Brian Helmuth Describes Climate Change on a Hyper-Local Scale

Climate Change Series: Adapting To A New Reality

Mon, Apr 08, 2013 | Cognoscenti | by Brian Helmuth, Larry Atkinson & Pablo Suarez

Introduction

Even if we drastically cut carbon emissions, we still have to face the realities of a changing climate. So, while we have to think about reducing greenhouse gasses, now and in the future, we also have to begin implementing strategies to adapt to this new world of increasingly extreme and, to some extent, unknowable weather and climactic conditions. We need to adapt our cities, our farms and our way of life. We also need to understand how climate change will impact the plants and animals our ecosystems depend on.

Brian HelmuthLarry Atkinson and Pablo Suarez discuss ways human society is already adapting to climate change, and some of the challenges ahead.

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Brian Helmuth is a professor in the Department of Marine and Environmental Science and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, and directs the university’s Sustainability Science and Policy Initiative.

 

Climate change produces winners and losers, globally and locally, and science can help to predict which is which. Often the winners are invasive species, disease-causing organisms and pests with broad tolerances to environmental changes. To help save the species we care about — whether for sentimental reasons or because we depend on them for food and shelter — we’ll need detailed physiological and ecological knowledge of those species, their habitats and how they react to changing conditions. With that knowledge, we’ll hopefully be able to make better decisions about where and how to allocate scarce resources to preserve and protect some of the many plants and animals threatened with extinction.

For many plants and invertebrates, “the world” is no bigger than a few centimeters, and the local characteristics of their environment can play a key role in determining how they will likely respond to climate change.

Humans sweat or shiver to control our body temperature, and a change of only a few degrees in our body temperatures can be catastrophic. The vast majority of organisms however, are ectothermic — they have no metabolic source of heat — so their body temperature changes with their ambient environment. In some habitats, such as the intertidal region of the worlds’ coastlines, animal temperatures can change as much as 25 degrees C (45 degrees F) in a few hours. If local air or water temperatures rise even slightly, the resulting changes in body temperature can result in mass mortality or significant declines in growth. While temperature change undeniably has direct impacts on human health, it is literally a matter of life or death for species that can’t control their environment or body temperature as easily as we can.

Work in my lab focuses on forecasting the impacts of climate change on nonhuman organisms in coastal environments. Since 1999, I’ve led a team of researchers designing, deploying and monitoring “biomimetic sensors” — tiny robots built to match the size, color and thermal characteristics of live animals — so we can collect real world data on how climate change affects populations of shellfish and other coastal invertebrates. One focus has been on mussels — animals that are commercially important and form the basis of many intertidal ecosystems. Continuously recording temperatures every 10 minutes, we have deployed “robo-mussels” at 40 sites worldwide and they have provided us with a unique view of how environmental change is affecting the world’s coastlines.

What we find is that patterns in nature are often far more complex than what might be anticipated from simple measurements of the environment based, for example, on air temperature. Along the west coast of the U.S. we’ve found that instead of a simple increase in stress as one moves south, we see a complex “thermal mosaic” where some sites in the north are as stressful as southern sites.

Scientists can play a key role in helping society prepare for a warmer world, but only if we get away from the “loading dock” phenomenon of collecting a lot of data, putting it on a website or in peer-reviewed journals, and then whining when nobody uses it.

What’s true for shellfish that thrive in the intertidal zone is likely true for most other forms of plant and animal life. Climate change is a worldwide phenomenon, but most organisms experience only their hyper-local environment. For many plants and invertebrates, “the world” is no bigger than a few centimeters, and the local characteristics of their environment can play a key role in determining how they will likely respond to climate change. Moreover, the details of their physiology determine whether they can contend with changing conditions.

Scientists can play a key role in helping society prepare for a warmer world, but only if we get away from the “loading dock” phenomenon of collecting a lot of data, putting it on a website or in peer-reviewed journals, and then whining when nobody uses it. We can begin by waking up to the notion of collaborating with the end users of our research (e.g., shellfish growers, policy makers) before starting research projects, developing effective “indicators” of environmental change that are both scientifically accurate and relevant to business and policy. We’ve got to start working with people whose lives and livelihoods are already being affected by climate change, and who face even greater challenges in the years to come.

View slides from Brian Helmuth’s presentation here.

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Larry Atkinson is the Samuel L. and Fay M. Slover Professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University and director of ODU’s Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative.

 

We live on the edge of a restless ocean. With the accelerating effects of global climate change, the ocean is warming up, moving around, and absorbing large quantities of melting ice. Yet, because the amount and pace of sea level rise varies around the globe, it is a local issue.

Three separate studies published in a five month period last year all indicate an acceleration of sea level rise in the mid-Atlantic coast. As the Gulf Stream slows down and moves further offshore, our local coastal sea level rises — as much as 3-4 times faster than global average sea level rise.

As Superstorm Sandy dramatically demonstrated last fall, coastal storms are changing. Because of climate change there’s more heat in the ocean and more moisture in the atmosphere coming from the Gulf of Mexico. The combination may not affect the frequency of major storms, but it does magnify their size and intensity.

(Winslow Townson/AP)

(Winslow Townson/AP)

Climate scientists use a boxing metaphor to explain the connection between long-term climate change and short-term weather events: “Climate is the coach, but the weather is the punch.” We can expect storms like Sandy to land many more “punches” up and down the east coast in the coming years as the climate continues to “coach” the weather.

In 2003, Virginia was hit by Hurricane Isabel and the dry dock where Northrop Grumman builds aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy flooded. You don’t have to know much about shipbuilding to know that water flowing into a dry dock is a very bad situation. In the aftermath, Northrup Grumman asked their engineers to assess how frequent Isabel-like flooding would be in the future. The engineers concluded that by 2060 flooding that once happened every 80 years would happen every two years.

Adaptation engineering solutions — building floodwalls, tide gates, pump stations, reinforcing or moving roads, buildings and other infrastructure — are relatively straightforward.

Climate scientists use a boxing metaphor to explain the connection between long-term climate change and short-term weather events: “Climate is the coach, but the weather is the punch.”

The hard part is making the social and political decisions about what to protect and what to move. It’s not as simple as saying people should stop building beachfront vacation homes. (Though they should. As FEMA’s director has said publicly, we’ve got to stop providing subsidies and incentives for people to build and rebuild in areas we know will be inundated regularly.)

It’s one thing to move a house; it’s another to move a shipyard or a college campus. At Old Dominion University where I teach, we’ve made the decision not to move, but the first two floors of all our new and refurbished buildings may now be reserved for parking so that the inevitable floods of the future don’t completely destroy our infrastructure and ability to carry out our mission.

But how long does it take to move an airport? And to where? Except for Dulles and Hartsfield-Jackson, virtually all major East Coast airports are built on the coast.

These are not easy questions, but we cannot escape the reality of climate change. The sooner we start making decisions, the better. If we don’t, eventually the restless, rising sea will make them for us.

View slides from Larry Atkinson’s presentation here.

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Pablo Suarez is associate director for Research and Innovation, Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Of all the challenges presented to humanity by climate change, one of the greatest is this: the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future. Floods, droughts, tropical cyclones, and other threats to people’s lives and livelihoods are becoming more frequent, severe and even bizarre in terms of their location and timing, often far beyond what vulnerable communities have experienced.

In our humanitarian work around the world, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centreand partners have already confronted a sharp increase in workload involving weather-related disasters. We collectively need to better manage the rising risks associated with extreme events. The challenge is to link information, decisions, and consequences.

Science-based forecasts at different time scales can help people — especially those already on the edge of survival. But we live in a complex system with feedbacks, delays, thresholds and trade-offs that are hard to convey. How can we communicate this complexity, so that people and organizations can make smarter decisions that move us from early warning to early action?

We’ve learned that PowerPoint doesn’t always work. Presentations can be too unidirectional, putting audiences in a passive mode. When I first started explaining climate science to humanitarian workers and communities at risk, almost a decade ago, I was very successful at putting people to sleep. It wasn’t easy to get people engaged using spoken words and slides; there was no interaction. Now my professional life communicating climate risk management is both more effective and more fun — serious fun. Now I design and play games.

Participatory games are very rich ways to incarnate complex system dynamics through a few simple rules. As in the real world, in a game you have limited information with which to make decisions. The outcomes depend not just on what you do, but also on what other players do, and on things outside your control — like the random rains.

Of all the challenges presented to humanity by climate change, one of the greatest is this: the past is no longer a reliable guide to the future.

In playful activity, we “inhabit” the complexity of climate risks, and of making decisions based on imperfect information and with limited time, resources and control over our environment. By playing games designed to reflect real-life challenges, we’re able to make decisions that result in better outcomes when real-life disaster strikes.

At the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, we and our partners have designed over 25 participatory games to help people deal with specific challenges presented by climate change. In more than 100 game sessions involving over 3,000 participants in 35 countries, we have supported fishing villages planning for coastal stormshelped farmers see how gender inequities impact farming, brought the experience of hurricane preparedness to the White House, and inspired global donors to accelerate disbursement of funds for disaster preparedness measures.

Gameplay beats PowerPoint. It’s active learning with lots of “Aha!” moments and peer-to-peer learning. It’s serious and fun — which means people learn more because their emotions are engaged. Everyone, from subsistence farmers to humanitarian workers, academics, business executives and elected officials, can engage in this innovative approach to learning and dialogue.

Throughout human history, games have helped us understand the world and survive within it. Adapting to a changing climate requires more than charts, graphs, slides and lectures. We are thrilled by the success of our approach: Games for a New Climate. We look forward to working with partners to link knowledge with action.

View slides from Pablo Suarez’s presentation here.

 

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