Forget the headlines on the nightly news and the weaether channel. Forget Al Gore at the Oscar podium. Forget Leonardo DiCaprio on Oprah Winfrey. For sheer drama revolving around the issue of global warming the place to be was Paris last month where the United Nations unveiled its most recent, and most alarming, assessment of climate change.
It involved a cast of thousands: More than 1,200 scientists and three of the world’s more powerful supercomputers worked for nearly six years on the report for the United Nation’s Fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The results, in the form of a 21-page summary, were presented to representatives of 131 nations — every populated country on the globe — in Paris in February.
Greenpeace wrapped a “There’s Still Time” banner on the Eiffel Tower, while, nearby, the closed door meeting took place in the headquarters of the United Nation’s UNESCO headquarters. The proceedings took place in English with simultaneous translation into Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish. If you had been there you might have seen some familiar faces from Princeton. Scientists from the National Weather Service’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab at Princeton Forrestal Center, and from Princeton University were in attendance.
Ron Stouffer was one of 27 elite scientists on hand to summarize the findings of 1,200 of his fellows. He says that the report was projected onto two giant screens in a huge meeting room, and attendees were given four days to reach a consensus on language. “They can’t change the science,” says Stouffer, “only the language.” He and the other members of the summary group — including GFDL’s acting director, V. Ramaswamy, and senior research scientist Isaac Held — were on hand to make sure that would be the case.
And how is a consensus reached?
“Now that’s the trick of it,” says Stouffer, a senior research meteorologist.
Attendees literally go over the report line by line, word by word. Each country has a flag, and its representatives use it to signal a question. “Sometimes they just turn the flag on its side,” says Stouffer. “Sometimes, if they really want to get the speaker’s attention, they wave it or smack it on the table. If there are sticky or contentious points, there are break-out sessions.” During these sessions, the scientists sit with the policy makers and explain the findings in the summary.
“The countries own the process,” he says. “They’re sensitive that it not be a U.S. document or a European document. Everyone wants fair and equal treatment.”
The two most contentious elements of the Fourth IPCC report, says Stouffer, were those relating to sulfate aerosols and to the degree of certainty the scientists who compiled the report have in their finding that global warming is “very likely” being caused by human activity.
Aerosols, he explains, are agents that cause cooling. “It’s what you see coming out of smokestacks and diesel trucks,” he says. “You can’t see warming agents, but you can see aerosols.” The aerosols have a lifetime of only days, while, says Stouffer, “the stuff you can’t see hangs around for years and years and years.” Countries that burn a lot of coal, a major source of aerosol pollution, and also of greenhouse gas emissions, have a keen interest in the issue, he says.
The second “hot” topic has gotten all of the press. In the preceding IPCC report, issued in 2001, scientists reported that it was “most likely” that global warming was being caused by human activity. This report changes “most likely” to “very likely.” The previous wording, says Stouffer, means there is a 66 percent chance that the conclusion is correct. The new wording, he says, means “there is at least a 90 percent chance. It could be 99 percent.”
Governments in some countries, notably the United States, have been reluctant to accept the fact that the greenhouse gases produced by their cars, air conditioners, factories, and landfills are altering the global climate, but this report makes it very difficult to conclude otherwise.
After all questions were answered, and each line of the report had been reviewed, representatives from the 131 countries voted on the report, but not only on the report as a whole. “At the end, everybody voted on everything,” says Stouffer. “Every caption, every footnote, everything.”
Stouffer says that “a weather weenie” all of his life. His infatuation was born of a childhood in Bucks County, where he reveled in the spectacular snow storms of the 1960s and 1970s. “I always wanted to be a weather forecaster,” he says. Pursuing his passion, he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in meteorology from Pennsylvania State University.
But on his way to a career in forecasting rain storms and heat waves, Stouffer bumped into his own inconvenient truth. “I discovered how much hard work it is,” he says. “You have to work shifts.” Quickly looking around for another way to use his education, he decided, “Gee, I could be a researcher.”
Wanting to stay close to Bucks County, which is where both his and his wife’s families live, he took a job at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab (GFDL), which is located at 201 Forrestal Road and runs under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The year was 1977, and the study of long-range climate was in its infancy.
In 1965 GFDL scientist Sykuro Manabe, credited as the person who first raised the question of global warming as a result of human activity, created a computer model that projected the effects of a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. The result, he found, would be a 4.5 degree rise in the Earth’s average temperature, enough to melt polar ice caps and cause an enormous rise in sea level.
Stouffer worked with Manabe, who retired from GFDL in 1997, and is now a visiting research collaborator at Princeton University, on climate models. That put him “pretty close to the beginning” of the birth of the science of climate modeling. The work has taken him around the globe as nearly all of the countries in the world have become increasingly aware of the far-reaching consequences of climate change.
He is just back from a conference in India, which he attended after working on the IPPC summary in Paris. In April there will be a meeting in Belgium to assess the impacts of climate change on natural and human systems. Less than a month later, scientists will convene in Bangkok to try to determine how human society will respond to climate change. “Then in November there is a synthesis report in Spain,” says Stouffer. “I was working on that in Paris.” Between spring and fall, he will work with a writing team in Colorado.
He explains that there are three separate working groups involved in preparing an IPCC report. The first creates models of temperature, precipitation, and sea level change. “Everyone at GDFL is in Group 1,” he says. Group 2 studies the effects of the climate change that Group 1’s models project, and Group 3 tries to figure out how governing bodies can best address the changes.
The 1,200-plus scientists involved in these reports work on them for a full six years. The first report was issued in 1990. There have been four in all, and Stouffer has been deeply involved in all of them. Each of the reports compiled for every session is about 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick, he says, and they are “designed to be read only by physical scientists.”
That is why a group of scientists is needed to write a summary for policy makers, a great many of whom are not scientists, but all of whom have to understand the science if they are to decide on making changes to slow down global warming. Stouffer was named to this elite group by the co-chairs of Group 1, Susan Solomon of NOAA and Dahe Qin of the Chinese Academy of Science. He laughs as he says that a key criteria is “a demonstrated ability to work well with others.” Many scientists, he observes, “don’t work well in teams.”
The summary alone, he says, took two-and-a-half to three-years to complete. After every phrase had been approved by all of the countries represented at the IPCC meeting in Paris, the press was let into the meeting room. Reporters and camera crews filled the room as completely as the governmental delegations had.
“In 1990 there was nothing in the press,” says Stouffer. “By the second report, in 1995, more was made of it. I was at the final meeting in 2001 and there were 35 journalists. In Paris this year there were 600 journalists and 35 TV crews. It was a huge, huge throng. It was a lot more popular, that’s for sure.”
Stouffer has three children, age 25 to 30, and “no grandchildren yet.” Key findings of the latest IPCC report (www.ipccfacts.org) are that global warming is occurring, human activity is responsible for global warming, and that “given current trends, temperature extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to escalate in frequency; and the earth’s temperature and seas will continue to rise into the next millennium.”
Do these findings cause him to worry about what the world will be like for his children and for their children? “There’s a whole raft of potential issues,” he says. “Population growth, food supply, fresh water. Climate change interacts will all of that. Society has to decide what to do. Decisions we make today impact the future. As a scientist I have to communicate the impact on what the future world will be.”
Princeton’s Hot Spot For Climate Research
When it comes to research helping to make sense of issues such as global warming, one of the hot spots, pardon the metaphor, is the nondescript three-story building on the Princeton Forrestal Campus, just off Route 1 at Sayre Drive.
That building houses the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which operates under the National Weather Service, and more specifically the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This creates at least a little confusion as to its work.
“The phone rings when there is a storm coming,” says Keith Dixon, a meteorologist who has been with GFDL for more than 20 years. But none of the 70 scientists at GFDL, many of them physicists and mathematicians, are prepared to provide guidance on tomorrow’s temperature or probability of precipitation.
Founded in 1955 by pioneering meteorologist Joseph Smagorinsky, who developed influential methods for predicting weather and climate conditions, GFDL moved to the Forrestal campus in 1968. It deals not in prognostication about next week’s snowfall but rather in computer models that provide long-range hurricane projections and insight into the Earth’s overall climate in the decades and centuries to come.
“We impose various scenarios,” says Dixon. “We include soot, aerosols, greenhouse gases, volcanic output, El Nino variations. We put it all into a model. We include everything to get the best model.” The result of this modeling, done on a supercomputer ranked among the 100 most powerful in the world, is not a prediction, says Dixon, but rather a projection.
“We look for the signal in the noise,” he says. The noise consists of the one constant in everyone’s life — weather. It’s unseasonably warm, the daffodils are out in January. It’s unseasonably cold, the Easter Egg hunt is called off because of a blizzard. We’re having an unusually snowy winter, the kids have a snow day again. The rain just won’t stop, the garden has been under water all spring long. The weather buzz, a constant of nearly every street corner conversation, goes on every day of the year in every city, suburb, and hamlet on Earth.
So much is going on at ground level that it’s hard to pick out any long-term trend — any signal that the Earth is sending. Computer models at GFDL, looking at climate all over the world, are picking up signals, though. Those signals have been pointing to a global warm-up for some time, but only now are they beginning to ping through to policy makers.
This is true in no small part because projections of the ocean’s rising temperature made at GFDL have proved to be correct. “Our model simulations agree with what’s happened in the ocean,” says Dixon. “That’s one of the things that turned the tide, that made people realize ‘okay, the models have some credibility.’”
The first scientist ever to connect the ocean and the atmosphere in a computer model was GFDL’s Syukuro Manabe, who did so in 1965. It is that connection, constantly updated, that is now a key factor in understanding climate change.
“If we had shallow oceans, only 150 feet, it would be twice as warm,” says Dixon. But our vast, deep oceans, it turns out, are soaking up a lion’s share of the excess heat that is being trapped by the Earth’s atmosphere. “The ocean is in contact with the atmosphere,” he explains. “Heat goes to the ocean and can mix vertically with water that has not been at the surface for decades — or centuries. Water tries to equilibrate, and the ocean has a very long equilibration rate.”
This effect is positive for the stability of temperatures on land, but it comes at a cost. “A warmer ocean is one of the contributors to sea level rise,” says Dixon. “As water warms, it expands.” What’s more, he adds, the heat that the ocean has soaked up, and is mixing deeper and deeper down, will remain in place, and will continue to cause the ocean to rise. “Climate is like a supertanker,” he says. “It has momentum built in. It takes a long time to turn around.”
An expanding ocean sends salt water into fresh water, diminishing the Earth’s already scare supply of drinking water. It has already inundated small, but heavily populated islands, and has the potential to cover much more of the land that is home to the 2/3 of the world’s population who live near coasts. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in February that oceans will most likely rise between seven inches and two feet before the end of the century. However, this report did not take into account water from melting ice caps, which, some well-regarded scientists state, could push that rise all the way up to 23 feet by 2100.
Dixon, who has spent oceans of time coordinating GFDL research for the latest IPCC report, and who has been intimately involved with the prior IPCC reports, says that data about melting polar ice was not included in the data fed into his lab’s supercomputer for inclusion in the IPCC report. “The level of understanding of even the physics of ice sheets is at a less mature stage,” he says.
So, uncertainty remains, and may be addressed in future IPCC reports. There has been a call for more frequent reports by scientists who believe that climate is changing so fast, largely because of human activity, that it is urgent to have reports come more often than the present every-sixth-year schedule.
Dixon disagrees, stating that more exhaustive reports, taking up the time and resources of another scare resource — the world’s pool of climatologists — would not be a good idea. “There are more politicians and reporters than climatologists,” he points out. All of them are clamoring for the latest news, but, meanwhile, the scientists need to be working on science. It is the search for knowledge that drives them.
Manabe and his collaborator, Kirk Bryan, came up with their groundbreaking ocean/atmosphere computer model, says Dixon, “not because anyone was directing them to do it. If they had waited for Congress, it wouldn’t have gotten done.” Scientists want to know what is happening, and why. “It’s what gets our juices flowing,” says Dixon.
Preparing the IPCC report — and then talking about it — takes up precious hours. It also ties up world-class supercomputers. Climate modeling for the report takes place on three supercomputers, one of them belonging to the GFDL. Preparing for this latest report, says Dixon, tied up half of the computer for one full year. That is computer space that could not be used for experiments.
“We understand the importance (of the report), and look to inform,” says Dixon. “We are citizens of the world.” But, still, he is itching to get back to research, to “making the next generation model better.”
A native of Belleville whose father worked in insurance, Dixon was the first in his family to go to college. He chose to study science, he says, because he “grew up in the ‘60s and the space missions were really cool.” He was drawn to weather and climate because “it was something I could see; something that affected me.” In particular, he cites the excitement of snow days.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in meteorology at Rutgers (Class of 1981) and went on to earn his master’s degree, also in meteorology, there. He did a little weather forecasting while he was in college, but has had no desire to become a celebrity weatherman. (He mentions that the Weather Channel’s Dr. Steve Lyons, who gets a lot of air time whenever a hurricane is threatening the United States, has worked at the GFDL.) “I had more interest in answering the questions,” says Dixon.
Those questions have become more urgent, and have captured public attention in ways that it would have been hard to imagine when Dixon first entered the field. Back in the mid-1980s no one could have predicted that a movie on global warming, hosted by a failed presidential candidate, and set for the most part in lecture halls, would have won an Oscar.
In the Public Eye
Michael Oppenheimer is fast becoming a celebrity. He has appeared on Oprah with Leonardo DiCaprio, in a Tom Brokaw special, and on the Comedy Channel’s “The Colbert Report.” He is quoted in a promo for the upcoming Green Apple Music and Arts Festival in New York City, and in news articles and features on PBS, and in the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. He has also been upbraided by the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which characterizes him as an “alarmist.”
This attention could well be a clear sign that global warming is heating up. Oppenheimer, a Princeton University professor of geosciences, is receiving attention generally reserved for NBA stars and American Idol finalists because his area of expertise is climate change, and more specifically anthropogenic climate change, that which is brought about by human beings.
He is a lead author of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He was also involved in previous IPCC reports, which are carried out under the auspices of the United Nations.
“The fourth IPCC report is an important step,” Oppenheimer says. “It’s the nail in the coffin of any doubts. The language is unusually clear.” He says that two elements in the report stand out. “The rate of warming in the last 50 years is two times that of the previous 50 years,” he says. “The rate of sea level rise in the last 10 years has increased 70 percent quicker than the average of the last 40 years.”
In an interview with PBS’s Margaret Warner after the report was released, Oppenheimer says that these changes will have far-reaching consequences: “If we don’t bring the emissions under control, we can expect potentially very, very much greater changes than what we have already seen,” he says. “So to use maybe an unfortunate metaphor, this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what may be in store for us in the future.”
This future in central New Jersey will include more warm days and less snow. “It’s not easy to connect weather and climate,” says Oppenheimer. “It should be done by scientists. People get confused.” In the middle of a bone-chilling February, Princeton area residents could be tempted to think that global warming is indeed a liberal hoax — as some Republicans in the Senate have repeatedly characterized it.
But, Oppenheimer explains, what is going on outside the window on any particular February 28 is not a good gauge of overall climate. It’s just the weather on that particular day. “The average weather for February 28 is a characteristic of climate,” he says. Make observations over time, and climate patterns emerge.
The patterns in central New Jersey, he says, indicate that “there will be less extreme cold and more heat.” Winters will be milder, and there will be hot summers. Snow storms will not cease right away, but they will become less frequent. Lake Carnegie may or may not freeze again next year, but, says Oppenheimer, it will probably not freeze as often as it did in recent decades.
This doesn’t sound so bad. Youngsters may never know the glorious week-long snow holidays that their grandparents enjoyed in the 1960s, but a milder climate could be a good thing for anyone who dreads icy drives to work and the chore of clearing a driveway.
It is now being predicted that New Jersey will have a climate similar to that enjoyed by Virginians before the end the century, Rutgers environmental sciences professor Alan Robock told the Bergen Record. And that is a best case scenario. Without cutbacks in the use of fossil fuels, the Garden State could easily mimic Georgia, the Peachtree State, by 2100.
What’s wrong with a nice long spring and warm summer nights? Oppenheimer spells out a few of the problems.
At a meeting of the state’s Assembly Environmental Committee on February 21, he said that the worst case scenario could bring a rise in sea level of as much as 20 feet. This would swamp low-lying areas — and not just those at the Jersey Shore, where the tide is projected to move inland by 240 to 480 feet in the next century, depending in part on how quickly greenhouse gases can be brought under control. Newark Airport, portions of the Turnpike, and the Meadowlands could all be submerged if global warming continues, and floods throughout the state would increase in number and severity. We don’t handle floods very well now, Oppenheimer points out, so a future where 100-year floods occurred every seven years could well be disastrous.
Oppenheimer has been accused by Senate Republicans of being a liberal puppet. In a press release dated July 11, 2006, the Committee on Environment and Public Works damned him by writing that he “actively campaigned against President George Bush in 2004,” was affiliated with “the partisan group Scientists and Engineers for Change and the green group Environment2004, which put up billboards in Florida mocking President Bush in the final months of the presidential election.” This group, the Senate committee states, “was so partisan it encouraged visitors to their webpage to get involved in defeating President Bush by playing a game called ‘Whack-a-Bush.’”
Piling on the horrors, the Senate committee reported that “Oppenheimer also serves as a science advisor to the left wing and politically charged group Environment Defense and was a co-founder of the Climate Action Network.”
Finally, the Senate committee, reports, “Oppenheimer appeared with Hollywood activist Leonardo DiCaprio and Gore’s movie producer Laurie David” on Winfrey’s talk show. Asked for a reaction, Oppenheimer merely says, “that’s the way the political world is.”
In fact, he comes across not as a shoot-from-the-hip doomsayer, but rather as a serious scientist who will not be budged from what carefully gathered data indicates. He does characterize the hundreds of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina as “weather refugees,” but he refuses to blame the catastrophic hurricane on global warming, as Al Gore does in his Academy Award winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Ocean water has warmed, Oppenheimer says, a fact that no serious scientist disputes. “Katrina might have been hopped up by high ocean temperatures,” he says, but he adds that ocean temperature is just one factor in the formation and strength of hurricanes.
While he is not tremendously charismatic — bloggers commenting on his recent appearance on the Comedy Channel point out he wasn’t very funny — Oppenheimer is nevertheless good at communicating the dangers of global warming. This almost certainly means that his media appearances will increase exponentially as it becomes more and more clear that a warming planet is likely to be a whole lot more than inconvenient for billions of people around the globe.