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The More We Know, the Worse it Gets

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Warning: Parts of this report are seriously depressing.

This week I'm focusing on a few newsworthy climate studies that just came out in the last few weeks. Just this past week, two studies were published in the journal Nature that point a finger at human-caused climate change (aka anthropogenic climate change) as being the cause of bigger storms and flooding seen over the last few decades.

This might not seem like such a big deal. Scientists have been saying for a long time that climate change would cause stronger storms. But saying that that's what should happen and proving that actual storms and floods out there in the real world happened because of people and what we're doing to our climate -- those are two very different things.

Actually attributing the blame for past storms to human activity isn't easy. Here's what the scientists did: In one study, they compared records of rainfall over 50 years to computer models that included human-produced greenhouse gases. They found that the human-produced GHGs contributed to the increase in big rain events over this time. The other study looked specifically at the record-breaking rain and flooding in the UK in the fall of 2000 to see if they could attribute those specific events to a human cause.

Two cool things about this study. One was what they found and the other was how they did it. The researchers ran lots of computer models and calculated that yes, human-caused climate change greatly increased the risk of these floods occurring. (Specifically, they increased the chance of flooding by over 20% in 9 out of 10 cases and by more than 90% in 2 out of 3 cases.)

So it's pretty likely that people were to blame for these events that broke all precipitation records going back to 1766. Here's the second cool part: They ran the computer models using free time on the computers of regular people around the world. It's called, run by Oxford University. People sign up to have the model run in the background of their computer when it's not using its full processing capacity. How cool is that?!? (So cool that I instantly went to the site and signed up. It took me a little while to get it up and running, but now I'm running a climate model on my computer as I type! And I don't have to do anything! Seriously -- you should check it out.

Okay, now for the truly depressing part. Canadian researchers designed a computer model to test what would happen to climate over the next 1,000 years (that's to the year 3,000) even if people stopped producing any CO2 today and total emissions went to zero. What they found was pretty alarming: Despite global temperature reaching a steady plateau (that's one good thing, at least), certain parts of the globe continue to experience pretty intense ongoing climate change. One of the worst hit areas is North Africa, which is predicted to get up to 30% drier in an already drought-prone part of the world.

The other big impact they discovered is the continued warming of the Southern Ocean, which circles Antarctica, as well as Antarctica itself continuing to warm up over the next 1,000 years. The real concern here is that the warmer water and/or warm air would cause Antarctica to start melting catastrophically. West Antarctica, where the bottom of the 2-mile deep ice sheet is well below sea level, could completely collapse into the ocean.

Pretty scary stuff. Yes, it's just a computer model and definitely subject to its own flaws and uncertainties. However, I personally don't find that thought very comforting, as this model was based on a situation with zero human CO2 emissions in 2010 -- a wildly optimistic scenario and one that's now totally impossible, since it's 2011 and we're still pumping out CO2 faster than ever.

So, where does this leave us? I myself, besides taking the step of running climate models in my computer's spare time, am torn between paralysis in the face of such daunting odds and an even greater sense of urgency to do more, better, faster what I'm doing already -- working for ACE, teaching young people about this monumental problem and empowering them to take action. Tomorrow I'll be speaking at West Campus High School in Sacramento where I face the problem of having not one, but two competing green clubs who want to be ACE Action Teams. I know I'll come away from meeting these students, as I do after almost every school I visit, re-energized by the enthusiasm and passion they have to make a difference.

The more we know, the worse it gets. But there's hope for us yet.

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