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Preparing for hell and high water

An international team of climate and social scientists say a new approach to climate preparedness is essential to help people adjust to coming changes

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November 07, 2013 Share This!

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Changes are already happening to Earth's climate due to the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and large-scale agriculture. As changes get more pronounced, people everywhere will have to adjust. In this week's issue of the journal Science, an international group of researchers urge the development of science needed to manage climate risks and capitalize on unexpected opportunities.

"Adapting to an evolving climate is going to be required in every sector of society, in every region of the globe. We need to get going, to provide integrated science if we are going to meet the challenge," said senior scientist Richard Moss of the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "In this article, we describe the foundations for this research and suggest measures to establish it."

Climate preparedness research needs to integrate social and climate science, engineering, and other disciplines. It prepares for impacts by determining who and what are most vulnerable to changes and by considering ways to adapt.

"Science for adaptation starts with understanding decision-making processes and information needs, determining where the vulnerabilities are, and then moves to climate modeling. A final step tracks whether adaptation is effective," said Moss, who is based at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a collaboration between PNNL in Richland, Wash. and the University of Maryland.

The article grew out of a workshop held in August 2012 at the Aspen Global Change Institute in Aspen, Colo., on how to improve support for decision-making in the face of a changing climate. The authors arrived at this approach to guide preparedness research based on the need to reduce the risks that climate change presents.

"The need to adapt and adjust is going to be global," said Moss. "We need a flexible, integrated approach that merges theoretical and problem-oriented sciences around four general challenges."

The four challenges are:

  • Understanding what information is needed to make decisions about adapting to climate change
  • Identifying vulnerabilities in society, the economy and the environment
  • Improving forecasts and climate models in ways that can address specific problems
  • Providing technology, management, and policy options for adapting

As an example of how practical and basic research can work together, Moss described work in the U.S. involving water utilities, university scientists, and private firms to pilot use of climate models and water utility modeling to design resilient water systems.

"This research is motivated by a practical challenge, ensuring reliable water supplies. Among the scientific advances that will be required is better integration of weather and climate models to improve decadal climate information to help people plan," Moss said.

Bringing together diverse disciplines at the Aspen workshop allowed the international team to explore all facets of adaptation, including less examined ones such as how scientific information is (and isn't) used in making decisions.

"Traditionally we think that what society needs is better predictions. But at this workshop, all of us - climate and social scientists alike - recognized the need to consider how decisions get implemented and that climate is only one of many factors that will determine how people will adapt," he said.

The focus on problem-solving could open up new sources of funding as well, sources such as non-governmental organizations, industry — any group with specific problems that adaptation science could solve.

"We will make a virtue of necessity," said Moss.

Funding for the Aspen workshop was provided by NASA.

Reference: R.H. Moss, G.A. Meehl, M.C. Lemos, J.B. Smith, J.R. Arnold, J.C. Arnott, D. Behar, G.P. Brasseur, S.B. Broomell, A.J. Busalacchi, S. Dessai, K.L. Ebi, J.A. Edmonds, J. Furlow, L. Goddard, H.C. Hartmann, J.W. Hurrell, J.W. Katzenberger, D.M. Liverman, P.W. Mote, S.C. Moser, A. Kumar, R.S. Pulwarty, E.A. Seyller, B.L. Turner II, W.M. Washington, T.J. Wilbanks. Hell and High Water: Practice-Relevant Adaptation Science, Science November 8, 2013, DOI:10.1126/science.1239569.

The Joint Global Change Research Institute is a unique partnership formed in 2001 between the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland. The PNNL staff associated with the center is world renowned for expertise in energy conservation and understanding of the interactions between climate, energy production and use, economic activity and the environment.

Tags: Environment, Fundamental Science, Climate Science

PNNL LogoPacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on signature capabilities in chemistry, earth sciences, and data analytics to advance scientific discovery and create solutions to the nation's toughest challenges in energy resiliency and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. DOE's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit PNNL's News Center. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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