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« Marching in Cancún | Main | Bad process in climate talks, repeat »

December 08, 2010

Measuring the climate: the whether channel

IATP's Steve Suppan is blogging from the United Nations talks on climate change in Cancun.

While the scientific consensus is overwhelming that climate change is occuring, measuring the specific effects on the planet (particularly for agriculture) is quite a bit more difficult than predicting the weather. Presentations of different climate observations systems during the United Nations climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico illustrated many difficulties. Systems data are analyzed by the scientists on the International Panel on Climate Change, which advises government negotiators who are negotiating an agreement on how to combat climate change and who will pay to do so.

Sometimes the difficulties in measuring the climate surprise even the scientists. An audience member from the International Telegraph Union commented that the bandwidth intensity of the near ubiquitous cellphones was now interfering with the bandwidth needed to transmit by satellite the remote sensing data of the oceanic, terrestrial and atmospheric dimensions of climate. Non-scientists, whose access to the Internet and to other colleagues with cellphones was sometimes interrupted in Cancún, appreciated this communications irony.

Keith Alverson of the Global Oceanic Observation System (GOOS) arrived straight from having given a two-minute presentation to the Substantive Body on Scientific and Technical Advice (all statements to the SBSTA and other diplomatic bodies are limited to two minutes). But for nearly 20 minutes he was at leisure to explain the reasons for the many and great uncertainties and data gaps about the oceanic dimension of climate change. Perhaps foremost among GOOS’ concerns were that half of the 3,000 ocean buoy data stations in the seas are damaged and/or disfunctional. The buoy stations estimate ocean current directions, waves speeds, water temperate, phyto-plankton (the bottom of the marine feeding chain) health and prevalence, salinity, tide behavior, sea level rises in different regions, coastal vulnerabilities, water temperatures, oral bleaching, and other oceanic climate measures.

Replacing or repairing them would cost about S1 billion, about the annual bonus of one of the best self-paid hedge fund managers. But even if all the buoys were repaired, only about 62 percent of global oceans would be covered. And even then, many oceanic climate factors would remain unknown, such as how deep sea movements and volcanoes affect the surface sea data that the buoys can measure. As Alverson told SBSTA government delegates and we laypersons, the annual global marine economy is estimated to be worth about $2.7 trillion. So a mere $1 billion seems to be a cheap price to monitor oceanic climate conditions that affect climate change.

Professor Beverly Law, of Oregon State University and the World Meteorological Organizations (WMO), has been monitoring forest soil carbon for about 20 years as the head of the Global Terrestrial Observation System. To build estimates of global carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Law and her colleagues measure soil carbon in test plots every 10 years in spots around the world. Satellite photos of deforestation, the results of the soil carbon tests and computerized modeling of deforestation, wetland loss, peat bog burning and other damage to major Co2 “sinks” enable scientists to estimate CO2 emissions. However, she explained, the modeling uncertainty of CO2 emissions due to land use change has been nearly as large as the emissions measurements themselves from 1960 to 2009.

The degree of uncertainty varies greatly. Uncertainty over the extent of CO2 emissions from boreal forests is just 10-25 percent, depending on the regional data analyzed. However, for tropical forests, the uncertainty is 100 percent. The depth and varieties of tropical forest soils, the far great biodiversity among tropical forests and consequently greater diversity in Co2 emissions rates, and the impossibility for remoting sensing instruments to penetrate tropical forest canopies are among the reasons for the highdegree of uncertainty about CO2 emissions rates in tropical forests. FLUXNET gathers data from observation sites in 45 countries. Only about 155 countries to go! And no wonder that the scientists have so much difficulty in determining the likelihood that sahels will become deserts, or woodlands will become grasslands.

You might think that we know more about atmospheric climate change. After all, we get reports on atmospheric temperature, precipitation, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure etc every night, along with weather-related disasters on the Weather Channel every day and night. But the extent of uncertainty about the atmosphere is such that we might call it the Whether Channel.

The WMO’s Michel Jarraud talked about the uncertainties of converting satellite images into computer data models, then into atmospheric climate analysis and finally into policy recommendations for diplomats and other government officials who have to decide what to do about climate change and how to pay for it. (Of course, those who don’t believe that climate change exists, such as the incoming Republican Party majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, are exempt from this analytic, policymaking and budgetary decision making burden. How much easier is life in "Business As Usual" in the revolving door of U.S. industry lobbyists and government officials, now lubricated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes electoral propaganda and anonymous campaign contributions “equivalent.”

Despite the great success of the UN treaty in closing the hole in the ozone layer that had been exposing us to too much solar radiation, ozone turns out to be a critical variable in better measuring the atmospheric affects of climate change. It didn’t cost so much to close the hole but now it will cost a lot more to predict atmospheric data filtered through different layers and compositions of ozone, to say nothing of the cost of repairing climatic damage and reducing the GHGs that are constituents of ozone.

Just one side event with climate scientists was enough to convince me that the scientific complexity of climate change is a huge communications challenge both to the lay public and to decision-makers. This data is critical to determining future strategies on climate change - particularly as they related to agriculture and food production. Furthermore, data collection and analysis is not cheap, and right now the budgetary austerity advocates are too cheap to pay for the information that could help save the planet.

Ben Lilliston

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