New Report on Abrupt Climate Change Calls for Increased Monitoring and Early Warning System

A new National Academy of Science report on climate change has just been made available from its National Research Council, chaired by Professor James White of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. A video replay of the press briefing webcast is now available. Read or download a pdf of the the complete report or view the summary here:

The report, “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises,” draws upon recent research to adjust the timeframe within which certain climate change impacts may happen. It emphasizes the importance of reducing the “abrupt” element of surprise that can occur due to rapid climate change:

“Abrupt change can take place in the physical climate system (termed “abrupt climate change”) and in the physical, biological, or human systems as a result of steady climate change (termed “abrupt climate impacts”).

The primary timescale of concern is years to decades. A key characteristic of these changes is that they can unfold faster than expected, planned for, or budgeted for, forcing a reactive, rather than proactive, mode of behavior. These changes can propagate systemically, rapidly affecting multiple interconnected areas of concern.”

The report “…extends this idea of abrupt climate change, stating that even steady, gradual change in the physical climate system can have abrupt impacts elsewhere — in human infrastructure and ecosystems for example — if critical thresholds are crossed.”

Global press coverage

Press from around the world have given attention to the report. NBC News, ABC News, Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald, the National Geographic News, and The Economic Times of India have covered the report. Richard Harris of NPR’s All Things Considered spoke with Dr. White and other committee members about the report and their findings. Dr. White points out that we should be doing a better job at monitoring the physical environment, such as measuring ocean temperatures. Listen to the four-minute podcast here.

On his New York Times Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin writes:

“Given humanity’s focus on the near and how, the greatest challenge posed by global warming is figuring out how to spur meaningful changes in energy norms based on a risk with this time scale. With that in mind, the new report also looks at abrupt change in societies as well as the climate system.”

Early warning system needed

Of all the findings and recommendations in the report, it’s the call for an “early warning system” that got the most attention from the global press. This warning system would alert societies that a climate-generated emergency event may be imminent. The committee describes the need for a warning system:

“Some surprises in the climate system may be inevitable, but with improved scientific monitoring and a better understanding of the climate system it could be possible to anticipate abrupt change before it occurs and reduce the potential consequences.

Building this ability will require careful monitoring of climate conditions, improved models for projecting changes, and the interpretation and synthesis of scientific data using novel analysis techniques. To address these needs, the committee believes that action is needed to develop an abrupt change early warning system.”

The committee suggests that a new warning system be based on existing early warning systems such as the National Integrated Drought Information System and the Famine Early Warning System Network. These can provide valuable insight into designing an abrupt climate change early warning system. Dr. White states that the report only supplies the “bare bones” of such a system. The committee recommends focusing on expanding the monitoring of existing networks, modeling and testing to improve data collection, and the synthesis of knowledge to improve collaboration.

Dr. White is a featured scientist in Learn More About Climate videos, explaining how and why the climate is changing. To understand more about how climate change is affecting our physical environment, we recommend watching these Learn More About Climate videos.

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