Ann Curry Reports   |  April 07, 2014

Our Year of Extremes: Did Climate Change Just Hit Home? Part 4

Around the globe it was a year of massive storms and floods. The increasing intensity of some storms may be a result of changes to the jet stream because of warming in the Arctic, although some experts say it’s too early to connect extreme weather events to climate change.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and it was a catastrophe.

>> the creek kept rising. it started taking out houses.

>> the colorado september flooding was one of the most extreme weather events of the last year. more than a whole year of rain fell in less than a week. the flooding damaged or destroyed some 20,000 homes. entire towns were inaccessible for days. in just the last month in california, sudden downpours again caused chaos.

>> it gives you a sense of the mud and degree flow.

>> 24 acres from beyond up there.

>> in washington state , it was so much worse. flash flooding and mudslides brought tragedy. some 30 people have died. and around the dploeb, a year of massive floods. state of emergencies in canada, huge swaths of asia under water, and in parts of europe, the wettest winter in some 250 years. it all had us wondering if floods are connected to climate change .

>> you have warmer ocean temperatures and warmer air. the warmer air can hold more water vapor . when you combine those you end up with stronger storms.

>> in other words said tom wagner, when it rains, it really pours. that means even long periods of drought can be punctuated by intense rainfall.

>> we have seen increasing frequency of heavy downpours across the country.

>> jennifer francis , with the institute of marine and coastal sciences , as been studying the atmosphere for more than 25 years. she has a bold and controversial theory that links intense storms to what's happening in the arctic. the key, she says, is the jet stream .

>> california can't get any rain or snow because of the arctic jet stream .

>> it is literally like a river of air. it takes a wavy path around the northern hemisphere . the waves are what create the weather that we feel at the surface.

>> francis is arguing that arctic ice melt is changing the jet stream .

>> what we found in our research is as the arctic is warming faster, it's causing the waves in the jet stream to get larger. more like this, and less like this.

>> exactly.

>> and when that happens, those waves tend to shift more slowly from west to east.

>> the slower moving waves , she says, hold weather systems in place for longer periods.

>> so a severe storm will take longer, nice weather will take longer.

>> right.

>> in 2012 , francis published a paper about her new theory, warning that more extreme weather was on it's way. then just a few weeks later, hurricane sandy began to form.

>> good evening, tonight much of the east coast on high alert.

>> at their home in new york, a couple watches the news nervously as sandy churned toward their home.

>> i knew something was different.

>> pedro evacuated his wife and children, but he stayed to try to protect their dream house . when sandy hit, the water quickly rose all around him.

>> you were in the house?

>> i was in the house, but i was starting to think i'm going to die. he clung to life on a rooftop for hours before jen got word that he survived.

>> he said i'm alive, but everything is gone. and it was just -- it was a moment that changed my life.

>> a few days later, reunited, they went looking for their home in a small boat. it was nowhere to be scene. it had been carried a half a mile away into a march.

>> how did my house get here?

>> it was almost too much for jen to comprehend.

>> they salvaged little bits of their family history. their daughter's baby book.

>> it's ruined.

>> a water logged wedding photo.

>> i love you.

>> even though sandy wasn't the strongest hurricane to ever hit the east coast , it was blocked in place by the jet stream causing unprecedented damage. for francis , it was that evidence her theory might be right.

>> all of that coming together was like watching a bad dream unfold in reality.

>> a dream you saw coming?

>> the possibility. we saw the possibility.

>> that theory about a direct link between arctic ice melt and more intense storms seemed today be baring out. sandy happened the same year as the greatest ever recorded ice melt.

>> we still can't say for sure whether these two things are directly tied to each other, but it just seems an amazing coincidence if they're not.

>> do you believe they are?

>> i do believe they are.

>> her theory is on the cutting edge of climate research . some scientists say it has merit merit, but needs more study. one expert who testified among congress is among those who said that human activity led to climate change , but that francis goes too far.

>> there are some that have linked catastrophic events that we're living through today, to climate change . what is your problem with this?

>> my problem is that the science is not there to support it at this time. it is, unfortunate, some advocates for action are willing to jump on the latest extreme event and willing to say this is an example of climate change .

>> pielke says at least 50 years of data are needed to show change. and those that make a direct link are risking credibility.

>> i'm interested in the hypotheses out there, but they have to cross the bar of proving to be scientific.

>> you're stepping out saying i believe these are related to climate change .

>> i think the risk for myself is worth it. people are starting to realize that climate change is not a gradual warming that is going to be a concern for their grandchildren but not today. this is happening now. it's happening before our very eyes.

>> that was my front porch.

>> whatever is causing the extreme weather , back on staten island , pedro and jen are still picking up their lives.

>> all of these condos, high-ris high-rises, hotels right on the water, their very vulnerable. ll