Explainer: What is attribution science?

This relatively new field of research is looking into what might explain extreme weather events


Flooding rains and other extreme weather events often lead people to ask whether climate change is to blame. That’s hard to answer, although an emerging field of research is getting better at that.

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Climate and weather are related — but not the same. Climate describes patterns of weather in an area over long stretches of time. Weather refers to specific events, such as hot days or thunderstorms. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods are all examples of extreme weather.

When extreme weather occurs, people often want to know if climate change is to blame. However, notes Stephanie Herring, “there’s no way to answer that question.” Herring is a climate scientist at the National Centers for Environmental Information in Boulder, Colo. Any weather event could happen by chance, she explains. It could simply be part of the natural variation in weather.

It’s better, she says, to ask about the influence of climate change. A region’s climate sets the stage for an extreme event. Scientists can then probe: Did climate change make some extreme event worse?

Investigating links between climate and extreme weather is known as attribution (Aa-trih-BU-shun) science. Such studies often can be tricky — but not impossible. And in recent years, scientists have developed ways to do it with ever more confidence. 

An important part of that process is asking the right questions, explains Herring. Then scientists use computer models to analyze climate data with math. Those scientists are finding new and better ways to quantify, or measure, the impacts of climate change. Think of them like sports scientists who might study a player who hit 10 home runs in a single game. Did that athlete have a really good night? Or did he cheat in some way? And how can you know for sure? With enough data and some pretty fancy math, trustworthy answers to such questions may emerge.

Scientists had long predicted climate change would worsen some extreme weather events. It might also make them more frequent. With attribution studies, signs have recently begun to offer support for that. They can show not only that a link is real, but also how strong it is. 

To learn more on attribution science, read our feature story on attribution science from our series Climate Change Chronicles.

Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tenn., and his family has two rabbits, six chickens and a cat. He has written for Science News Explores since 2008 on topics including lightning, feral pigs, big bubbles and space junk.

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