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Water Today Title December 15, 2017

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The Stories...so far


Interview with USGS, Virginia Burkett on the recently released 5th report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

Updated 5/7/14
IPCC 5th Report

Virginia Burkett is the chief scientist for climate and land-use change for the U.S. Geological Survey and is among the Nobel Prize-winning authors of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report.


Water Today - Where does a report such as this fifth IPCC report come from? It has an enormous number of authors, scientists. How does something like this come together?

Virginia Burkett - I think part of the value and the high profile of the report can be explained with this genesis. It is called the Intergovernmental panel on climate change. All the UN member governments have a vote on this panel. It literally began in 2007 after the completion of the 4th IPCC report when the panel voted to initiate a separate report number 5, and appointed two chairs, one from the United States from Stanford University and the other from Argentina. And then a solicitation went out to all the UN member governments inviting scientists to be nominated by the governments and that is where it all began. So we were appointed roughly 4 years ago.

Water Today - The first question that has to be asked is, the claim that human influence has been detected in the warming of the atmosphere and the ocean and the changes in the global water cycle, that there is scientific evidence that backs this up.

Virginia Burkett - Yes. Basically the confidence we have in that statement is actually higher now because of the longer instrumental record and the more robust literature or science basis for the assessment. And it is unequivocal that human interference with the climate system is occurring and that most of the warming that has occurred over the past 50 years or the second 50 has been attributed to human activity, changes in land use, but primarily the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. And with our working group 2 report on Impacts, not only can we say unequivocally that the climate system is being affected but also that it is affecting ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean and people around the world. So the science basis for producing the assessment literally doubled. Climate literature started to emerge in the 70s and then in one of my chapters we documented the development of the science basis through time and the impacts literature alone doubled between 2005 and 2010. That is compared to the whole since 1970. And the literature on a science basis for assessing adaptations doubled just between 2008 and 2010 over a three year period.

Water Today - That is an amazing statistic so it would seem to me to be around the world more and more of what we call a frontline issue. You would probably agree with that given how much response there has been to this particulate report in comparison to other reports.

Virginia Burkett - Well and I agree with what you said and also I think that what has made this report more policy-relevant and why it is generating a lot of inquiries and good questions and thought is that it is more about people now. You know in our first reports - I was an author on the two prior reports on the Coastal Chapter - we heard a lot about marshes and mangroves, and barrier islands, and sea ice and that sort of thing. But the effects of people living in coastal systems, the evidence now in these major deltas in Bangladesh, and China even Louisiana, where I live, in the Mississippi Delta the impacts literature about people and the socioeconomic basis of coast and the cultural in Alaska for example and Canada with our Native American communities having to be evacuated off of our coast because of the decline in permafrost that binds the sediment, the retreat of sea ice that protected the coast, and sea level rise. Those three drivers together operating on the coastal system and we just have much better documentation now about the impacts on people.

Water Today - One of the conclusions of this report is that the temperature has increased 1.5C relative to an 1850 number. Why is that? That doesnít seem very much to a layman like me. Why is that number so important Virginia?

Virginia Burkett - Well that is just the average. Remember that. It is the extremes that really change the systems and flood people and cause heat wave deaths and that sort of thing. It doesnít sound like a lot. But it is the rate of that change that is what people are most concerned about because now we can model much more effectively than we could in the first IPCC report. Our ability to model the climate response to changes in greenhouse gas concentrations is much better. So it is not just considering 1.5 degrees, it's looking into the future at 4 degrees or more and how that will affect systems and people globally. The ranges of the warming are much greater than 1.5 degrees.

Water Today - Yeah this brings me I think to a pretty pertinent issue given that it is tornado season right now. Heat waves will occur more frequently and last longer. Then are there also cold spells that will last longer too. I find whenever I do these types of interviews I often mix up weather and climate change research and they are both not the same thing.

Virginia Burkett - That is correct. In the scientific community, climate change is measured over the decadal scales, 30 years or more of a record of change in temperature or rainfall or some other sort of climate-related driver that would constitute change over a 30-year period or more from one state to another Ė that is climate change. Weather is a particular place at a particular time, measured over a couple of years or 5 years because we have some natural cycles like El NiŮoís that or oscillations that are purely natural. But the warming that we have seen over the past century or more can only be explained physically by the changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations which can only be explained by human activity.

Water Today - When you say human activity. There is an awful lot of discussion just about every day in all of the medias about CO2, what does that word mean now in the context of this climate change report?

Virginia Burkett - CO2 is the most important greenhouse gas that has been affected by human activity. Yes. But also land use change accounts for some of the changes in the greater warming so those are the two major drivers.

Water Today - Okay.

Virginia Burkett - The land use change actually affects the amount of carbon that can be stored so its not just emissions which will be the CO2 emissions, it is the carbon storage in the landscape and as you go in and clear-cut a forest, or drain wetlands, that affects how much carbon is stored in the land surface at that place.

Water Today - Oh I see so that is pretty interesting. Not only is it CO2, the second factor in this is whether we are clear cutting or whether weíre paving the wetlands or what have you. That really factors into this. Does it?

Virginia Burkett - Yes the second driver, most important driver, will be land use change. But itís the emissions that are the big factor that are affecting the changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations.

Water Today - The report mentions the Arctic, which is kind of a hot point for Canadians these days. We have much more methane being released up there and we have a shrinking ice pack and in fact weíre starting to talk about our Northwest Passage being open to shipping and this has a big impact on Canadian politics and the Canadian point of view. How do you measure glacier volumes melting and this kind of thing? It just seems to me to be such a big, big concept to measure the melting of the ice. Iíve been there. To me itís almost inconceivable that it can be measured at all. Is that just from satellites or how do you go about doing something like that?

Virginia Burkett - Yes ice sheets, land ice and sea ice can be measured very effectively and precisely. So we have very high confidence in the tracking of the sea ice in the Arctic.

Water Today - The last time I talked to you Virginia was about the oceans rising. Can you tell me a little about that? How much are they going to rise and how soon? And when? I think that matters an awful lot both to Americans and Canadians.

Virginia Burkett - Yes, to any country that has a low lying coastal zone and to the small island states particularly. A couple of examples Tuvalu, it has no land that is above 5 meters in elevation. We have certain areas that are really vulnerable. But for Canada and for the USA, our low lying coastal systems and our island territories are highly vulnerable. Itís not what is going to happen. It is what is happening. We have very high confidence that the sea level rise has been increasing and is greater than what it was over the past 2,000 years and the rate of change has almost doubled.

Water Today - Thatís right it has almost doubled? Wow!

Virginia Burkett - From the high gage records of the past century, if you look at the 110 year records starting in 1900 and if you just look at the last 30 years before we had good satellite data with altimetry instruments, the rate has roughly doubled. The rate went from 1.7 millimeters per year to 3.2 millimeters per year. Which doesnít sound like a lot unless you're only 10 millimeters above mean sea level?

Water Today - Yeah. Back in 2005 and 2006, if you said climate change to people, you got a lot of the Chicken Little thing. Have you found that with enormous events like these huge tornadoes, Sandy and Katrina, that people take the information quite a bit differently than say 10 years ago?

Virginia Burkett - Yes I do. I live in Louisiana. People are aware our coastal zone is being inundated by this slow creep, as you call it, of the Gulf of Mexico and to our Delta Region. People here donít argue about the facts that sea level is rising and the fact that there is a lot of vulnerability to that. As you know, my parents lost their home in Hurricane Katrina and moved inland; and they are just one of hundreds of thousands of families that that happened to.

Water Today - Climate change refugees in effect.

Virginia Burkett - You canít attribute a single storm or hurricane to climate change. What you can say is that the intensity and the destructiveness of tropical storms that make landfall here in our region, in the Gulf Coast - we call them hurricanes here - has intensified over the past 50 years or particularly the past 30 years. ( Thatís where we have really good records). But you can say this increase in intensity and this highly intense storm Katrina and of course Sandy those are the kinds of storms that you would expect to see in this warming environment.

Water Today - Yeah I was amazed at the sheer strength of some of the storms Iíve looked at in the last year or two. Most people that I have discussions with about climate change sort of point to that and say 'well look itís here today, are we past the tipping point?

Virginia Burkett - Tipping point of?

Water Today - Of fixing this? Or are we looking at climate change that we canít do anything about sort of forever?

Virginia Burkett - In the short term, yes. The changes that have been made in the atmosphereÖ fortunately, it takes a long time for the ocean to absorb the heat. Warming is going to continue for 30 or 40 years regardless of what choices people make.

Water Today - Okay, so if we all jumped up and threw our car keys away and rode our bike, nothing is going to change for many, many years.

Virginia Burkett - For many years. Yes, if everyone would quit burning fossil fuels today and we stopped the storage of carbon in the ecosystems today, globally, it would immediately have effect. Thatís not going to happen. So what youíre looking at are projections based upon realistic scenarios of stabilizing at current levels or continuing to increase the greenhouse gas concentrations. So I donít think there is much scientific debate whatsoever anymore about the fact that the climate is going to continue to change for the coming next few decades regardless of emission choices. But after about 2040 and beyond, the things, the decisions that people make now will start to affect the long term temperature outcomes.

Water Today - So let me get to what is maybe the fun part of the interview. When you talk to the next generation, of our kids, how do you coin this? How do you put it to, say a 10 year old or a 15 year old, who only hears pieces of the gloom and doom and climate change and the things that kids talk about. How do you frame it in context to a young person sort of what do they have to do in the future. What they could do now? How do you frame it?

Virginia Burkett - Well as a scientist I donít really try to advise people on what to do but I do talk to a lot of young people. I talked to a lot of college students and policy makers in general. One of the things that I was really happy with is the IPCC approval meeting for the current report that just came out, the policy makers asked us to bring forward a graphic that shows the opportunity spaces, what we call it, where we can go on climate resilient pathways or pathways that lower the resilience of human communities and natural ecosystems into the future. There are choices that people can make individually and as governments that will affect the long term climate of the planet and the sustainability of things that people care about whether its ecosystems or agriculture, forests and that sort of thing. There are paths that can be taken. We call them sustainable development pathways or climate resilient pathways that combine adaptation and mitigation. Can I explain that?

Water Today - Of course and please do. I know a fair number of students listen to water.ca

Virginia Burkett - Okay. So we have two basic classes of societal response Ė adaptation and mitigation, and those together determine this long-term trajectory in temperature and sustainability, and its effects on people. Adaptation, those are things that people do that lower the risk and impacts and perhaps even enhance some of the positive benefits that might be gained as the climate warms over the coming decades. Adaptation is important because as I said earlier the emissions are already up there that are going to drive warming . If everybody just stabilize things today, we are still going to have warming because of the current rate of emissions. So adapting to the changes that are very likely over the next 20 to 30 years is one thing to do. And mitigation is basically taking actions that reduce the emissions or increase the sinks of greenhouse gases and I mean by planting trees or taking care of carbon in the landscape rather than doing things that would disturb the carbon that is naturally stored. So mitigation is the combination of activities that basically would reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases and adaptations are actions that people can take that reduce the impacts and potentially enhance benefits of climate change.

Water Today - At the end of the day and this interview, are you optimistic or pessimistic? I mean from my view, from a reporterís point of view, I have to fight being cynical every day when I report on water and water issues. From your point of view are you pessimistic or are you optimistic in view of all the science you know?

Virginia Burkett - I am an optimist, about this particular issue and I have been working on this for 23 years. Okay? And when I worked for our state geological survey in Lousiana -( I came over to work for the federal government 23 years ago) - one of my first tasks was to look at how coastal systems, marshes and so forth respond to changes in mean sea level and climate change and you know back then there was very little science basis for assessing the causes of the changes that we were seeing or projecting into the future, but now we have all of this information and 97 to 98% of the scientists globally agree that humans are affecting the climate. We are past that. Now we are working to develop an information basis, a science basis so people can make smart decisions. Thatís what it is all about. And do you know that every week I get a letter; I mean not one letter I get many letters from students asking me, wanting to interview scientists about climate change. I see book chapters written for high school science classes that I review; you know, there are now college classes on sustainability and climate change!

Water Today - Good.

Virginia Burkett - The more people educate themselves, the more people are going to be aware that what people do does affect our climate and the intensity of its impact and the intensity of climate change impacts. So Iím very much an optimist because what Iíve seen just since 2007 -that report that we talked about, when we first started the interview- since that point itís like someone went to the wall and turned on the light switch. People started reading and educating themselves and the number of articles and science studies that are being conducted, and the places where they're being conducted around the world is just expanding so dramatically, it helps explain all this interest that people have now in the topic.

Water Today - Virginia Burkett Iím going to leave it there, youíre a credit to USGS.

Climate Change
Canada a Leader in adaptation - Q&A- Don Lemmen NRCAn Lead Scientific Editor Adaptation Report - 2/5/13
Parts of Canadian Arctic may be spared - Q&A Thomas James, Geological Survey of Canada - 1/16/13
Greenland ice sheets losing mass faster and faster - NASA/ESA - Q&A Glenn Milne, Geophysicist, Ottawa University - 1/4/13
Sea level rise and crisis management - Q&A Virginia Burkett, Chief Scientist, Climate & Land Use Change, USGS- 12/14/12

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