Black-and-white satellite photograph of storm clouds over land and ocean.

Enlarge / A fizzling Hurricane Sandy churns over the Northeastern US at night after making landfall in 2012. (credit: NASA/Earth Observatory)

Every once in a while, a day comes along to remind you that weather is more than a trusty source of social lubrication for awkward elevator encounters. Severe weather can threaten property, homes, and even lives. If a statistically rare weather event happens to you rather than someone else, abstract ideas about low probabilities can become concrete, like the way the phrase “broken bone” means so much more when you’re wearing a cast.

Climate is really just the probabilities of weather, so extreme weather is also the most attention-grabbing aspect of a region’s climate. Thus, climate change includes a change in the probabilities of many weather extremes. As a result, each individual disaster now triggers a natural question: did humanity’s history of greenhouse gas emissions make that disaster more likely or worse?

It’s an inherently complex question for scientists to answer and gives people who reject climate science rhetorical room to loudly argue that you can’t prove climate change was solely responsible for a storm.

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