A framework is presented to quantify observed changes in climate within the contiguous United States through the development and analysis of two indices of climate change, a Climate Extremes Index (CEI) and a U.S. Greenhouse Climate Response Index (GCRI). The CEI is based on an aggregate set of conventional climate extreme indicators, and the GCRI is composed of indicators that measure changes in the climate of the United States that have been projected to occur as a result of increased emissions of greenhouse gases.
The CEI supports the notion that the climate of the United States has become more extreme in recent decades, yet the magnitude and persistence of the changes are not large enough at this point to conclude that the increase in extremes reflects a nonstationary climate. Nonetheless, if impacts due to extreme events rise exponentially with the index, then the increase may be quite significant in a practical sense. Similarly, the positive trend of the U. S. GCRI during the twentieth century is consistent with an enhanced greenhouse effect. The increase is unlikely to have arisen due to chance alone (there is about a 5% chance). Still, the increase of the GCRI is not large enough to unequivocally reject the possibility that the increase in the GCRI may be the result of other factors, including natural climate variability, and the similarity between the change in the GCRI and anticipated changes says little about the sensitivity of the climate system to the greenhouse effect. Both indices increased rather abruptly during the 1970s, a time of major circulation changes over the Pacific Ocean and North America.