How extreme will our weather and climate be?

Dr Monica Ionita, climate scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.

Extreme weather events

Climate research


Time series analysis

Beside the influence on natural systems, climate change has a significant influence on the human system, affecting humans’ social activities, like health, prosperity, and access to freshwater and food, as well as the development of the economical and infrastructure sectors. An important aspect of inevitable surprises, for the climate system, is the potential of occurrence of extreme events (e.g. droughts, floods, heat waves and cold spells among others). These extremes are important because they often have immediate impacts and can cause widespread death and destruction.

Due to the fact that climate extremes have not only increased in intensity and frequency but also in severity and duration, societies are becoming more vulnerable relatively to the increasing climate risks. The increase of the risks generates an increase in economic costs caused by major obstacles in the good development and the social, economic and health activities of the people, but most importantly, it also often creates costs that cannot be measured, such as people's lives. Increasing projected temperature will amplify the risks of extreme climatic events which will have major impacts on the human and natural systems. However, the complex relationship between the present and the future climate changes can be better deciphered looking on the past climate variability.

One example: since the beginning of the 21st century Europe has become a “hot spot” for high intensity droughts and most of the European countries have suffered significant socio-economic losses. But are these extreme dry years and prolonged dry periods unprecedented when looking from a long-term context, behind the observational record? Were there periods, in the past, when we had an increased probability of long-lasting droughts? Which are the return periods of such prolonged dry periods? To answer these questions, we need a long-term perspective based on reliable proxy records. One special area of my research is therefore to analyze extreme climatic events from a paleo perspective, by using different palaeoclimate records like tree rings, corals, ice cores and lake sediments, among others in order to improve our knowledge in understanding the complex mechanisms controlling the variability of the climate extremes.