called Green Print that is trying to address sea level rise, increased heat, saltwater intrusion, and they're essentially trying to use at activation strategies that work together with emergency management.

And so, you know, emergency management being, you know, those first responders that are out there after a hurricane hits. And to really bring together the emergency management community and the climate change adaptation community and say look, any kind of infrastructure upgrades that we put in place now for the future also help us right now for the kinds of extreme weather events that Miami already sees.

GROSS: You say Miami would be more vulnerable to disease if climate change continues. Why disease?

Ms. CULLEN: So for example, when it comes to things like disease and pests, we know that, you know, the risk of things like West Nile Virus for example, is going to increase.

GROSS: Because mosquitoes love that kind of moist, swampy...

Ms. CULLEN: Exactly. And I mean this is sort of where this whole notion of the new normal comes into play in the sense that climate is one of these things that, you know, it's kind of invisible. When you think about it climate is a statistical construct. It is the average of weather over long periods of time. But it makes its way into just every aspect of our lives, and so everything has to adapt. Species adapt to a changing climate, and mosquitoes, poison ivy, all of that kind of stuff is going to change as we move forward in time.

GROSS: Fairbanks, Alaska, one of the five cities that you mentioned being portable to extreme climate and climate change. So what do you predict would happen in Fairbanks if climate change continues in the same pattern?

Ms. CULLEN: You know, I think two of the big risks for Alaska - Fairbanks being part of that - is wildfires. We expect wild fires to increase substantially as the world warms up. And then the other interesting thing is that Alaska is 85 percent permafrost. Permafrost basically being frozen ground. And as the Arctic warms up, that permafrost begins to thaw and that is going to be a headache in terms of infrastructure. So those are two really big concerns that folks are dealing with right now.

GROSS: You say that Alaska's average temperature has increased 3.4 degrees and the winters have warmed 6.3 degrees - compared to when?

Ms. CULLEN: That's, that is I believe since the 1950s.

GROSS: So is that a lot?

Ms. CULLEN: Those numbers are really big and actually completely consistent with what we expect in the sense that we expect the higher latitudes, the northern regions of the world to warm up the most, and we expect to see the signal strongest in the winter. And we can really, really see that in Alaska. So, you know, when folks talk about Alaska as this canary in a coalmine, it's just the fact that the warming is hitting the northern regions the hardest right now.

GROSS: You say that we have to prepare for climate change and adapt. And we also have to do things that will slow down climate change. So in your list of things that we should be doing as individuals and as a nation, what do you see is that priorities?

Ms. CULLEN: I think that first, we just really need to say, you know what? This is really real. It's really happening and to just get started fixing it. And I think this notion of adapting our infrastructure, looking at our cities - and we're seeing this play out. Lots of cities and states are coming up with adaptation plans. So accessing the risks and their specific vulnerabilities at the local level, you know, whether it's heat-related or flooding-related, just getting plans in place. And, you know, then it's like I said, this kind of bigger scientific research question of how are we going to fuel the planet as it gets more crowded and it gets hotter? And how do we invest in technologies that just remove our dependence on fossil fuels?

You know, it's really interesting because when you look at the U.S. - you know, when I was at the Weather Channel, I always used to feel like we focused too much on the negative. We focused on tornado coverage and hurricane coverage. But there's actually, you know, really positive aspects to weather. And when you look at our country, you know, we've got this tremendous wind belt in the Midwest. We have, you know, an incredibly rich solar area in the U.S. Southwest and, you know, the calculations basically tell us that if we put a 100 square mile solar array in sort of the four corners regions of the U.S. Southwest, that would supply all of our electricity needs. And so, you know, what I'm saying is we can actually build it. You know, we can do this. We can fix this, but we need to say it's as important as getting to the moon.

GROSS: When you look at all the extreme weather patterns in the United States do you see a place that you think as being safest from extreme weather?

Ms. CULLEN: You know, interestingly enough, I think every place comes with its own set of vulnerabilities. But, you know, the coasts are incredibly vulnerable. And I think that it's really hard for us to really wrap our brains around the fact that sea level rise, for example in a city like New York, could actually mean that water levels are about a foot higher by the middle of this century. And when you look at a projection of just all of the coastline that will be lost as sea level continues to rise, we are literally going to have to deal with the fact that we're going to have to move inland.

And, you know, you talk to a city planner in Miami, you know, that is just a topic that is off-limits right now. But, you know, we know it's going to happen. We know that we're going to have to deal with it at some point.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. CULLEN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Heidi Cullen Heidi is the author of the book "The Weather of the Future. It's just been published in paperback. Heidi Cullen. She's a visiting lecturer at Princeton University and a senior research scientist at Climate Central.

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