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How unexpected was the 2021 Pacific Northwest heatwave?
  • Karen McKinnon,
  • Isla Ruth Simpson
Karen McKinnon

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Isla Ruth Simpson
National Center for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)
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The 2021 Pacific Northwest heatwave featured record-smashing high temperatures, raising questions about whether extremes are changing faster than the mean, and challenging our ability to estimate the probability of the event. Here, we identify and draw on the strong relationship between the climatological higher-order statistics of temperature (skewness and kurtosis) and the magnitude of extreme events to quantify the likelihood of comparable events using a large climate model ensemble (CESM2-LE). In general, CESM2 can simulate temperature anomalies as extreme as those observed in 2021, but they are rare: temperature anomalies that exceed 4.5σ occur with an approximate frequency of one in a hundred thousand years. The historical data does not indicate that the upper tail of temperature is warming faster than the mean; however, future projections for locations with similar climatological moments to the Pacific Northwest do show significant positive trends in the probability of the most extreme events.