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Projections of sea level rise continue to increase
Dr. Philip Duffy, President & Executive Director
This subject is a good example of why I often say that the science of climate change looks more and more scary as we learn more. It has also been a personal source of frustration for nearly 10 years. I’ll return to that in a moment, but first, why has this subject come up now?
A new paper in the journal Nature finds that rapid deterioration of the Antarctic ice sheet could add more than a meter of sea level rise by 2100. That is in addition to sea level rise from thermal expansion of ocean water, melting of glaciers and melting of the Greenland ice sheet. The previous projections from the IPCC for total sea level rise range from about a quarter of a meter to a meter (by 2100), so an additional meter is a whopping big increase. (I should point out that the large range of IPCC projections is only partly due to scientific uncertainty. About half of it results from different possible assumptions about future greenhouse gas emissions.)
My frustration about this subject goes back to 2007, when the IPCC released projections of sea level rise that ignored possible contributions from rapid deterioration of Antarctic ice. This is not as crazy as it may sound—the relevant science was not well understood at the time. But in a superabundance of caution, the IPCC decided to omit this contribution entirely, which of course is tantamount to assuming that it will be zero. (Furthermore, the omission of this possibly important contribution was not made prominent.) When I squawked about this I was publicly rebuked by an IPCC co-chair.
At the time of the next IPCC report (2013), I was a White House staff member with responsibility for coordinating the US government’s scientific review of the entire report (a massive undertaking for a report consisting of thousands of pages of technically dense material). I also represented the United States in international discussions which (tediously and painfully) finalized every sentence of critical summary documents. A number of the reviewers recruited by the US government felt that the IPCC’s projected sea level rise contribution from rapid deterioration of Antarctic ice was again too low. (At least this time it was not zero!) Despite strong suggestions from our reviewers, the IPCC authors refused to budge from their insistence that this contribution would be small, and that there was little uncertainty about this. This unwillingness to fully acknowledge uncertainty displays a dismaying lack of humility (which I am happy to say is rare among scientists). Even to a non-specialist it was obvious that this science was quite uncertain. Indeed, it still is!
The good news from the Nature paper is that a large sea level rise contribution from Antarctica is not inevitable. If we rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in fact, the projected contribution is negligibly small. So, for a while at least, we have choices. If we don’t act forcefully very soon, though, irreversible physical processes will start, and our good options will disappear.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.
Forest bioenergy policy legislation and WHRC
WHRC Board member Prof. William Moomaw and WHRC President Philip Duffy have been working to prevent possible harmful US policy on forest biofuels. Legislation pending in Congress would require federal agencies to assume that burning wood to produce electricity is “carbon neutral,” even though science clearly shows otherwise. Such a policy would encourage destruction of forests and add CO2 to the atmosphere, while preventing federal agencies from accounting for these emissions!
WHRC’s efforts to inject reality into this process began by authoring a letter to US senators that was signed by more than 65 scientists and enumerated the reasons why forest bioenergy is not actually carbon neutral. The letter cautioned lawmakers that “legislating scientific facts is never a good idea, but is especially bad when the ‘facts’ are incorrect.” Dr. Duffy and Prof. Moomaw also briefed congressional and White House staff about the science of forest biofuels and the lack of wisdom of pending policies. Dr. Duffy emphasized the perhaps-obvious point that the best role for forests in controlling climate change is to use them to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, rather than burning them and emitting CO2.
This attempted legislative “end-run” may arise from industry frustration with the slow pace of EPA’s more judicious process for formulating policy on this issue. This process has been stalled because of disagreement over how to account for emissions from forest bioenergy. Prof. Moomaw and Dr. Duffy pointed out “logical flaws in the way that the [EPA] panel was proposing to treat the temporal aspects of bioenergy and the implication for climate change.” Partly as a result of this, EPA’s Science Advisory Board rejected the findings of a subsidiary body and instructed that body to reconsider its findings.
This story may not have a happy ending: the energy bill is still pending in Congress, and no doubt representatives of the forest products industry are busy representing their point of view.
Memories of Mekong: A floating scientific workshop
Last month, nineteen researchers cruised along a section of the Mekong River that runs between Laos and Thailand. The cruise was the second ‘floating workshop’ of the Global Rivers Observatory, a project that is the collaboration of an international team led by WHRC Senior Scientist Max Holmes and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Senior Scientist Bernhard Peucker-Ehrenbrink.
For several years, the team has been studying river water chemistry in the watersheds of the Amazon, Congo, Danube, Fraser, Ganges, Mississippi, and the six largest arctic rivers. The study employs a holistic approach to assess the impact of environmental change on chemical transport from land to the oceans. The world’s twelfth largest river, the Mekong is not currently a part of the project, although there are plans to incorporate it in the future.
For eight days, the scientists cruised downriver from Vientiane, Laos, while working to build new partnerships and plan new projects, presenting and listening to lectures, and becoming familiar with the Mekong region. Two other WHRC experts on the trip were Assistant Scientist Marcia Macedo, who usually works on the Amazon Basin, and Senior Geospatial Analyst and chief cartographer Greg Fiske.
Dr. Macedo was particularly interested in the comparison between the Mekong and the Amazon and the large number of hydroelectric dams being constructed in both regions. The researchers found it hard to accept the fact that nearly a dozen new dams are planned along the Mekong, as, said Dr. Macedo, “dam building causes deforestation and degradation of the landscape and has a devastating impact on biodiversity.”
Above all, the floating workshop was a rare opportunity for the scientists to connect with local and regional collaborators and build new partnerships. As Max Holmes put it, “Having scientists from nine nations on the trip, including four from countries with territory in the Mekong watershed, made for an extraordinarily rich exchange of ideas and laid the foundation for exciting future collaborations.” The Mekong River trip was made possible through generous donations of individuals and foundations.
WHRC’s Bayesian statistics and modeling workshop
For two weeks this month, twenty-five students gathered in the WHRC Harbourton Auditorium for a course on Bayesian statistics and modeling. The instructor, Dr. N. Thompson Hobbs, Senior Research Scientist at Colorado State University’s Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, is an expert on the technique of presenting statistical evidence and author of the recent book, Bayesian Models: A Statistical Primer for Ecologists. The workshop, which was organized by WHRC Research Associate Kathleen Savage, included students from the Woods Hole scientific institutions – MBL, WHOI, USGS, NOAA-Fisheries, and WHRC.
The students, who ranged from research assistants to principal investigators, were from such diverse backgrounds as experts on the acoustics of marine mammals in the Antarctic Ocean, fish population dynamics, and those involved in studies of land use change in the Amazon and Africa and permafrost melt in the Arctic. In the words of University of Alaska master’s student, Ludda Ludwig, “Tom Hobbs is teaching us Bayesian statistics not just as a tool but as a philosophy for scientists. We are learning Bayesian statistics from the inside-out: how to derive the formulas and code each step of the process in order to gain a deep understanding. All the while,” she said, “these lessons are tied into the roots of what it means to be a scientist: to build an understanding of our systems, and to quantify and reduce uncertainty.”
Coastal and Ocean Acidification Roundtable held at WHRC
WHRC’s Scientist Emeritus Thomas Stone, US Rep. Bill Keating (D-MA), and Massachusetts State Rep. Tim Madden (D-Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Falmouth) organized the Coastal and Ocean Acidification Roundtable held at WHRC on March 28. Its primary purposes were for policymakers to gain better understanding of the science and economic impacts of ocean acidification (OA) and to understand policies being implemented in different regions.
The roundtable consisted of a panel of scientists, economic stakeholders, policy experts and legislators, to discuss the issue of excessive carbon dioxide in the oceans and its effects on bays and estuaries. Among the panelists was Washington State Sen. Kevin Ranker, who helped create a blue ribbon commission to study losses in the shellfish industry created by Pacific Ocean acidification, and he praised Rep. Madden’s similar action. The roundtable built on a previous conference organized by Mr. Stone in 2014, after which Rep. Madden filed legislation to create a special ocean acidification commission to study the economic effects of OA on the region.
In his welcoming remarks, WHRC President Phil Duffy praised Congressman Keating’s “record of sustained leadership on environmental and energy issues.” Dr. Duffy said that in order to alleviate ocean acidification, support must be given to “local, national, and international measures to reduce emissions of CO2, the primary driver of ocean acidification. Solving climate change would also solve ocean acidification,” he added, “so, calling attention to ocean acidification helps WHRC in our quest to address climate change.” Dr. Duffy reiterated that the work of WHRC on increasing storage of carbon in land reservoirs helps to address OA, adding that “ocean acidification affects our community and our region, and, as part of the community, we want to do what we can to address this issue of local concern.”
Among the attendees at the conference were federal officials, educators, scientists, community leaders, and local media. The posters on studies of ocean acidification by two Falmouth public school students were selected for display at the roundtable.
WHRC / T3C Joint Earth Day Celebration: Trees for the Earth
On Friday, April 22, at 1 p.m., everyone is invited to join The 300 Committee and WHRC in celebration of Earth Day. There will be an interpretive walk for at Peterson Farm led by Falmouth naturalist Molly Cornell, who will discuss the critical role that trees play in our environment. All ages will enjoy refreshments and activities, as well as seeing the farm in spring, with its sheep, lambs, and llama. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHRC Community Lecture: Crazy weather and the arctic meltdown: How are they connected?
Dr. Jennifer Francis will be the speaker at a WHRC public lecture on Thursday, May 12, at 5:30 p.m. Dr. Francis, a research professor at the Rutgers University Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences, studies climate change in the Arctic. She has found that the warming of the Arctic may be changing the jet stream, thus leading to unusual weather around the world. She has given numerous presentations and interviews on extreme weather. A reception will follow the lecture. For reservations and further information, contact email@example.com.
WHRC Summer Film Series
WHRC will present a series of films on climate change during the summer months. Stay tuned for more information in our May newsletter.
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Woods Hole Research Center is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the causes and effects of climate change to identify and implement opportunities for conservation, restoration, and economic development around the world.