The Temperature Puzzle

Researchers rally to build a picture of climate change for society.


February 21, 2019

By Ian Vorster

It struck hard in the early hours of the morning. Charles Gore, an elderly member of his neighborhood civic league in Norfolk, Virginia, woke to the sound of wind wrestling his waterfront home. The outer edge of Hurricane Isabel had arrived. Glancing outside at Broad Creek, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, Gore noticed that his pier was covered in seething whitecaps. He knew then it was too late to evacuate.

Considered to be ground zero for sea level rise in North America, Norfolk has hundreds of homes like Gore’s that risk flooding during a significant weather event. The water comes bubbling back up the storm drains into the streets to overflow curbs and lawns, driveways and porch steps. Gore, whose garage and crawl space has flooded a number of times, knows that when his pier is covered with water, the street that accesses his home will be flooded. The pier serves as his exit-gauge.

The city of Norfolk calls it “recurrent flooding.” Elsewhere it is known as “nuisance flooding.” Sea level rise is the cause, regardless of what it is branded.

Children play in recurrent flooding caused by sea level rise along the streets in front of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. (Photo: Skyler Ballard/ Chesapeake Bay Program)

Research into both the cause and effect of sea level rise, reduced snowpack and other aspects of climate change has earned four scientists in Oregon State University’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences authorships on the last two and the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — or IPCC — assessment reports. They are Distinguished Professors Peter Clark and Alan Mix, Professor Phillip Mote and Assistant Professor David Wrathall.

The IPCC has published assessment reports in 1990, 1995, 2001, 2007 and 2013. The sixth will be completed in 2022. Clark was a coordinating lead author of the chapter Sea Level Change for the fifth report, and Mote was a lead author on chapters in the fourth and fifth reports, assessing observed changes in the cryosphere. For the sixth report, Mix is a lead author on the chapter Ocean, Cryosphere and Sea Level Change,and Wrathall, a geographer, is a lead author on the chapter Poverty, Livelihoods, and Sustainable Development.

Although long interested in past climate change, Clark first fully appreciated the effects of current climate change while taking measurements on the Collier Glacier in the Oregon Cascades in the late 1980s. “To see firsthand the dramatic retreat that one of Oregon’s largest glaciers was experiencing was a real eyeopener,” Clark says. “It was clear that something unusual was happening.”

Rapidly receding glaciers are one fingerprint of global warming. Others include melting ice sheets, groundwater draining into oceans and warming of oceans that consequently expand. These all contributed to sea level rise just shy of 8 inches for the 20th century. The next century will witness exponentially more, according to the IPCC.

“One analogy for global warming and sea level rise is this: It’s like putting a pot of water on a burner and turning it on,” Clark says. “The pot of water is your ice sheet or glacier. It doesn’t reach the boiling point immediately. Similarly, putting so much carbon into the atmosphere so quickly is like turning the burner up. And it takes much longer for the glaciers and ice sheets to melt.”

The message behind the pot-on-the-burner metaphor is that the world has turned the carbon burner on and is not doing anything to dial it back. “So, the way in which we are emitting greenhouse gases now will have extremely long-term consequences,” Clark emphasizes.

Coal powered electricity plants like this one in Sweden symbolize society’s struggle to curb carbon emissions. (Photo: Thomas Hafeneth)

Aside from the obvious — increased emissions — what has changed the most since the early days of climate change science, and how has it affected the findings? With an “Oh, boy” exclamation, Mix responds, “We’ve had total revolutions in the amount of data we can produce… it’s gone up by factors of hundreds — thousands in some cases. And how we can analyze the data, that’s also changed. Computers are so much better. Nobody had sampled whole swaths of the world, which has now been done.”

He relates early computer power to working on a complex 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle — with about 90 percent of the pieces laying on the floor. And the cover image defaced. But now, computer-operated machines (like mass spectrometers) generate data, and a flood of information is gathered from remote sensors, satellites and robotic floats in the ocean to produce more evidence. This makes it possible for researchers to construct a framework to ask the right questions.

Building a Picture of Climate Change

The IPCC is both a scientific and intergovernmental body consisting of 195 nations. It was established under the auspices of the United Nations to review and assess the most current scientific, technical and socio-economic information produced worldwide concerning climate change. Each assessment report cycle equates to a four-year literature survey. The process produces three 1,500-page tomes that summarize the findings of three working groups. The first deals with the physical science underlying climate change; the second with impacts, adaptation and vulnerability; and the third with curbing greenhouse gas emissions, or what is known as mitigation.

Each scientist volunteers a significant amount of his or her professional time — around 10 percent for leads and 25 percent for coordinating leads — for four years.

Mote describes how the groups summarize and assess climate change science for policymakers from the world’s governments as he reflects on the 2013 report.

The process began with IPCC approval of the outline. While the IPCC has high-level oversight of the process, the task of producing the assessment reports falls to the three independent working groups, says Mote. Those groups consist of review editors, coordinating lead authors and lead authors. The timeline for the 2013 assessment was approved in 2009; the authors were selected early in 2010, meeting for the first time later the same year. Each group collates and assesses the findings of all published climate change research characterized by specific subjects like observations of the atmosphere, ocean and cryosphere; understanding of biogeochemical cycles, clouds and aerosols; and human-induced climate change. The 2013 report included these along with seven other topical chapters.

Mainly based on the reports prepared for the fourth assessment, the IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, after which, as Mote somewhat wryly notes, “A bunch of the authors then said to the IPCC, ‘Look, we’ve now produced four of these. We’ve made comprehensive reports, boiled them down into hard-hitting statements saying humans are changing the climate. It’s going to get worse unless we try to stop it. You know that. Please fix it.’”

Less snowpack and receding glaciers are two fingerprints of climate change. (Photo: Garret Sears)

Mote’s primary research interest is snow in the Northwest. From this perspective, the main climate-related threats the states are dealing with are changes in snowmelt and consequently water flow. A warmer planet means less snowpack in the mountains in the winter. And the snow that is there melts earlier in the spring. Plants start growing sooner, which dries the ground up, and watersheds consequently end up with lower stream flow and higher fire risk in the summer. Droughts will then start sooner.

OSU’s Wrathall pursued his Ph.D. under another IPCC author, Mark Pelling at King’s College in London. The geographer recalls that his adviser served as a lead author on the urban chapter for the fifth assessment in 2013. The specific impact on cities with large concentrations of poor and vulnerable people is now a key area of concern, with sea level rise driving much of it.

“It’s a pivotal time for the IPCC,” Wrathall says, as both society and the body try to reorient to a new focus on the human costs of climate change. He lists some of the questions the group will try to answer: How much is this going to cost? How much is this going to hurt us, and when? “The human dimensions of climate change were emphasized in the last assessment, and they appear to be the main emphasis for the next one,” Wrathall says. “To justify policy, the authors need to have an extremely high level of confidence that the planet is in trouble. Concerning the physical dimensions of climate change, the basic facts are abundantly clear.”

The next step, explains Wrathall, is to develop a science-based understanding of what has already been lost, what has been damaged and how people can expect to adapt. He adds, “What we’re starting to see now, is how, when people are prepared, they have the capacity to adapt and can successfully avoid the pain and the suffering and the loss and the damage.”

Focusing on Key Messages

Coordinating lead authors and a few lead authors from each chapter attended a final five-day plenary in 2013 to present the summary for policymakers to government delegates from around the world. The working group co-chairs and chapter representatives were seated on the stage while almost 400 policymakers comprised the audience. Proceedings were tense.

A review of online videos reveals the mood in the room. Most delegates had open laptops before them, with glowing screens shining on their concentrating faces. A few appeared bored; others were more engaged.

Delegates were given the opportunity to comment on the summary report. The painstaking process worked through the report word by word by word. The goal was to refine 1,500 pages of scientific findings into a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred 25-page report containing the most policy-relevant findings that would be understood by politicians — the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”

A word count for the summary was posted on a large screen at the front of the auditorium, alongside a chart showing the amount of time that had elapsed. As the week progressed, it became clear that progress was slow, that the pace needed to increase. By Thursday the group was only two-thirds of the way through. It wasn’t unusual to work to 2 a.m. each day. The final session Clark was involved in lasted 24 hours straight, ending with approval of the summary report and thus the 1,500-page assessment report Friday morning.

Clark, who attended the session and felt an extraordinary sense of responsibility regarding sea level rise, sums it up this way, “It was kind of a negotiation. The delegates raised questions. They disagreed. They wanted things reworded. They wanted things to be deleted. They asked us to replace the word ‘very’ with something else.” The scientists responded, explaining how and why the science supported the word or statement in question.

Mote adds that there is a lot of resistance from the OPEC countries — those who produce the world’s fossil fuels. “It gets kind of frenetic,” he says, describing the proceedings. “They’re gaveling down, and they’re pushing back on the wording. And the scientists are considering suggestions for clarity or accuracy.”

But the reports are all built on evidence and the conclusions are inescapable.

Those conclusions are now a fact of life for the elderly Charles Gore of Norfolk, Virginia, and millions of others who are doing their best to cope with the change — or to use the IPCC working groups’ language, “to adapt.”

Coastal cities like Norfolk are working with business chambers, universities, nonprofits and engineering firms around the world to meet the sea level rise challenges that are now inundating their neighborhoods. The civic league Gore belongs to, helped him develop a “rain garden”— a term used to describe a yard engineered to cope with frequent flooding.

Raising houses on stilts, constructing living tidal barriers and buying out neighborhoods to create floodable green spaces are just a few of the schemes currently under investigation as the world waits for its governments to implement the IPCC’s recommendations. As OSU researchers rally to support the next assessment report. As society anticipates the next wave of evidence. As Charles Gore waits for the next storm.

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2 thoughts on “The Temperature Puzzle

  1. Wow!! What an eye opener to learn all the aspects of global warming. I have learned through this report how involved our governments are in keeping us ready for what the future holds. (Or is some cases–not!!)
    I am proud to be an alum of Oregon State University and the bright minds that are trying to prepare us for what will come.

  2. Great article and interesting in that it focuses on the Northwest. I’m going to show this to my son who’s 12. The kids are studying climate change in science class this year (something we never got during the Reagan years!) These climate scientists are doing important work and need our support!

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