Prepare to be surprised by future climate changes

December 07, 2002

Current debate in the U.S. on climate change often focuses on whether things will really be as bad as scientists say they will be, but according to a Penn State climatologist, perhaps the question we should be asking is, are we confident that things will be as good as they are saying.

"I am not an alarmist," says Dr. Richard B. Alley, the Evan Pugh professor of geosciences at Penn State. "Essentially, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is very good and is doing a very good job." The IPCC is under the auspices of the World Meteorological Organization and operates through the United Nations Environmental Programme.

"What some policy makers are seeing as information on climate change looks nicer than what is likely to happen," Alley said today (Dec. 7) at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. He was the Cesare Emiliani Lecturer at the conference.

His concern is that what eventually gets to policy makers is an executive summary of an executive summary. This diluted, abstracted information nearly always shows a smooth curve. Alley, who is recognized for illuminating the effects of abrupt climate change, is concerned that changes will be quicker and larger than currently predicted. The curve will be rough on a daily, monthly or yearly basis, rather than the smooth curve that appears for predicted aggregate data. So, could changes in the future be bigger than what the models predict they will be?

"If there is one thing we are almost positive of, it is that nature never does anything smoothly," Alley says. "Scientists like to work from models and our current models are really pretty good, but we find that models do not make changes as big as nature did in the past. Models are not as sensitive to change as nature is." He was chair of the National Research Council's Panel on Abrupt Climate Change.

Given that the future could be quite challenging, it would be wise for us to start looking for ways we can bend, rather than break, when climate changes, says Alley. There is ample historic evidence of human groups who refused or were unable to adapt to climatic changes and their societies collapsed or failed, while other groups adapted to the new environment and coped and sometimes thrived.

Policymakers like Congress, federal agencies and even local government who must deal with these changes when they happen should look at ways to plan for changes in water supply, crop production, heating oil demand, flood control and other things likely to be affected by climate change. These groups should establish contingencies to meet problems with scarcity of resources before there is competition for these resources.

"Likely we will be surprised no matter how good our models are, and the IPCC and other governmental groups need to plan for this surprise and deal with resource conflicts in a progressive way," says the Penn State scientist.

Penn State

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