Climate Change (I’m back….)

Mar 3rd, 2011 | By | Category: Youth Blog

After a brief period of technical difficulties, I am back in action! My last few blog posts were on the subject of biodiversity, but now I’m going to turn to something new and even more exciting…. climate change.

I’ve been taking a class in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department at my university on climate models, and recently worked on a project which used a bunch of crazy software I’m not going to explain to make some maps of where climate will be changing the most in the future, looking at New England as an example. What I want to talk about is, how do you interpret graphs and maps about climate change?

My example comes from something we made in class (thanks to A. Wilson for guiding us through the process) which gives a nice example of a climate change prediction. It takes a model of climate that is based on lots of different little math things which very few people understand (I will admit, I don’t) and gives us an idea for the degree to which temperatures (in Celsius…1 degree Celsius is about 1.8 degree Fahrenheit) will be getting warmer over the next 50 years. Now, what do we do with this map? Is it saying that in a winter 50 years from now exactly, the temperature in a particular town will be exactly three degrees warmer than – than what? Today’s temperature? The average? The lowest, highest, most common…..
ARGH!

This is one of the biggest issues that I’ve run into in reading climate prediction maps. There are two take home points:

1. Climate predictions are not exact predictions – they simply take a model of what we know is happening and make a rough guess as to, if those things happened in many, many parallel universes, what the average result would be. They are not meant to be exact, and you shouldn’t treat them like you would a weather forecast from TV.

2. Climate is not weather. The graph shows warmer average temperatures especially in both winter and summer. This winter in CT we’ve had a lot of snow, and it’s taking it forever to melt (argh), but that doesn’t make the model wrong, and in 50 years if the same thing happens that also won’t make the model wrong. Climate is an average, and a climate model is an average prediction of an average, and is bound to be wrong some of the time.

So we shouldn’t use the map to figure out how warmly to dress 50 years from now… but what can it tell us, then? Winter and summer seem to be warming the most – and this is important, because it means that we can probably worry less about things that happen in spring (birds nesting, leaves appearing on the trees…) than what’s happening during the summer – like, the amount that people will be wanting to use air conditioning, or will suffer if they don’t. So, with the climate model, we can plan ahead for where we are going to need to devote most of our climate intervention efforts — for instance, on things like snow melt and erosion in the winter, and protection of vernal pools and crops (in New England, things like corn and potatoes) drying up sooner/withering from drought in the summer.

That’s all for now – next time we’ll talk about the Golden Toad, and whether it was global warming that made it go extinct. Stay tuned!

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