IS CLIMATE STILL IMPORTANT?

 

STANLEY A. CHANGNON

 

           

            I am honored to be the first invited to speak at the Earl Kuehnast Lecture series.  I knew Earl for many years when he was the state climatologist in Minnesota, and we always had excellent interactions, a good sharing of ideas about climate, and about how to use climate information to help people.

 

            Today, I will address a variety of different aspects of climate to try to answer the question I has posed, “Is climate still important?”

 

            In an audience largely composed of climatologists, and one honoring an outstanding climatologist, one might wonder how questionable my choice of titles is.  How could anyone suggest that climate is NOT important?  Many of us have dedicated our lives to its study—surely we chose something important.  Yet, I would contend that the question needs addressing, as does the relevance for all branches of science.  My thesis is that in some ways climate has been made less important, while simultaneously becoming more important.  This dichotomy is the subject I want to explore in today’s address.

 

            I want to frame my beliefs about climate’s importance in a series of responses developed within the framework of who, how, and when questions.

 

I.                    THE WHO PART

Part of the answer to the question of climate’s importance relates to who is answering the question?

 

            There are three major groups who have different images of climate:  the public, the weather-sensitive sector, and the scientific community. They each view climate differently and would answer the important question differently.

 

            The public knows little about climate and is not severely affected from the climate except for infrequent major extremes.  Most persons view climate as a “normal natural condition.”  They understand that some places are colder or wetter than others, but generally do not understand how the climate works nor feel threatened by the climate conditions.  Few appreciate that climate is a resource like land and water.  Further, much of the public is insulated from climate, much more than society was 30, 50, or 100 years ago.  Most live in climate-controlled homes, offices, and vehicles.  Many believe we have become better prepared to deal with the climate we live in—and they are largely correct!

 

            The weather-sensitive sector, be they farmers, power companies, or floodplain residents are a distinct minority in our society.  They tend to understand how climate conditions vary in time and space, and many use climate data and information to function.  Their survival and economic success is often measured in how well they use climate information.

            The third “who” is the atmospheric sciences community.  It has two classes of those dealing with climatology:  1) the basic research climatologist, and 2) the applied climatologist, some who do applied research and some who perform services.  The views of these two groups about what is important about climatology, and of each other, tend to be quite different.  The amount of financial support for each group has become quite different in recent years.  The threat of climate change has greatly enhanced support for basic fundamental research related to climate dynamics, whereas the support for applied climatology studies has dwindled.  I have great concern about this “practical side of climatology.”  I have urged the American Meteorological Society to conduct an assessment of the field including funding levels, education and training in applied climatology, and facilities available to do applied research.

 

II.                 THE HOW PART

A.                             I now want to address what I believe to be the three ways atmospheric scientist can help society:

1.                  Describe and explain past or on-going events/conditions – this has been the long-tem bailiwick of climatologists.

2.                  Predict future conditions—largely the bailiwick of meteorologists, although climatologists are moving in.

3.                  Modify the atmosphere—largely the bailiwick of cloud physicists, although climatologists have played a significant role.

 

Let us consider each of these three major functions in order to focus on the “how” part of the question of climate’s importance.     

 

For many years, and as many as 100 years ago, agricultural experts, engineers, and climatologists worked together to describe the climate conditions.  They took the available data, coupled it with statistical techniques, and made decisions relating to values needed to design the nations’ infrastructure—the nation’s tall buildings, our canals, bridges, dams, our transportation systems, farming practices, and agribusiness operations.  Everywhere we look are the structures and thousands of activities designed based on climate data and information.

 

I claim that the biggest success story in the 100-year history of the atmospheric sciences is in “descriptive-analytical climatology” and its service to the building of our world as we know it!

Services to society in the prediction of weather of in modifying the weather pale in comparison to what climatologists have done, and continue to do, to provide society with the data need to function.  It is ironic—climatologist have been so successful for so many years that I perceive that few in our field, or in the public, understand the immense contributions applied climatologists have brought to society.

 

Climatologists are now making major improvements in the prediction of climate.   That is, the conditions expected to occur a month or longer in the future. These predictions are a mixture of “climate statistics” and rapidly growing “scientific understanding” of the physical system.  A key example of this has been the growth of understanding of the effects of El Nińo and the Southern Oscillation.  Successful prediction is tied to gaining a better understanding of the ocean-atmospheric interactions, and ESNO is a real breakthrough.  I believe that climatologists will bring monthly and seasonal predictions of ever greater accuracies in the near future due to improved coupled ocean-atmosphere models under development.

 

Few realize the enormous contributions that climatologists have brought in the arena of weather and climate modification, both to understand and to measure the changes that humans have caused over the past century.  Yes, for 40 years there have been efforts to learn how to modify the weather—to make rain or snow or to ameliorate hail—the purview of the cloud physicists.  But much of what has been accomplished has been by climatologists and geographers.  They have documented the area-wide modification in weather and climate caused by human activity often labeled as inadvertent weather change.  Climatologists have defined how land use changes, like the shift from prairies to crops, how the construction of cities, and the development of large industrial complexes have changed every facet of the climate at local and even regional scales.  This work of climatologists began 80 years ago, and has defined much more about how the climate can be changed than the research in purposeful weather modification.  A real accomplishment for the field. 

 

III.               THE WHEN PART

Let me now turn to the “when” part of the question of climate importance.

 

A.  A real change, and improvement over time, is in climate services—Earl led the way in Minnesota.  CAC, RCCs, and SCs, coupled with large computerized databases, and ease of inexpensive communication, are revolutionizing how users of climate data and information can and do get data and information.

 

B.  Let me illustrate with a current example that I believe is regionally important.  It relates to the products of our operational soil moisture model at the Midwestern Climate Center.  A month ago it was used to assess conditions in the Upper Mississippi River Basin, and it showed that soil moisture was the highest on record.  These values were coupled with 44 years of historical precipitation for fall months and spring to determine the probability of future soil moisture conditions.  There were high in March 1994 with 95% chance of above average throughout Minnesota, Iowa, and western Illinois.  Further, it showed the amount that excess water by May 1994 will be 3 inches or more, a value we have in only 1 year in 100.  Flooding is highly likely.  Climate services is thus an exciting area of climatology.  Better products for better decisions!

 

C. Another critical part of the “when” aspect of climate is the recognition—first by the climatologists, then the weather-sensitive sector, and finally the public—that climate was non-stationary, and in fact, was shifting.  Further came the realization that the future climate might be substantially changed by human activities.

 

When I taught climatology in the 1940s, the concept of shifting climate, at least on the near-term, was simply not taught.  Yes, we learned there had been major climatic changes thousands of years ago, but the general line was that the climate of recent centuries was stationary.  As a result, the nation has designed and built its weather-sensitive structures and facilities (like dams, bridges, and skyscrapers) using existing climate data and a premise that climate was stationary and never changing.  The attention of descriptive climatologists decades ago was heavily on spatial aspects and not on temporal aspects of climate.

 

This has changed over the past 30 years.  There is much greater understanding, and interest, in short-term fluctuations on decadal scales, and the longer fluctuations on the scales of centuries.  We have had better and longer-term data to examine and understand these.  In a word, the research emphasis has become temporal.

 

The weather-sensitive users of climate have now begun to better appreciate that climate is not stationary.  For example, design hydrologists in Illinois now realize that the increase in flooding in the Chicago area over the past 30 years, is not due solely to the ever increasing urbanizations, but is due more to a shift to a wetter regime with more heavy rains.  If you used the heavy rainfall data from the last 40 years to design water structures in the Midwest, you would have very different design values than if you used the data from the first 40 years of this century.

 

In a recent study of the Minnesota climate, it was shown how the climate had shifted from a benign condition for decades in the 60s and 70s, into a “noisy one” in the 1980s.  This shift has apparently been reflected in problems experienced by agriculture.  This study is an excellent example of highly useful temporal climatological studies.

 

Consideration of temporal analysis of climate conditions raises one of my concerns about the study of climate and its relevance.  Climate impacts on society are always interwoven with other economic, legal, and social factors.  These should be adequately considered in serious investigations of climate and its effects.

 

How society may be impacted by a major greenhouse-induced warming of the climate by the year 2040 cannot be studied in a vacuum.  Everything else will have changed by 2040, and serious futuristic studies must incorporate consideration of shifts in population and technology if they are to be at all realistic about estimating climate effects.  Unfortunately many have tried to analyze the impacts of future climate, and to assign values to climate’s importance only analyzing the climate side of the equation, and ignoring all the other forces at work.

 

The third element of the “when question” relates to the public, which until recently has known little about climate and certainly had no impression of its constantly shifting nature.  Coverage of the 198 drought by the national media brought the possibility of “global warming” to the public’s attention.  For example, last year a reporter’s series of street interviews in Illinois found that 90 percent of those sampled felt that the recent cold weather conditions were due to “climate change.”

 

The “when” aspect of climate also incorporates the key current issue, in the minds of many, about climate change due to greenhouse gases.  I have many views about this subject, and I have tried to summarize these into six points that I believe to be highly relevant.

 

1.                            First, I think it is important to realize that scientific and public belief in global climate change is rooted in what climatologists have already established.  This concerns the effects of cities, land use changes, and contrails on the climate.  These are effects positively established about humans’ capability to influence climate.  These findings give both scientific and public credence to the belief that humans create global-scale changes.

2.                            Second, in relation to the potential for greenhouse-induced climate change, there is clear evidence that CO2 is increasing; that past warm periods have been periods of high CO2, and climate models agree that more trace gases will mean global warming, if all other aspects of the climate remain constant.

3.                            Third, more than 80% of all atmospheric scientists believe that global warming will occur—however few agree on the dimensions of future climate.  The debate continues with a vocal minority asking serious questions.  Predictions, or estimates of future climate conditions for a given area such as Minnesota, very widely, as do estimates of how the change will occur over time.

4.                            Fourth, decision makers in industry and government find the scientific uncertainties unsettling and confusing.  Let me illustrate this point.  The Illinois Task Force on Global Climate Change, a mix of 20 persons representing a wide variety of interests in the state, has existed for a year.  After a year of meetings and sifting through publications, they have concluded that the scientific evidence is too shaky to support making major changes that will severely impact the economy.  Their position is, “let’s do better at energy conservation and enhance research, and wait until the science, and proof of a change, is more certain.  I predict this is the policy view which will prevail nationally for the next several years.

5.                            Fifth, I strongly endorse strong attention to what-if type impact studies of climate change, and of investigations of how society can adapt to shifting climate conditions.  We know that the future climate, with or without a greenhouse effect, will be different than today’s.  Thus, it makes good sense to design for change, and to seek greater flexibility on our weather-sensitive systems.

6.                            My sixth point under the climate change banner concerns why it is critically important to realize our increasing sensitivity to climate.  I do agree that technology has helped insulate us against some of the vagaries of climate, but unlike some scientists, I conclude that society has also become more vulnerable to climate fluctuations.  I cite four examples.

·        The four years of major crop yield reductions in the past 13 years due to weather.

·        Second is our aging infrastructure.  For example, urban water systems in Chicago and New York leak 10 to 20% of all water pumped into them.

·        Our ever growing population with its growing demands for water, energy, food, and other resources.

·        Our ever growing population which effectively reduces our air, land, and water resources.

 

From my studies, I have concluded that this nation can adapt to future changes in climate but that it will be very expensive and painful.  How we plan now can ease that pain.

 

IV.              SUMMARY THOUGHTS

 

What do all these ideas and beliefs add up to?

 

In summary, I want to make five points about climate.

 

There is greater awareness in all sectors about what climate is and its importance.

 

Second, applied climatology is not getting the attention nor understanding it needs and deserves if we are o bring climate information to anywhere near its optimum use by society.

 

Third, the functions of climatologists have grown rapidly and significantly embrace description, prediction, and modification of climate.  There have been major advances in the field.

 

Fourth, the climate of the future will be different than today’s regime, with or without the greenhouse effect, and for many reasons, our vulnerable society and its complex climate sensitive systems need to get prepared for change.

 

Fifth, climatologists have done much to help today’s society develop and function, but there is much yet to be done to improve a) the delivery of climate data and information, and b) to help potential users understand how to use our products.  This is where the man we honor today made a particularly significant contribution to the lives of everyone in Minnesota.

 

I am sure that Earl Kuehnast helped better define, for many of those living in Minnesota, the real meaning of climate and the value of having better climate data readily available to better solve problems.  Truly an admirable achievement!

 

In conclusion, my answer to the question, “Is climate still important?” is a resounding YES!  The outstanding past contributions of climatologists stand on their merit.  The future contributions of climatologists will be ever more important to society and its quest for sustainable development.