The American Geophysical Union’s Joint Assembly is in Toronto this week. It’s a little slim on climate science content compared to the EGU meeting, but I’m taking in a few sessions as it’s local and convenient. Yesterday I managed to visit some of the climate science posters. I also caught the last talk of the session on connecting space and planetary science, and learned that the solar cycles have a significant temperature impact on the upper atmosphere, but no obvious effect on the lower atmosphere, but more research is needed to understand the impact on climate simulations. (Heather Andres‘ poster has some more detail on this).

This morning, I attended the session on Regional Scale Climate  Change. I’m learning that understanding the relationship between temperature change and increased tropical storm activity is complicated, because tropical storms seem to react to complex patterns of temperature change, rather than just the temperature itself. I’m also learning that you can use statistical downscaling from the climate models to get finer grained regional simulations of the changes in rainfall, e.g. over the US, leading to predictions for increased precipitation over much of the US in the winters and decreased in the summers. However, you have to be careful, because the models don’t capture seasonal variability well in some parts of the continent. A particular challenge for regional climate predictions is that some placed (e.g. Carribean Islands) are just too small to show up in the grids used in General Circulation Models (GCMs), which means we need more work on Regional Models to get the necessary resolution.

Final talk is Noah Diffenbaugh‘s talk on an ensemble approach to regional climate forecasts. He’s using the IPCC’s A1B scenario (but notes that in the last few years, emissions have exceeded those for this scenario). The model is nested – a hight resolution regional model (25km) is nested within a GCM (CCSM3, at T85 resolution), but the information flows only in one direction, from the GCM to the RCM. As far as I can tell, the reason it’s one way, is because the GCM run is pre-computed; specifically, it is taken by averaging 5 existing runs of the CCSM3 model from the IPCC AR4 dataset, and generate 6-hourly 3D atmosphere fields to drive the regional model. The runs show that by 2030-2039, we should expect 6-8 heat stress events per deacade across the whole of the south-west US (where a heat stress event is the kind of thing that should only hit once per  decade). Interestingly, the warming is greater in the south-eastern US, but because the south-western states are already closer to the threshold temperature for heat stress events, they get more heatwaves. Noah also showed some interesting validation images, to demonstrate that the regional model reproduced 20th Century temperatures over the US much better than the GCM does. 

Noah also talked a little about the role of the 2°C threshold used in climate negotiations, particularly at the Copenhagen meeting. The politicians don’t like that the climate scientists are expressing uncertainty about the 2°C threshold. But there has to be, because the models show that even below 2 degrees, there are some serious regional impacts, in this case on the US. His take home message is that we need to seriously question greenhouse gas mitigation targets. One of the questioners pointed out that there is also some confusion between whether the 2°C is supposed to be above pre-industrial temperatures.

After lunch, I attended the session on Breakthrough Ideas and Technologies for a Planet at Risk II. First talk is by Lewis Gilbert on monitoring and managing a planet at risk. First, he noted that really, the planet itself isn’t at risk – destroying it is still outside our capacity. Life will survive. Humans will survive (at least for a while). But it’s the quality of that survival that is at question. Some definitions of sustainability (he has quibbles with them all). First Bruntland’s – future generations should be able to meet their own needs; Natural Capital – future generations should have a standard of living better or equal to our own. Gilbert’s own: existance of a set of possible futures that are acceptable in some satisficing sense. But all of these definitions are based on human values and human life. So the concept of sustainability has human concerns deeply embedded in it. The rest of his talk was a little vague – he described a state space, E, with multiple dimensions (e.g. physical, such as CO2 concentrations; sociological, such as infant mortality in Somalia; biological, such as amphibian counts in Sierra Nevada), in which we can talk about quality of human life a some function of the vectors. The question then becomes what are the acceptable and unacceptable regions of E. But I’m not sure how this helps any.

Alan Robock talked about Geoengineering. He’s conducted studies of the effect of seeding sulphur particles into the atmosphere, using NASA’s climate model. In particular, injecting them over the arctic, where there is the most temperature change, and least impact on humans. His studies show that the seeding does have a significant impact on temperature, but as soon as you stop the seeding, the global warming quickly rises to where it would have been. So basically, once you start, you can’t stop. Also, you get other effects: e.g. a reduction of the tropical monsoons, a reduction of precipitation. Here’s an alternative: could it be done by just seeding in the arctic summer (when the temperature rise matters), and not in the winter. e.g. seed in April, May and June, or just in April, rather than year round. He’s exploring options like these with the model. Interesting aside: Rolling Stone Magazine, Nov 3, 2006 “Dr Evil’s plan to stop Global Warming”. There was a meeting convened by NASA, at which Alan started to create a long list of risks associated with geoengineering (and has a newer paper updating the list currently in submission).

George Shaw talked about biogeologic carbon sequestration. First, he demolished the idea that peak oil / peak coal etc will save us, by calculating the amount of carbon that can be easily extracted by known fossil fuel reserves. Carbon capture ideas include iron fertilization of the oceans, which stimulates plankton growth, which extracts carbon from. Cyanobacteria also extract carbon. E.g. attach an algae farm to every power station smoke stack. However, to make any difference, the algae farm for one power plant might have to be 40-50 square km. He then described a specific case study, of taking the Salton Basin Area in southern California, and filling it up with an algae farm. This would remove a chunk of agricultural land, but would probably make money under the current carbon trading schemes.

Roel Snieder gave a talk “Facing the Facts and Living Our Values”. Interesting graph on energy efficiency, which shows that 60% of the energy we use is lost. Also presents a version of the graph showing cost of intervention against emissions reduction, point out that sequestration is the most expensive choice of all. Another nice point: understanding of the facts – how much CO2 gas is produced by burning all the coal in one railroad car. Answer is about 3 times the weight of the coal, but most people would say only a few ounces, because gases are very light. Also he has a neat public lecture, and encouraged the audience to get out and give similar lectures to the public.

Eric Barron: Beyond Climate Science. It’s a mistake for the climate science community to say that “the science is settled”, and we need to move on to mitigation strategies. Still five things we need:

  1. A true climate services – an authoritative, credible, user-centric source of information on climate (models and data). E.g. Advice on resettlement of threatened towns, advice on forestry management, etc.
  2. Deliberately expand the family of forecasting elements. Some natural expansion of forecasting is occurring, but the geoscience community needs to push this forward deliberately.
  3. Invest in stage 2 science – social sciences and the human dimension of climate change (physical science budget dwarves the social sciences budget).
  4. Deliberately tackle the issue of scale and the demand for an integrated approach.
  5. Evolve from independent research groups to environmental “intelligence” centres. Cohesive regional observation and modeling framework. And must connect vigorously with users and decision-makers.

Key point: we’re not ready. Characterizes the research community as a cottage industry of climate modellers. Interesting analogy: health sciences, which is almost entirely a “point-of-service” community that reacts to people coming in the door, with no coherent forecasting service. Finally, some examples of forecasting spread of west nile disease, lyme disease, etc.

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