Drought may or may not be linked

Climate change will result in extreme weather conditions


— As Colorado's extreme drought conditions explode into wildfires and reduce water supplies around the state, thoughts of global warming may have entered the minds of local residents.

Scientists have said one result of climate change, besides higher average temperatures, could be more extreme weather events such as drought and floods.

But leading climate researchers are not quick to link the state's current drought to larger climate shifts that are expected to take place as early as the next several decades.

"Was this drought caused by human actions? Nobody knows," said Richard Somerville, a professor of meteorology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "But the fact that there is extensive drought is a sign of the type of extreme weather we might have in coming decades."

Somerville was one of about two dozen leading climate change researchers who met in Steamboat Springs last week as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fifth institute for its postdoctoral program in climate and global change.

The senior scientists were joined by 17 budding climate and global change researchers who recently won research funding from the program.

Despite the strong scientific consensus that climate change is occurring and is at least partially caused by human activities, there are still many unanswered questions in climate change research.

Managers of the NOAA program said the purpose of the program is to help prepare the next generation of scientists who will be asking and answering key climate change questions of the future.

"We are training the top people. This is a very competitive program," said Meg Austin, the director of visiting scientists program at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which is managing the NOAA postdoctoral program.

"These are the future leaders of climate research," Austin said.

The program was started 12 years ago, and with a budget of about $1 million, it provides two years of funding and other support for young scientists. Each year, the program accepts eight researchers who have just finished their doctorates.

The program's summer institute, which takes place every other year in Steamboat, gives program participants a chance to present their climate change research and meet other experts in the field.

Austin said that this interaction is especially helpful for climate change research, which frequently integrates studies in areas as diverse as ocean circulation, plant biology and atmospheric chemistry.

The program participants agreed the institute is a key part of the program.

"This conference is sort of a community building as much as anything else," said Elisabeth Moyer, an atmospheric chemist who has used her first year of funding from the program to do research at Harvard University.

During the last day of the institute, Moyer presented her research to track how water vapor in the upper atmosphere might influence climate change.

She said NOAA's postdoctoral program has made it easier for her to focus on a research question that intrigues her.

"It's really helpful to have independent money, especially when you have an idea," Moyer said. "The program is great for letting young people pursue science ideas of their own instead of being worker bees for someone else."

Several scientists at the institute said that continued support of researchers is crucial but that there is already enough scientific understanding to act on climate change, such as decreasing human contributions to climate change and preparing for future climate changes.

According to the International Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative voice on climate change research, the world has been warming and experiencing other climate shifts over the past century.

The panel has also said human activities, such as the emissions of heat-trapping gases through burning fossil fuels, are at least partly responsible for the changes.

These climate changes could mean very different things to different parts of the world, scientists say.

For Steamboat Springs, Somerville said an obvious result of climate change could be changes in the amount and type of precipitation. For example, the area could receive less precipitation, or could receive more rain and less snow than usual, both of which could have a serious impact on local economies.

The fact that climate has changed on its own in the distant past does not mean that people should ignore how they currently are influencing climate, said Daniel Schrag, a researcher in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University who brought a long-term view to the institute.

"It has changed before," Schrag said, referring to climate. "The question is whether humans can adapt to these changes."

Schrag's opinion is that unless people modify their current behavior now, the world won't be ready for the shifts in climate that the next few decades could bring.


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