Changes in extreme weather may produce some of the largest societal impacts of anthropogenic climate change. However, it is intrinsically difficult to estimate changes in extreme events from the short observational record. In this work we use millennial runs from the CCSM3 in equilibrated pre-industrial and possible future conditions to examine both how extremes change in this model and how well these changes can be estimated as a function of run length. We estimate changes to distributions of future temperature extremes (annual minima and annual maxima) in the contiguous United States by fitting generalized extreme value (GEV) distributions. Using 1000-year pre-industrial and future time series, we show that the magnitude of warm extremes largely shifts in accordance with mean shifts in summertime temperatures. In contrast, cold extremes warm more than mean shifts in wintertime temperatures, but changes in GEV location parameters are largely explainable by mean shifts combined with reduced wintertime temperature variability. In addition, changes in the spread and shape of the GEV distributions of cold extremes at inland locations can lead to discernible changes in tail behavior. We then examine uncertainties that result from using shorter model runs. In principle, the GEV distribution provides theoretical justification to predict infrequent events using time series shorter than the recurrence frequency of those events. To investigate how well this approach works in practice, we estimate 20-, 50-, and 100-year extreme events using segments of varying lengths. We find that even using GEV distributions, time series that are of comparable or shorter length than the return period of interest can lead to very poor estimates. These results suggest caution when attempting to use short observational time series or model runs to infer infrequent extremes.
Areas of Focus: Climate Change
, Climate Science
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