Climate scientists take a look at extreme weather at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) and 2023

Climate scientists take a look at extreme weather at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) and 2023

2023 is the hottest year in at least 174 years and recent months have been the hottest in 125,000 years. All this warming has led to deadly heat waves, disease outbreaks, floods, droughts, and record low ice levels around Antarctica.

This year's extreme weather stems in part from natural variability, including a strong El Niño warming pattern in the Pacific that has reshaped weather around the world. But under these cycles, humanity's voracious appetite for coal, oil and natural gas causes concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere to rise to levels not seen on Earth in three million years.

This year may be the first time annual temperatures rise 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above the global average at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, almost every country in the world agreed to prevent the planet's average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, and strive to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. One year above this level does not mean that this goal is toast, but if people continue to warm the planet, a year like 2023 will become one of the coolest years we will see in the rest of our lives.

Earlier this month, leaders from around the world concluded the largest climate conference in history aimed at preventing that outcome. The COP28 meeting in the United Arab Emirates produced an agreement that explicitly calls on countries to reduce the use of fossil fuels for the first time and provide more money to countries facing devastation worsened by global warming. But commitments made so far are still insufficient to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C, and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Half a world away, scientists studying this warming and its consequences gathered at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. Climate change is not an abstract idea for these researchers, and many of them are observing it in real time, often in areas of personal interest to them. Looking back at the hottest year on record, and what little humanity has done about it, some are thinking about how their work fits into that. From declining ice in the Arctic to rising demand for air conditioning, scientists have their finger on the pulse of the world. Planet brings a mixture of optimism, awe, and urgency as they strive to make their research practical in the real world.

The researchers are presenting their latest findings on posters at the 2023 American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting.
Omair Irfan/Fox

I spoke with seven researchers studying Earth's changes from different angles. Their comments below have been edited slightly.

Daniel Schindler of the University of Washington researches how climate change will affect aquatic ecosystems, including Alaskan salmon, chinook, and chum salmon. He was one of several scientists who presented the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2023 Arctic Report Card at the conference. The Arctic has warmed four times faster than the rest of the planet, and this year, the region experienced its warmest summer since 1900 (when record-keeping began), with knock-on effects such as the worst wildfire season on record in Canada. As negotiators in the UAE debated the future of the planet, Schindler pointed out that the effects of climate change are underway, and are already reshaping ecosystems and human societies:

I think the reality is, if you look at western Alaska, climate change is not something that's coming somewhere in the future. It's happening now, it's been happening for decades. Whether you're talking about fish, people, or birds, there are real impacts we have to deal with now.

And when you hear about what's happening at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), there may be reason for optimism. But the reality is that we need to take action on the ground now, not necessarily to defeat climate change immediately, but to deal with the fact that we will face challenges because of it, now and for decades to come, so we need to act now at local levels.

Rick Thoman, who studies climate and weather in Alaska at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, echoed the call for more immediate steps to deal with global warming, noting that the Arctic was at the forefront of climate change long before it reached the extremes seen this year. year. The communities there may have important lessons for the rest of the world:

As Alaskans, and as people of the Arctic, we live this change every day. We have no choice, no choice at all, but to deal with what is happening. We need big picture solutions, but everyone – Indigenous communities, all Arctic people – has to adapt here, now. The day didn't start. It didn't start yesterday. This has been going on for years. Listen to the elders. This change has been happening for decades, changes on the scale of a century. The peoples of the Arctic are still here and we will remain here.

Sarah Cooley, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, studies how climate change is changing ice in places like coastal Alaska, and she has found that when you zoom in, the way climate change affects people can be very complex. How ice melts and its impacts on communities can vary greatly, even in neighboring areas. As COP28 continues to fail to meet global climate goals, Cooley also looks at how the success or failure of international negotiations will play out on the ground:

In this broader context of climate warming, ice loss, thawing permafrost, coastal erosion threats, and sea level rise, this is a kind of giant signal that every person experiences differently depending on their interaction with their environment.

I'm really excited to be able to do locally relevant research. One of the things we've done in this project is we're thinking about how to translate the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement into local experiences on the ground. If you tell someone that the Earth will warm by 1.5°C or 2°C, that is an incredibly abstract concept because the difference between two degrees means nothing to us. But if you can translate the experience of a 2 degree warming into an actual experience on Earth that is very local – say 30 days of ice lost for 50 days of ice, that's huge for someone living on Earth. A community losing a month of ice versus losing two months of ice – that to me is a really interesting piece of work where we can kind of take big, broad numbers that are really abstract and bring them down to a local experience.

Robert Greene, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is leading a project to track mineral dust using instruments on the International Space Station. This is an important mechanism that can change air quality, the flow of nutrients across the planet, and the amount of sunlight reaching Earth, which can cool the planet. Green also monitors methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 30 times more likely to warm than carbon dioxide. At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), countries made new pledges to reduce methane, and Green said scientists can help them achieve their goals:

We can tell people where the main sources of methane are, where leaks are occurring, and give people the information needed to address those leaks. This is a very important thing to do. No one wants to waste money through a pipeline leak. Let's go ahead and fix those leaks, and also reduce the impact of methane on climate change.

I'm passionate about making a difference. I am an optimistic person, and we can work together to address this problem. It's not an easy problem, but the pieces are coming together. So I will remain optimistic.

A man on stage next to the International Space Station projection

Scientist Robert Greene presents a NASA project to track mineral dust and other materials from the International Space Station.
Omair Irfan/FOX

Stepp Mayes, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, studies how people use electricity and the consequences for climate and health. He recently studied the increasing demand for air conditioning as rising temperatures and stresses affect the power grid. As temperatures rise, people install more cooling systems, run them longer, and operate them during hotter times of the day. This often happens when the power grid struggles the most to provide electricity. This year's extreme heat combined with record energy demand suggests this work will become even more important:

Makes me nervous. There's a lot of crossover because we're all focused on looking at the relationship between temperature, air conditioner use, and air conditioner penetration. I think people are responding directly to rising temperatures, and I think we'll see that continue as temperatures continue to rise, as our dependence on air conditioning — as a public health issue, as a grid issue — becomes greater and greater.

Alia Griffith, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, studies the infrastructure of coral reefs around places like Barbados, from satellites and from the water. Griffith is also the founder and CEO of Mahogany Mermaids, a non-profit organization that works to encourage women of color to pursue careers in science, especially in aquatic fields. This year's extreme temperatures, including ocean heatwaves, have renewed their resolve to:

My family is from Barbados. Not only does this make me feel more motivated to answer questions from a scientist's perspective, but how can we help coral reefs? How can we understand what they need and what they are experiencing? – but also: what do communities need? How can we engage with their local governments, their local institutions, and understand where they can be leveraged? You have to really respect a lot of work and effort they have already put in to see what can change in the future.

Gordon Walker, a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, studies ancient climate, especially how past shifts in climate and weather affected historical events. For example, changing climatic conditions in Africa and the Caribbean were a factor in the slave trade and may have played a role in uprisings. For Walker, climate's role in periods of historical turmoil increases the urgency of the need to fill data gaps as climate breaks records, particularly in regions experiencing the most severe impacts of global warming today:

For me – I focus on the Caribbean and Africa, the transatlantic slave trade, climate variability associated with those regions and the historical event of the trade – I think it's important for us to collect data on regions in the Global South – the Caribbean, South America, Africa – because a lot of the science Research focuses on the northern hemisphere.

I think it's necessary, especially in areas where we don't have a lot of data, to start collecting data and applying the powers or analysis tools that we have with regard to climate in the Global South. Because a lot of countries in those regions are not necessarily resource poor in terms of raw materials but they are resource poor in terms of economies and have the capacity to respond to climate extremes. So I think the more time we have for forecasts based on studying the past, the better those countries will be able to respond, especially those with limited economies, compared to the countries of the Global North.

(tags for translation)climate

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