Monday, November 28, 2016



Record global temperatures and unusually high Arctic temperatures, in particular, are starting to suggest some scary scenarios for the world’s climate, including the notorious “tipping points” which can accelerate the rate of change. This is a time when we need the best possible understanding of what is happening to the planet, not least because it can help preparations for a dangerous future. But US climate science, hitherto one of the most important sources of understanding, is threatened with budget cuts. This was predictable in the context of anti-science climate denial rhetoric but there have been signs that Trump, at least on this issue, is rowing back from his extreme positions and threats to scrap the Paris agreement. So now is not the time to cut back on the research that helps to anticipate the real global and regional threats that we shall be facing. This would be the equivalent of a pilot switching off the navigation system when he discovers he does not have enough fuel.

We have become accustomed to a string of global temperature records in the last two years, with 2016 likely to exceed 2015 for the global annual average; and we have also passed a psychological landmark with estimates that the world has now warmed by over 1o C since pre-industrial times. Recent weather in the Arctic has provided further surprises, including periods of several weeks where the temperature has exceeded seasonal norms by as much as 20o C. This difference is significantly higher than the average temperature gap between summer and winter in the UK and other temperate climates. 

Climate science has for a long time indicated the likelihood of greater warming at the poles, and this dramatic anomaly is no doubt partly attributable to the aftermath of an el Nino event. However the scale of this increase has taken scientists by surprise and increased fears that climate change could move much more rapidly than has been generally forecast. There are several reasons why the Arctic matters so much, and these include the risk of some very serious feedback effects which have been characterised as “tipping points”. One is the potential reduction in “albedo”, which means that loss of snow and ice cover reduces the reflection of heat and leads to more warming. Another is the potential release of another powerful greenhouse gas, methane, from warming land surfaces and thaws in the permafrost. Big changes in Arctic conditions are also likely to have major impacts on weather across the globe.

These threats underline the importance of action on greenhouse gases. But they also start to put a more immediate focus on issues of adaptation.  Given that more and more attention is now being given to the challenges of adapting to climate change, understanding the numerous climate processes that will affect individual regions and countries becomes even more important. Without that understanding there will be real dangers that adaptation is planned, and investments made, that fail to address the right issues. A simple example is whether to plan for heavy increases in rainfall (possibly the UK), or for prolonged droughts (possibly California).

This makes the suggestions of US cutback on climate research (affecting NASA, NOOA and others) a particularly foolish, shortsighted, and damaging proposition.

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