Climatic Change

, Volume 113, Issue 3, pp 1001-1024

First online:

Climate change: a new metric to measure changes in the frequency of extreme temperatures using record data

  • Lalith MunasingheAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, Barnard College, Columbia University
  • , Tackseung JunAffiliated withDepartment of Economics, Kyung Hee University Email author 
  • , David H. RindAffiliated withNASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies

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Consensus on global warming is the result of multiple and varying lines of evidence, and one key ramification is the increase in frequency of extreme climate events including record high temperatures. Here we develop a metric—called “record equivalent draws” (RED)—based on record high (low) temperature observations, and show that changes in RED approximate changes in the likelihood of extreme high (low) temperatures. Since we also show that this metric is independent of the specifics of the underlying temperature distributions, RED estimates can be aggregated across different climates to provide a genuinely global assessment of climate change. Using data on monthly average temperatures across the global landmass we find that the frequency of extreme high temperatures increased 10-fold between the first three decades of the last century (1900–1929) and the most recent decade (1999–2008). A more disaggregated analysis shows that the increase in frequency of extreme high temperatures is greater in the tropics than in higher latitudes, a pattern that is not indicated by changes in mean temperature. Our RED estimates also suggest concurrent increases in the frequency of both extreme high and extreme low temperatures during 2002–2008, a period when we observe a plateauing of global mean temperature. Using daily extreme temperature observations, we find that the frequency of extreme high temperatures is greater in the daily minimum temperature time-series compared to the daily maximum temperature time-series. There is no such observable difference in the frequency of extreme low temperatures between the daily minimum and daily maximum.