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Water Related.

Climate Change
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An interview with Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist, Climate & Land Use Change, USGS and Nobel Prize-winning author of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report.


Water Today: I have with me a wonderful guest, her name is Virginia Burkett. She is a part of Nobel winning team of scientists and she is on the international panel for climate change. Welcome to the show Virginia .

Virginia Burkett: A pleasure.

Water Today: Okay, so we will take this from the top. I read an awful lot about how the IPCC wants outreach, how they want to be accessible. We talked a little bit before the show about some of the issues in Africa and I thought with Obama going there just recently, I thought it would be a great place for us to start. Apparently there are chunks of information missing on the African pictures of climate change. Is there?

Virginia Burkett: Yes, part of it has to do with the difference in the historical climate record and the historical water record. In Canada and in the United States, we have hundreds, thousands perhaps of recording stations for precipitation, rainfall, snowfall, for stream flows, groundwater levels. We monitor these things intensively so we know what the trends are, and the human impact and the natural way that the climate change affects our water resources.

But in parts of Africa, they have very little historical data, so when you try to put together and piece together historical trends, you have to use other sources of information; recording stations that may be hundreds of miles apart to try and get a historical perspective on what's happening to soil moisture, for example, in the middle part of the continent. It's just that the information is not available.

Water Today: When you look at climate change, I would think that you have to see it from a global point of view. From your point of view as a scientist Virginia, is it more that, there are some missing pieces so that we can say, look on a global basis, it's this accurate or that accurate, or is it more so, if that information is not achievable, it puts some studies, papers, research at risk?

Virginia Burkett: For the global picture, no. We have thousands of recording stations around the globe that are supporting the development of the climate models. When you go to them to look at a specific basin or you have local geology and orography, like if you have mountain ranges where precipitation is different, on different sides of the mountain range, we have to do what is called climate model downscaling to try to understand and map out historical change and that's when you rely most on a close network of historical gaging stations and that is hard to do you do if you don't have that data, but in terms of the global picture there is sufficient data to be highly certain and highly confident in the basic conclusions of the IPCC report about trends globally.

Water Today: When it comes to the IPCC, The last quote I remember reading was science says we have a choice to reduce carbon emissions, we can escape the worst impacts if we make changes. I think Iíve asked you this once a year for a decade now, is it too late for us to make changes. Would anything we do be relevant?

Virginia Burkett: Is it too late to make changes? It's too late to make changes that may affect today. Too late to make changes today that may affect tomorrow perhaps, but in the coming years ahead, the activities of humans on the planet will continue to drive change, one way or another, so if you are looking at a decadal scale impact for example, yes, it's not too late to affect the rate of warming by 2050 and certainly by the end of the century. That's why we use these scenarios of future climate rather than say we are going to continue on the current track, the models that we use to project future changes can incorporate human responses that reduce emissions and we call these our lower emissions scenarios and a cooler planet than would be if we continue with emissions growing annually as they are presently so you are just projecting into the future, so neither the IPCC nor the US National assessment nor the Canadian assessment pick one scenario and say this is the future. It is a range of potential futures or plausible futures that reflect whether humans reduce or curb emissions or whether we stay on the current track.

Water Today: I know that you being a scientist, you are wary of getting into political discussions. I have to ask though; with China, are they 100% onside with the IPCC that you have seen or is it just thanks for your recommendation. Are they heavily involved in the IPCC process?

Virginia Burkett: Well I can't speak on the policy end, but they are involved heavily in the climate science. China is one of those nations that has tremendous literature, thousands; I believe at last count, it was like 8,000 different publications about climate change in China. In the Chinese literature they have a lot of journals, so in terms of the science, they are very much engaged. Many authors of the IPCC report in 2014 were from China.

Water Today: When I hear that, to me that's good news. I am doing an interview later this morning about Florida and climate change. Is climate change now so close, right down the street from all of us, for instance, there is some science that says that with the ocean rising, Florida is in trouble and they have to make a plan, literally, you can read it any way you want, but what I see is they need a plan to leave South Florida. Is that climate change? Is that ocean rising?

Virginia Burkett: Yes, as the atmosphere warms two things happen: one is, most of the heat energy is absorbed by the ocean, otherwise we would have a much hotter planet right now, but most of that heat energy is absorbed by the ocean surface and down to about 700 meters, there is a very nice signal of the warming of the surface, the deeper you go, it kind of tapers off, but there has been a warming trend globally in the ocean and in addition to the warming affecting the ocean temperature, it affects ocean volume because when you heat the water it expands, and we call that thermal expansion or steric sea level rise.

The second driver of accelerated sea level rise associated with climate change is the decline of land ice, and here we are talking about glaciers and ice sheets and depending upon the rate of warming in the future, land ice could decline at its current rate or could accelerate, so that's the elephant in the room in terms of sea level rise. It's how fast the west Antarctic ice sheet and the Greenland ice sheet decline. Each of those have 6 meters or more of water that could raise sea level by 6 meters or more each. It has a tremendous implication for low lying coastal systems if the rate of decline or wasting of ice sheets increases, which, it appears, might be the case in Antarctica

Water Today: We see every day, the latest, greatest picture of a piece of glacier breaking off and falling into the ocean and then much talk about oceans rising for a minute, then it seems to go away. Where do you think the disconnect is between people really needing to absorb this information and do something about it, and then on the other hand, going well, that's kind of weird but I have to go to work?

Virginia Burkett: Yes that's all part of human nature, that there are certain things that we can deal with that are within our sphere of control and you feel that when you get up in the morning that you've got certain things that you can do and have an impact, and I do too. But we are looking at hundreds of years out and the warming that has already occurred in the atmosphere, is going to continue to affect sea levels for centuries.

Water Today: When I look at your home state as well, there are issues for the gulf . I know this is close to your heart. Can you tell me a bit about how it is affecting your state?

Virginia Burkett: I live in Louisiana, and I was formerly head of our coastal management program here, and a former director of our state fish and wildlife agency, and our coast is a big part of our..., we call it Sportsman's Paradise, that's what's on our license plate on our cars, and we have lost a huge amount of land since 1930 because of the changes in the hydrology of the Mississippi river, due to human activity, as well as sea level rise and subsidence. It's a big delta, so looking into the future, depending on the ratio of sea level rise, we could either lose 770 square miles of land in the next 50 years, in a modest rate of sea level rise or as much as 1700 square miles of land if sea level rise were to accelerate as projected by the IPCC. A lot of risk, the coast gets flooded and inundated.

Water Today: There is also implication for fresh water as well. My understanding is you know quite a bit about what happens when the oceans rise onto a fresh land? So the ocean seeps into the fresh water.

Virginia Burkett: That's correct, we call that salt water intrusion, and we have parts of South Louisiana where we have these bald cypress forests and these trees are not salt-tolerant, so as the sea level rises and the land barrier islands disappear, then the salt water gets further and further inland and we have ghost forests across our coast. Outside of the city of New Orleans, if you remember that levy that broke during hurricane Katrina, there used to be a big stand of bald cypress trees there, now it's just open water; it converted to salt water so fast that the marsh, a salty marsh didn't naturally replace the bald cypress trees. It is a serious threat to the people in coastal Louisiana.

Water Today: Do you know anything specific about the Canadian picture, right now we have some water restrictions, but that's weather, and I don't know if it's directly connected to climate change. Are there some areas like for instance our arctic, where people have noticed a dramatic difference?

Virginia Burkett: Yes. If you look at a land loss map for the arctic coast, to me it looks like the Louisiana land loss map turned upside down. Your coast is being affected by climate change but by a different driver. It's being affected by temperature. Temperature is causing these ice-bound sediments to melt, so the water that binds the sediments together along the arctic coast, is melting. The permafrost is declining and so, for example, parts of our Alaskan communities where people used to store food under their houses in the permafrost, it's water now. Along the coast, the people of Shishmaref have had to move their entire community off the coastline because it's collapsing into the ocean because of the rising temperatures.

Sea level is rising there as well, but the more immediate threat and the more widespread effects of climate change there are due to a decline in the permafrost and a retreat of sea ice; because sea ice used to cover the coastline and protect it from wave energy during a longer period of the year than it does presently, and with sea ice retreating, sea level rising and the permafrost melting, the arctic coast is one of those hotspots of vulnerability

Water Today: That worries me ...But before I let you go, I would like to talk about the younger scientists getting into the climate change field; when you sit down and talk to some of the new scientists. What do they say? What do you say to them? What do we have to be doing?

Virginia Burkett: The young scientists are emerging rapidly. There are colleges across North America that offer curricula and degrees that are closely related to global change, even climate change courses. When I was in college and preparing to be a coastal resource manager and fish and wildlife manager, I had never even heard the words climate change other than in terms of the paleo records. Who would have thought twenty years ago that humans were influencing the climate, but now our graduates from college are very conversant and knowledgeable about climate change and its impact and we have people getting their PHDs. and doing their doctoral dissertations and their master's degree research on climate change. The next generation will be much more prepared to deal with climate change and its impact and to research it and to respond to it than the current generation.

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