Reality check on climate

Illustration by Teresa Hall
Illustration by Teresa Hall

When Bill McKibben kicked off Oregon State University’s Discovery Lecture Series in November, the audience was savvy to his wake-up call regarding climate change. Nearly half of OSU research focuses on Earth systems science. Our scientists study the oceans, the atmosphere, water resources, agriculture and the social sciences. They have documented the signs of a changing climate and continue to refine our understanding of the Earth-ocean-atmosphere system.

McKibben’s concerns have been shared by many in our scientific community. OSU research, which produced one of the earliest atmospheric circulation computer models in the 1980s, confirms that disturbing trends are under way today in our forests, the Cascades and off our coastline. Tree species are showing signs of severe declines across the West. Sea level and maximum wave heights are rising. Ocean acidity has increased about 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Soil moisture is decreasing across much of the world’s temperate food-growing regions.

To McKibben, founder of, a worldwide nonprofit focused on this issue, these changes are evidence of radical human behavior. Addressing them, he said, is an action that is conservative, based on the desire to conserve the planet as a place where human civilization has developed over thousands of years.

Practical Impacts

Our faculty are thinking creatively about how we can mitigate and adapt to these changes. When OSU researchers investigated the alarming decline of larval oyster production several years ago on the Oregon coast, they pinpointed ocean acidification as a causal factor. Their results helped two oyster-seed producers adapt by changing the way they pumped water into their tanks. Production rebounded. George Waldbusser, Burke Hales and Brian Haley in our College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Chris Langdon at the Hatfield Marine Science Center are continuing to investigate the threshold at which oysters, clams and mussels are harmed by increased acidity.

In another example, Richard Waring, OSU professor emeritus, is leading an investigation of long-term forest trends. As tree species decline in their current locations, “connective corridors,” he says, would help them migrate to new areas.

OSU scientists play leading roles internationally. Philip Mote and Peter Clark are lead authors of the 2013 Climate Change Assessment being developed by the pre-eminent body on the subject, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Mote directs the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, and Clark, a geoscientist, studies ice sheets, glaciers and abrupt climate change. OSU economist John Antle was a lead and contributing author on the 2003 and 2007 IPCC reports (as was Mote in 2007). I expect the 2013 report to not only increase global awareness but also to influence policy.

Day-to-day, guided by OSU’s new Research Agenda, we are enhancing our support of faculty and student research to make discoveries that have a positive impact on the world. We take seriously our responsibility to investigate what is changing in our climate and are striving to become wise to what that can mean for the future — in our own backyard as well as around the globe.