Could there be anything more frustrating to a climate scientist than an educated, seemingly reasonable person declare they don’t believe in climate change?
To me it feels a bit like this:
The science is now overwhelmingly clear on climate change; it is happening and humans are responsible. Yet, in 2013 60% of Australians thought that ‘there are too many conflicting opinions for the public to be sure about climate change’ (The Climate Institute, 2013).
It seems like we are back to the good old science communication problem.
According to a recent study¹, Earth has narrowly missed entering into a new glacial. And the reason why? CO2 levels were too high.
But the CO2 that ‘saved’ us from a rather more icy existence is not the product of the mass burning of fossil fuels you are probably thinking of now. The CO2 we are talking about here was already in the atmosphere before the industrial revolution began (~1850).
Last week the leaders of almost 200 nations came together in Paris for the 21st UNFCCC Conference of Parties. On Saturday, 12 December 2015 these leaders reached an agreement that will signal the end of the use of fossil fuels, with the aim of rapidly replacing coal, oil and gas with clean energy sources worldwide.
Climate change is a global problem that requires all nations to come together to be a part of the solution. Australia equates to 5.15% of the world’s landmasses and 1.3% of greenhouse gas emissions, the 13th largest emitter in the world per capita out of 195 nations.
The 196 parties of the UNFCCC are coming together next week with the aim of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will likely keep global warming below 2˚C. Check out my last blog post on COP21 for more information.
Over the course of the past few weeks I have been reading quite a lot about climate all over the news. El Nino and La Nina events have been mentioned on a few occasions. I was always fascinated by these events, even as a kid, when I hadn’t the slightest clue as to what they were (but they do sound cool right?). Later on, as education slowly crept on me, I learned exactly what they were and how they impact the world.
But did I really understand how they ACTUALLY IMPACT the world?
Of course not!
I was born, raised and gained my masters-level education in Croatia, a country that doesn’t directly feel the impacts of either. My Oceanography and Dynamic-Meteorology teachers have put quite an effort to demonstrate the devastating and/or benevolent impacts of El Nino and La Nina events – depending on the part of the world. I had to derive some fearsome equations and was awarded with pictures of drought or floods all over the world, of people moving countries etc. For me personally, this probably meant that the price of some imported fish or seed was going up.
Right now, I live and study in Australia. And it seems, that an El Nino event will come crashing down on my head (and many other heads). And it will finally manifest itself to me in all its power. Probably some prices will go up too.
El Nino is a part of a natural cycle known as El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that manifests itself in prolonged periods of warming (El Nino) or cooling (La Nina) over the central and eastern Pacific Ocean.
In neutral mode we have the trade winds blowing from east to west across the Pacific, pushing warmer surface waters towards the western Pacific and causing convection in that area. The Central Pacific is kept relatively cool. The thermocline is deeper in the west than in the east. This means, that the ocean temperature gradient is not very steep in the west, which in turn means the water is warmer there.
During the El Nino conditions the trade winds are weakened or even reversed which allows this body of warm water to float further east and cause convection elsewhere. This also levels out the thermocline a bit. Now – without further ado – this means drought in Australia. It means rain and possible floods in Kiribati and Peru.
To me this means – seriously, even warmer summers? And a drought? In a country where water is already an expensive commodity?
Wonderful. I am affected now. Probably some prices will go up to!
Since this is a natural cycle it might prompt some people, like say …
… the government …
…. to deny climate changes. And the current prime minister here is adamant in trying to convince this nation that there is no such thing as man induced climate change.
Now let’s take a look at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorologybrief explanation as to what might cause the El Nino conditions:
“An El Niño occurs when sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean become substantially warmer than average, and this causes a shift in atmospheric circulation.”
Brilliant, I have established something similar above. So we have a natural occurring phenomenon here, but it is interesting to see that this phenomenon has gained a substantial power over the last few decades (see for example here, Pages 8 and 9). Now I won’t go into proving and showing that some aspects of climate change are man induced, others have done so, repeatedly (as in – many times). But on the low chance of Tony Abbot reading this – yes, climate changes have occurred naturally during the geological past of this planet. But not on the scale we are observing now. Climate change may not be something new on the face of this planet, but we – humans – are empowering it. Making it bigger, faster, stronger. The upcoming El Nino may be another record-breaking one, because the ocean is just a tad warmer, thanks to us. And it is affecting me and millions of other people directly.
And just to top it off, a scientist is offering a 10000$ reward to anyone who can use scientific methods to prove that man-made climate change is NOT real.
Tony Abbot should jump on that boat. He should actually hope that this boat wouldn’t be turned back too. I think proving something like that would be an ultimate win-win situation – someone would get the reward AND go down in history. While everyone else would be able to happily exhale in relief, knowing that it is not us messing up this planet, it is completely natural. We could happily live our lives, knowing that there really is NOTHING we can do to prevent this. And just imagine what the 10000$ would do to the budget! Probably some prices would go down too.
An image often associated with the melting of the Arctic ice cap, is that of a polar bear standing on thin ice, exemplified in Figure 1.
The melting of sea ice is forcing polar bears to spend more time inland. Venturing far from their normal habitat they are interacting and interbreeding with grizzly bears, resulting in grolar bears, pizzly bears or more fancifully known as polizzly bears (pictured in Figure 2).
Technically, the naming of hybrids should depend on the sex of the parents, where the father provides the first half of the species name and the mother provides the latter half. For example, a pizzly bear has a polar bear father and a mama grizzly. But I can imagine it would be far more difficult to determine the paternity/maternity of a hybrid species outside a zoo.
The first wild grolar was encountered back in 2006, as a hunting prize. The hunter was able to avoid jail time –-and a fine – when DNA testing by Wildlife Genetics International in British Columbia confirmed the beast was a hybrid of a polar and grizzly bear (the hunters $45,000 permit was only for bagging polar bears). Since then a number of these hybrid bears have been sighted in northern Canada.
Some might argue that interbreeding is a good solution for polar bears faced with climate change. While hybridization is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s the short time periods over which it occurs, that causes a significant drop in genetic diversity. This is damaging to both species and will more quickly push them to extinction.
Interbreeding could also be a potential risk for survival, as obviously, each bear has evolved to live in quite different ecosystems. The grizzly bear is not designed for long swims, but what if a pizzly still has a taste for seals?
Then there is the rest of the ecosystem to worry about – how does the grizzly bear ecosystem deal with a grolar bear? Will it hunt all year round or hibernate? Will the grolar bear be a super predator in its habitat and cause extinctions down the food web? Such an interesting animal could also become the target of hunting (or worse – cheesy horror movies [Polizzlynado anyone?]) as it is not yet protected by conservation laws. In order to protect both, the polar bears and the ecosystems, some out-there ‘conservationists’, have suggested moving the bears to the Antarctic.
Turn back the bears!
Perhaps such issues for many species, both old and new, wouldn’t be such a problem if WE reduced our impacts on the environment – but that’s a discussion for another day.
Last night I watched an interesting documentary on the Amazon rainforest dealing with the consequences of a changing climate. The documentary is part of the 6-prt TV climate series ‘Tipping points’ and investigates how the rainforest manages to deal with our shifting climate.
Parts of the forest show first signs of changes, with big trees dying and fewer growing as these trees need a lot of water to stay healthy. While the death of such huge trees causes a fair bit of destruction, new trees emerge in the gaps. However, these are smaller trees that need less water and grow less high. Together with deforestation, fires and more frequent draughts it is a first step towards an ecological tipping point where our rainforests could turn into savannahs.
Often rainforests are described as our lungs, as they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen and keep our atmosphere in balance by doing so. Recently NASA found that the Amazon inhales more CO2 than it emits and the forest therefore reduces global warming. However, when dying the forests releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which is estimated to be 1.9 billion tons each year.
Deforestation and fires to clear forest for farmland has already changed the regional climate drastically in terms of rainfall patterns and distribution.
Furthermore, the climatic phenomenon of the El Nino Southern Oscillation is associated with dry conditions in Brazil and the northern Amazon and its frequency increased in the past years and is expected to further increase in the future.
This is a drastic change for nature and for humans as we rely on these forests to somehow keep our atmosphere in balance.
The rainforest stores an equivalent of about 15 years of human-caused emissions in its soil and biomass and a massive die-back could greatly accelerate climate change. About 2 billion tons of CO2 are taken out of the air each year by the rainforests photosynthesis, however, during draughts in 2005 and 2010 this process reversed with 3 billion tons of CO2 emitted by the Amazon. This caused a net 5 billion ton increase in CO2 to the atmosphere.
Our changing climate, fires and more frequent draughts in change with sudden floods are pushing the Amazon to a tipping point and we are closer than you would think, with large areas dying or being already dead. If we loose the rainforest, the climate will change drastically and nature will never be the same, as we know it now.
After finally completing my thesis and graduating I thought I’d try something a bit different, something I probably haven’t done in a long while; read a book for fun! However it was during a somewhat starry-eyed cruise through the science section at a local book retailer that I spotted something that instantly ruined the entire endeavour.
“Taxing Air: Facts and Fallacies about Climate Change”
By Bob Carter and John Spooner
Inevitably I purchased the book if only to remove it from the shelf, and to see if it had any legitimate arguments. It didn’t take long belong I stumbled across one premise that was quite troubling.
“…it has never been demonstrated that warming above today’s temperature would be harmful [to humans].”
This claim is really a trick of language, sure, we have scant evidence for the effects of warming on humans, and there is little in the way of precedent. However, we have a large body of evidence for some of the other effects from warming, and, it doesn’t take a great stretch of the imagination how these will impact humanity.
We know that warming will raise sea level through the melting of land ice and the expansion of water as it warms. Rising sea level presents a threat to the coastal infrastructure of many nations and threatens many of the smaller island nations existentially. Sea level rise could cause the displacement of millions of people from some of the poorest parts of the globe.
I could continue to cover many similar premises, but they all fall into a similar category of being implied criticisms based on ignored or cherry picked information.
The overarching reason that finding this book annoyed me is because the way arguments like this are constructed to distort people’s understanding. This problem becomes apparent when we view the discrepancy between the debates about climate change in the public and scientific sphere. This book would not be as transparent to someone who hasn’t studied climate change for the good part of their undergraduate degree.
So kudos to the people that communicate their science and the scientific communicators for their efforts in eventually drowning out the claims such as those expressed that book.
One of the most important jobs as a scientist is being able to communicate what you do to the people around you. Even if it’s just your mum, one day, someone without a background in your particular field of science will ask you what you do. The trick is to be able to communicate what is typically a quite complex scientific idea in simple terms.
One of my favourite things about contributing to this blog is that I get to “practice” communicating scientific ideas very simply. I am actually getting quite good (if I do say so myself), at telling people about what I am studying in my PhD.
I got an excellent chance to “practice” my science communication last week, when I was asked by the host of a community radio program called “Biodegradio” to come into their studio and record an interview on what I am studying. I was quite nervous heading into the studio, but quickly relaxed and actually had a lot of fun chatting to Alison about my work. Continue reading “Practising Science Communication… On the radio!”→
Last week I posted about some new research carried out by Nerilie Abram, from the Research School of Earth Sciences at ANU. While the research itself is definitely worth a read (if you have access to Nature Geoscience, check it out here), what I personally found most interesting was the response to this paper seen across comments sections in news articles and blog posts on the internet.
It turns out, climate science is personally offensive to some people.
As much as I was enjoying (in a disbelieving kind of way) trying to follow the avalanche of comments from people across the internet, Nerilie was actually dealing with personal communications from a number of people in response to her paper.
Art!? Haikus?! What does any of this have to do with a research blog? Everything. Scientific findings can be complicated, are often dripping with jargon, and easy to overlook or ignore. Science communication is most valuable when it is easy to understand. Enter watercolour and haiku.
Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has distilled the entire International Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment report into 19 haikus with accompanying watercolour paintings and it is brilliant! Johnson has generated a disarming and inspiring account of the present state of our climate system. Using this creative path, he has made an otherwise daunting and dense scientific report (>2,000 pages long) into an intelligent and emotional piece of art.
Below is a slideshow of Johnson’s work.
Please visit Sightline Daily for the full article and links to pdf’s of these wonderful pieces.
I challenge you all to describe your research or profession with a simple haiku. Here is mine:
As with many people, I always had a ritual of sitting down to read or watch the news in the morning. This has been something I have done for the past 13 years, when I was in my first year of university (showing my age here). Whether newspapers, TV news programs, or news websites, I usually spent an average of one hour a day absorbing the events of the world.
One day back in August, I decided, no more. I think that the constant load of bad news had led me to have a negative viewpoint in life. Since that day, I have not read news websites or newspapers, and I no longer turn on the news while having breakfast in the morning, opting instead to listen to the great radio station, ABC Dig Music (seriously, it is one of the greatest music stations ever). Continue reading “No News is Good News”→
Hopefully you’re aware by now, that Working Group 1 of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has just released its fifth assessment report. This report pulls together and synthesises the current knowledge on the cause, attribution, effects and projections for climate change. The IPCC does not conduct research itself, but rather, simply pulls together the thousands of published, peer reviewed papers that add to our collective knowledge of climate change.
Unfortunately, the report itself is over 2000 pages, making it largely unreadable for all but the most dedicated. The report, however, is well indexed, meaning you can jump straight to content that interests you the most.