From increasingly acidic oceans to melting snowpack, researchers have identified several major trends related to climate change. Anthony Socci, senior fellow at the American Meteorological Society, explains the growing body of research on the effects of global warming, including whether warmer oceans are linked to stronger hurricanes. Socci also discusses the outlook for further federal research on climate change, and where he thinks government efforts should be headed.
Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Anthony Socci, senior fellow at the American Meteorological Society. Tony thanks a lot for being here.
Anthony Socci: Thanks Brian.
Brian Stempeck: Just to give a little background about your group first, AMS has got 11,000 professionals as members and it publishes a scientific journal. And last week you basically had an event where you talked about climate change and how it might be affecting hurricanes and you heard from three experts. Tell us what you heard about at that event.
Anthony Socci: Well let me take it step by step. The AMS, backing up a little bit, publishes nine journals from weather and climate all the way to oceans and stuff like that. So it's a pretty broad sweep of research journals that they sponsor. Now we hosted an event last week as you know on hurricanes and in that event we tried to sort of bring forward the new information that's out there on hurricane intensity. It wasn't necessarily billed as a global warming event, but most of the sort of discussion circled around the climate sort of ties that there might be. Kerry Emanuel I think was our feature presenter at that. He's one of the world's leading experts on hurricanes and tropical storms. He came out with this index called the power, basically it's a potential destructiveness of hurricanes index. He calls it the PDI. What it is is it tracks the power in hurricanes, from the beginning when they spawn, up to when they blow out, in other words when all of the power is gone, total throughput. And when he does that and he looks back at the last 30 years or more at hurricane history data and so on, he finds that the intensity has gone up. In other words if you look at the average annualized peak wind speed in these storms it's gone up by about 50 percent in the North Atlantic and the North Pacific. In addition the storms are lasting longer so it adds to this power that he's talking about. So he sees a remarkably large increase in the power of these storms over the last 30 years, 35 years.
Brian Stempeck: Now you also heard, at this conference, you also heard from Judy Curry from Georgia Tech and also Kevin Trenberth from the National Center on Atmospheric Research. And it seems like there's a lot more studies coming out on the subject, but how close are you to basically drawing that line from global warming and warmer ocean to climate change? I mean talking about there are more stronger storms. I know there's talk of that being part of an overall cycle as well.
Anthony Socci: Yeah, that's true. There is discussion of these natural sort of decadal scale oscillations and longer events that are largely natural or for the most part natural. There's some discussion as well as to whether or not these things, what are they exactly? There's some discussion even taking on the perspective that are these real, these natural oscillations? And the reason I say that is because in Kerry Emanuel's data in particular he notices that the Northern Hemisphere temperature trend over the last 35, 50 years or so tracks very well over the sea surface temperature in the tropics, tracks very well with the Northern temperature trend, which is a much larger signal than just the tropical sea surface temperature. And his argument basically is that that's surprising that it tracks so well. In other words if you have all of this natural variability in terms of these decadal scale oscillations, why is it tracking so well with this longer term signal that covers the entire northern hemisphere? So there's some question about it. I mean it has to be, it's probably a research issue that's going to be talked about for a long time to come.
Brian Stempeck: Now on this panel you basically had three experts who have all kind of drawn this link between hurricanes and climate change, at least in kind of growing consensus on that issue. Why did you decide not to have anybody on the panel who might have the opposing point of view there? There are experts out there quoted in the press recently who have said that maybe this isn't the case. We're jumping too soon here when we're talking about climate change affecting hurricanes. Why not somebody from the opposing side?
Anthony Socci: Well the information at hand that was produced by these two camps, Judith Currie et al, that's Peter Webster and his group, and Kerry Emanuel, it was relatively new stuff. It had just come out. And we have wanted to capture, one, the timeliness of that because it generated a lot of discussion. But it takes time for a more reasoned discussion to develop within the scientific community. In other words it needs time to sort of brew. Sort of like a cup of coffee, you need to sort of let it cook for awhile before…while there may have been a lot of knee jerk reactions to it. And say, you know, I don't believe that or I don't believe this. I think it was too soon to get a coherent reaction. So we wanted to capture the newness of this for one. We thought it had climatological overtones as opposed to sort of, it related to weather, but it was largely, I think, given the scale of the observations and the time scales involved, more of a climatological discussion. And it's not that we tried to exclude anybody. Having three people in a discussion that lasts roughly an hour, with some time for questions, we're pushing it. And it's not the last time we'll have at this issue. We'll go at this again undoubtedly, in various ways. So this is just one discussion, one time and we'll come back at it again.
Brian Stempeck: Your group has also had discussions in the past year, looking at the acidity of oceans because of climate change and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, also talking about some of the snow pack melting in certain areas because of global warming. Tell us about the findings from those as well. These seem to be impacts that are happening right now, as opposed to some of the further out type of effects of climate change.
Anthony Socci: Right. Well the one on the ocean acidity, for example, lots of folks have realized from ocean chemistry for a long time that if you get a lot of increased CO2, for example, in the atmosphere, the sea surface exchanges gases with the atmosphere. So if you pump up the amount in the atmosphere you should expect that some part of that will be added to the surface of the ocean because of its capacity to hold it. So there is an equilibrium that is being sought after here between the atmosphere and the oceans. So the story goes the more CO2 you add or the oceans can hold in the upper surface in particular, the more acidic the ocean gets, quite literally. It turns into a slightly acid liquid. And the ecologists are somewhat concerned that this bodes, this has a potential risk for those organisms that develop skeletons out of calcium carbonate. In other words because acids, as you know, will dissolve calcium carbonate. We see that in limestone buildings today. The rain is a perfect example of acid dissolving limestone right front of our eyes. The same concern is held for organisms that secrete calcium carbonate shells, all the way from plankton, these tiny microscopic things, to clams and things like that. But I think there's a lot of concern for corals as well. So we don't know. I think the science community doesn't know the implications of that with respect to the ecosystems, but it's concerned that there might be.
Brian Stempeck: Now when we hear from scientist talking about climate change it seems like a lot of time they're talking about effects that are going to happen 50 years from now, 100 years from now, certain temperatures are going to go up. And it seems like a lot of times that message can get lost on the American people or people listening to this debate. If you had to just kind of break down the effects of climate change that are going to happen in the next one year, the next five years, in people's kind of immediate lifetime, what do you see as the most immediate effects?
Anthony Socci: Of climate change, well you know it's hard to take any one event and say absolutely climate change and so on and so forth. I'd rather back up and take a broader perspective on it. In other words, ask yourself the question, if we are agreed that we have a climate change underway, and the National Academy of Sciences seems to agree with that premise, that we are in fact in the midst of a climate change or warming. That's affecting the atmosphere. And the question I think you have to ask yourself is is it possible to have a climate warming that alters the atmosphere as we know it and we've got more water vapor in the atmosphere now because of its greater capacity being warmer. Can storms, for example large storms, go unaffected by that? Not necessarily any one or any ten or any twenty, but in an altered regime would you suppose that things would change? The dynamics would change? And while there is no concrete answer I mean I think the suggestion is that you would expect some changes.
Brian Stempeck: So talking about basically more of the extreme weather events that we've been seeing, that sort of thing?
Anthony Socci: More precip for example, when you have precipitation. There tends to be more moisture in the atmosphere, more available moisture to come down in the form of precip. I think there are statistics out there now showing that we've seen various increases in precip related to individual storms and so on and so forth. So I think some of that there are observations on.
Brian Stempeck: Right now the federal government basically has the climate change science program and a number of organizations where it's directing research on climate change. You've been active on these kinds of federal programs in the past. Where do you see as the big holes right now that more research needs to be done? And I guess do you think the federal government right now is going in the right direction?
Anthony Socci: Well, the last question I'll put off for a while.
Brian Stempeck: All right.
Anthony Socci: The first question, where the research should be. Obviously the linkages between climate and weather is probably a linkage to pursue on research front as well. In other words it's clear that weather, as we know it and forecasting, from a climatological perspective seems to be now a combination of some knowledge of oceanography, meteorology for sure, climate, because all of these things seem to be playing in concert with one another. One process doesn't get left out. And so you need a much broader more integrated kind of approach to the whole art or skill of forecasting for example. So I think there's going to be, hopefully, more research along those lines. And look at climate as a spectrum of, or climate and weather as a spectrum. You know when you start from weather, weather is what you see. The way climate plays out it will play out as weather. But there is this sort of dynamic spectrum, in other words processes. How does it all work? What's driving it? And how do you go from this scale or from that process here to this process here, to an individual storm or a series of storms for a season? And I think that's where a lot of research should be focused.
Brian Stempeck: Is there any place in particular that you think the government is not putting enough resources towards?
Anthony Socci: Boy, that's a good question. Well people could always argue that there's not enough money for research across the board and I think the science community would always make that argument. NSF's budget, for example, I think is down this year fairly significantly, the National Science Foundation. So they would always like to have much more money on hand to do basic research and more focused research. So I think the science community would always feel that there is more research needed on a number of fronts. And certainly when you start looking at the complexity of trying to make disciplines integrate and you're weaving those together to produce a better product or a better understanding of where we're going down the road. It's not an easy inexpensive, and it's not philosophically easy. It's hard for somebody in a discipline to start taking on another discipline and another discipline and trying to sort of integrate that. It's a tough thing to do.
Brian Stempeck: All right. Tony we're out of time. We're going to stop there. Thanks a lot for coming on the show.
Anthony Socci: Thanks Brian.
Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.
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