Environmental Connections

Communicating Complex Problems, Seeking Solutions

Adapting to a Warming and Changing World

Last week I attended a conference in Fort Collins, Colorado hosted by the North Central Climate Science Center (NCCSC). The conference brought together regional research hubs and land managers to share past work, on-going projects, best practices, and future goals. It was an opportunity for networking, collaboration, and communication focused on climate science and climate change adaptation. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn more about regional partnerships – the regional climate science centers cover the entire contiguous 48 United States, the USDA climate hubs do the same, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives cover much of the United States, and the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments cover much of the United States as well – and meet folks engaged in climate adaptation research and practice.

Yes, that’s right, this conference was focused on collaborative efforts to develop methods for adapting to and living in a world whose climatic conditions are uncertain, variable, and unlike anything we are accustomed to. While we hear much in the news on the national and international scales about climate change mitigation, it’s increasingly understood that while reducing our emissions of planet-warming and climate-altering gases is a necessity, we must also learn to adapt to climate changes that we are currently experiencing, and will continue to experience thanks to a legacy of greenhouse gas emissions.

How will we live in a world where water is available in different quantities and at different times throughout the year, where wildfires encroach on urban areas and wipe out entire forests, where insect outbreaks threaten entire forest stands, where sea-level rise threatens human health and infrastructure in urban areas, and where traditional economic drivers in resource-dependent regions of the country and the world are threatened by these and other factors? In Colorado, and throughout the southwest and other areas of the world, climate change is impacting the water sector in ways that are compelling us to evaluate how water is managed and used and what activities and practices might no longer be viable under future scenarios. Land management agencies need to know how to deal with these and so many more issues where the ecosystems they manage and the livelihoods that depend on sound management are vulnerable to these impacts. However, with limited budgets and myriad challenges affecting present-day management, planning for the future and adapting management practices to uncertain and variable future climate conditions is particularly challenging.

This is where research institutions like the NCCSC, the USDA Climate Hubs, universities, and many more, can play a key role. With direction from the Department of the Interior and the Executive branch of the federal government (and other high level directives at the state and national levels), funding at the federal level exists to support partnerships between researchers and practitioners. In co-developing research projects, managers and researchers can define the scope and goal of projects so the results are most salient and credible, so they’re user-ready and applicable to the issues at hand. With an eye toward 2016, I hope to see candidates that support the continuation of these efforts that reach far beyond environmental impacts into the realms of social and economic justice.

Carbon Dioxide and “Global Warming”

I recently spoke with a self-identified climate skeptic. One of his primary concerns in the matter was his reluctance to be fully on board with the fact that carbon dioxide is capable of causing global warming. He left me with the question – Can we really know, for sure, that this is happening?   The implications, he would go on to explain, were nothing less than a major paradigm shift away from capitalism and away from our hydrocarbon-based economy. Now, at the time, it was not my place to launch into a debate with this person, but the conversation inspired me to think about how, if he had asked, I would explain this to him. Well, since we are bound not to speak again for the foreseeable future, a narrative will suffice for now.

The greenhouse was a wonderful discovery. It allows us to extend our growing season several months. In many cases and depending on its construction and your location, greenhouses can help us cultivate plants and food year-round. I live in one of the coldest places in the United States, and my neighbors have a greenhouse that reaches temperatures close to 100ºF in the dead of winter. They use it to dry their clothes and heat their house. The greenhouse works because glass allows sunlight to pass through unimpeded, thus feeding energy to the photosynthetic organisms within. When the sunlight hits other surfaces within the greenhouse (the ground, the soil, the tables upon which we rest our plants, etc.) it heats these surfaces up. The same thing happens when the sun rises and the ground warms up. Physically, the sunlight’s energy dissipates incrementally when it hits the ground, with a portion of that energy going into the ground and warming it up. The “leftover” energy is the heat that we feel in the air, the energy that is transformed from sunlight, or visible light, to infrared radiation. Infrared radiation’s physical properties are different than those of sunlight. As opposed to sunlight, which in our greenhouse can pass right through the glass, infrared radiation (i.e heat, or warm air) is essentially “trapped” inside the greenhouse because it cannot pass right through the glass. The physical properties of the glass interact with those of infrared radiation in a different manner than the glass-sunlight interaction. Thus we have an artificial environment known as the greenhouse.

Now let’s think about this in terms of the atmosphere. It is well known that the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse because of naturally occurring greenhouses gases (http://climate.dot.gov/about/overview/greenhouse-gases.html). The gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapor, and ozone – those naturally occurring) are the glass of our global greenhouse. Their physical properties allow sunlight to pass through. However, when they come into contact with infrared radiation, the equation is not so simple. The atomic structure of these molecules is such that when infrared radiation hits a molecule, it results in a vibration of the molecule, which changes the trajectory of the infrared radiation. Rather than passing straight through, the infrared radiation is re-directed – either back toward the Earth, or in any number of other directions. Without this effect, Earth’s surface temperature would be approximately 0ºF.  So, how fortunate we are that greenhouse gases, by the coincidence of natural processes, are “built” in such a way to keep some of that infrared radiation in our atmosphere. This process is wonderfully and succinctly described in this short video. 


 Putting it all Together

One of the most important aspects of climate science and its effects on global temperatures is the measurement of radiative forcing. Huh? Greenhouse gases affect the amount of outgoing infrared radiation. This is often referred to in the context of Earth’s energy balance. As a result, they affect the global mean surface temperature by keeping energy within the atmosphere. Scientists have calculated the relative importance of greenhouse gases in this radiative forcing measurement – different greenhouse gases have different radiative forcing potentials. RF is a measurement of Watts per square meter and this, when averaged across the globe, translates into a measurement for global mean surface temperature, which is about 59ºF. Because we know how different greenhouse gases affect the overall radiative forcing, we know how rising concentrations of each will affect global temperatures. Alternatively, we can measure how certain factors affect radiative forcing in the opposite direction, such as airborne aerosols that reflect back before it even hits the surface of the Earth. See here for more detail. This video explains radiative forcing well and will give you much more to dig into about this topic if you’re interested. One topic you might find you’re interested in learning more about is ‘feedbacks’. We will examine this in the coming weeks, but for a jump start, see Climate Communication’s section, and browse the rest of the website while you’re at it. 

Back to our greenhouse for plants, you start off with a thin covering for your greenhouse, perhaps even a thick plastic. After a year, you realize that your greenhouse is decent at keeping warm, but not great. So, you add another layer of the thick plastic, or perhaps you replace it with thick glass. The next year, your greenhouse is warm enough to extend your growing season by several weeks and in the summer you even have to vent your greenhouse because it’s too hot. Additional greenhouse gases are those extra layers of plastic, or thicker glass. It means that outgoing infrared radiation has a better chance of coming into contact with something that will send it right back toward the surface of the Earth.

Now, finally, a climate skeptic may point out that the radiative forcing of greenhouse gases is so small compared to natural radiative forcings. Similar to feedbacks mentioned above, this question requires a lengthier answer than will be given now. But suffice to say presently, the additional radiative forcing is steering global climate away from the climatic stability of the Holocene, a period of nearly 12,000 years through present time (technically, although many argue that we are now in the Anthropocene) characterized by relatively stable global mean surface temperatures and, as a result, stable sea levels. By investigating paleoclimate, or historic climate, we can see that small changes in temperature have led to drastic changes in sea level. This too we will investigate in the coming weeks.

Thanks for reading, and please comment below.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, AKA the IPCC – What is it Anyway?

So perhaps you’ve heard that 2014 was the warmest year on record. If you live in the eastern or midwest United States, you might be surprised to hear this since these regions experienced anomalously cold weather in 2014. Along with parts of Antarctica and southern Africa, these were the only regions in the world to experience colder than average temperatures in 2014. As you can see here, when taking in the global perspective, that’s very little of the Earth’s total surface area. In fact, when we take the total surface area of the entire contiguous 48 United States (approximately 3.12 million square miles) and compare it with the entire surface area of the world (approximately 197 million square miles), we find that it’s only about 1.6% of the total surface area of the globe, and the midwest and eastern United States of course account for even less than that. Of course the painfully inconvenient (or convenient, depending on whose perspective we’re talking about here) truth herein is that Washington, D.C. lay within the United States’ cold zone in 2014, a most critical year, not only for domestic, but for international climate policy as well.

And that brings us to one of the most critical questions of this century – What are we going to do about climate change? Domestically and internationally, this question has come in and out of political focus since the late 1980’s, when a young NASA scientist named James Hansen testified before Congress about the planetary-scale warming caused by fossil fuel combustion. This June 1988 New York Times article covers Hansen’s testimony and eerily echoes many of the warnings we hear about today – warming will lead to thermal expansion of the ocean and melting ice, causing sea levels to rise; humans have altered the global climate for centuries to come; deforestation contributes to climate change; alternative sources of energy must be explored; international agreements must be entered into; and we must consider how to slow the changes we’re causing and how to cope with the inevitable changes already on their way. Surely Hansen’s testimony was not surprising to the scientific community as the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had already been moving toward establishing an “ad hoc intergovernmental mechanism” (this would become the IPCC) to “carry out internationally coordinated scientific assessments of the magnitude, timing, and potential impacts of climate change.”

The IPCC was officially formed in 1988 and has since authored five Assessment Reports. Assessment Reports synthesize the contemporary state of knowledge of climate change, the social and economic impacts of climate change, and potential mitigation strategies. Essentially, the reports thus require comprehensive assessments of the Physical Science Basis, Impacts and Adaptation, and Mitigation. These three categories form the basis of the three “Working Groups”, each of which is responsible for releasing a specific report aligned with its focus with each Assessment Report. The first assessment report in 1990 stressed the importance of international policy to address the issue of climate change. This led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an intergovernmental body that convenes annually to negotiate international policies. You may have heard about the Copenhagen, Cancun, or Durban and Doha, or the upcoming Paris convention in December 2015. These conventions use the IPCC Assessment Reports as the basis for policy negotiations.  While the UNFCCC has convened periodically since 1992, the global network of delegates has yet to reach agreement on any policies sufficient to mitigate the disastrous path that we are on.  Speaking of the 1992 convention in Rio de Janerio, watch this riveting speech delivered to the delegation by 12 year old Severn Suzuki.  Suzuki’s father, David, is an outspoken and world renowned Canadian environmental activist.  Today, Severn herself is an environmental activist and author.  Severn’s warnings 23 years ago are a haunting reminder of our collective inabilities to solve the worldwide social-ecological problems that we still face.

The IPCC does not conduct original research. Rather, it is an intergovernmental body comprised of 195 member countries that synthesizes existing peer-reviewed literature to understand the findings since the previous report. It’s important here to understand what peer-reviewed literature is. Contrary to popular literature, peer-reviewed literature is written by experts in their respective fields and submitted to journals whose editorial board, comprised of experts themselves, puts submissions through a rigorous review process that often sends papers back for revision or even rejection, before fully accepting for publication. Only after going through the review process are peer-reviewed papers eligible for publication. Working Group I, responsible for reporting on the Physical Science Basis of Climate Change, synthesizes all existing peer-reviewed literature on climate science to report on the broad findings within the literature. This is how it can make statements such as: “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.” (Summary for Policymakers, Working Group I, 5th AR). The IPCC uses terms like extremely likely, likely, virtually certain, etc. to qualify the level of agreement within the scientific literature. The term extremely likely correlates with a 95-100% likelihood that the statement is indeed true. Working Groups II and III operate in a similar fashion.

This is about as far as I would like to go for now – hopefully you’re still reading! I hope you understand the IPCC more now than you did before reading. Please stay tuned for more.

Click here for more information on the 5th Assessment Report, released over the course of 2013-2014, or to view the entire contributions of Working Groups I, II, and III

Planetary Boundaries

When considering global environmental change and climate change, it is important to understand that indeed, the climate has always been changing in some way.  However, given the rate at which we humans are impacting important Earth system processes, we are forcing the Earth’s departure from the relatively stable climatic conditions that have given rise to human civilization as we know it.  Let’s start with the big picture.

Earth is a few billion years old, about 4.6 to be “exact”.  Geologists have parceled Earth’s history into different groupings, known as (from those spanning the longest time to the shortest) Eons, Eras, Periods, and Epochs (Figure 1 – simplified chart of Earth’s geologic history).   While I could go into detail about the defining characteristics of each, I’ll spare those that aren’t interested, and direct those that are to National Geographic’s explanation.  Two major defining characteristics of epochs are biodiversity and climate; in other words, shifts can be characterized by major extinctions (Figure 2) or major changes in climatic conditions (Figure 3), such as from a glacial to an interglacial period.  Again, there is a wealth of information readily available on major extinction events and Earth’s geologic history if you are interested.



Figure 1 – Simplified breakdown of the geologic history of the Earth



Figure 2 – The ‘Permian Extinction’ is one of 5 major extinction events in Earth’s history.  While many smaller extinctions have occurred, the five major extinctions were extraordinarily destructive.  Each has signaled a shift from one period or epoch to the next.  Many scientists believe that humans are the driving force behind a sixth major extinction


Figure 3 – This simplified figure explains another indicator for a shift in epoch, climate.  During the Pleistocene, sea-level varied dramatically, but leveled off during what has been named the Holocene.

Our current epoch, the Holocene, is characterized by extremely stable climatic conditions unprecedented in human history.  The previous epoch, the Pleistocene, was characterized by frequent ice ages during which sea level varied significantly.  Homo sapiens are at least 190,000 years old and thus evolved during the Pleistocene, adapting to the slowly changing conditions.  But it wasn’t until the Holocene’s stable climate and absence of ice ages (thanks to very little temperature variability) that we were able to invent agricultural systems and develop modern civilizations.

Research has revealed several Earth system processes vital to maintaining the environmental stability of the Holocene.  These processes are often referred to as Planetary Boundaries, meaning that if we cause these processes to cross a defined “tipping point”, we move ever closer to removing ourselves from the stable conditions that have supported humanity as we know it for thousands of years.  It is commonly posited that humans are the driving force behind the next epoch shift, from the Holocene to what many are calling the Anthropocene, characterized by a flora and fauna extinction rate orders of magnitude greater than the ‘background extinction rate.’  The rate at which humans are impacting the planetary boundaries is unprecedented and thus out of the realm of adaptation that we have conformed to in our species’ past.  The following video is a good starting point for learning more about Planetary Boundaries, and that’s where I will leave you for now.



Environmental Connections is about clearly communicating the complex environmental problems facing human and wild communities in an age of rapid and unexpected change.  No matter the breadth of scientific research into global environmental change (GEC), we often fall short in translating the complexities of climate models, sea-level rise, nutrient cycles, and other processes, into commonly understood terms.  Humans are impacting natural processes at an unprecedented rate.  Climate change as a term is no longer suitable to encapsulate the depth of our knowledge on human impact.  Climate change is chiefly understood to be caused by our unfettered emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) from the burning of fossil fuels, but many other environmental impacts associated with human actions drive climate change and other unnatural processes.  Global environmental change  is thus more suitable a term for our purposes.  Connections are what got us to the age of globalization, yet they are also what’s lacking in terms of understanding the impacts of our actions.  Please follow along, and let me know if you would like to contribute!