Is Weather Really More Extreme Now Than 50 Years Ago?

Whenever there’s a large storm or extreme temperatures, the first thing that we typically think to ourselves is “we’ve never had this type of weather before.” We think back to the times when we were children and can only remember one extreme storm like a blizzard or a hurricane, but don’t really remember much else from what the weather was like as a whole several decades ago without seeing the research in front of us.

There have been a lot of reports of the weather getting more extreme each year, which has caused a lot of discussion regarding global climate change. While most scientists agree that the Earth is certainly getting warmer, what about the extremes of the weather? Let’s take a look at what the science says to see if the weather is more extreme now than it was 50 years ago.


Throughout the 20th century, the Earth had an average global temperature of 57.0 Fahrenheit (13.9 Celsius), Up until World War II, the Earth’s temperature was much lower than this average century temperature. The coolest years came around 1910 when the temperature was more than 0.4 degrees Celsius cooler than the average, but the increase in production during World War II for machinery changed the tide.

1939 marked the first year in which the global temperature was above the century average, and it wouldn’t drop back down until 1946, the first full year after the war ended. Up until the late 1970s, the temperature remained right around the average, and then the temperature skyrocketed. Things came to a head in 2016 when the global temperature reached a full degree over the average.

One of the ways that we can look at the changing temperatures in terms of extreme is by seeing how many days in particular the temperature reaches ‘heat wave’ temperatures. During the 1960s, a heat wave would typically last for three days on average while there were only two per year. When we got into the 2020s, there were four heat waves per year, and these heat waves averaged six days each. They also got a bit more intense, reaching 0.3 degrees more than they used to at their most intense.


The amount of precipitation on average has slightly increased over the years, but the amount of extreme precipitation has increased tremendously. For the first nine decades of the 20th century, there was a steady amount of heavy precipitation days, but that number skyrocketed in the 1990s. In fact, nine of the heaviest precipitation days of the 20th century all occurred in the 1990s. Therefore, people in the 1990s were able to say that the weather was getting more extreme than it was even 10 years prior.

It isn’t just regular heavy rainfall or snowfall that has increased with each passing year, but also the amount of tropical storms. Cyclone activity has increased tremendously since the 1970s, with 127 worldwide in 2021 alone, which was down from an all-time high of 150 in 2018. Compare that to 1973, when there were 118 cyclone storms worldwide. In the United States alone. In fact, five of the six years with the most named storms have come since 1995.


There’s one part of extreme weather that isn’t really all that predictable, and that’s tornadoes. It seems that with the rise of extreme weather events that there would be more tornadoes over the years, but the number has been a bit more sporadic than all of the other measurables. 2016 not only had the highest global temperature on record, but it also had the highest amount of tornadoes.

In the top 10 years that have had the most tornadoes, almost all of the decades of the past 50 years are represented. However, the statistics only date back to the end of World War II, so it’s hard to say that there are more tornadoes in the past 50 years compared to the 50 years prior.

Overall, it’s clear that the warming climate is affecting extreme weather when it comes to heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes/tropical storms. However, it doesn’t have much effect on tornadoes, which is a bit of a surprise. Just as a piece of trivia, though, 1974 is the only recorded year in which there were at least seven tornadoes that reached F5 status.

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