Where have all the climate change scientists gone?
Are they all cowering in their labs, afraid to enjoin a skeptical public? Have they been vanquished by the loosely knit army of well-funded deniers, or slowly worn down by a steady drip of counter-evidence?
Answer: none of the above.
It’s true, global warming is no longer trendy. It has dropped out of the public eye, and off the agenda of some political leaders. Deniers and doubters (not to be confused with honest skeptics) continue their crusade to crush the consensus — then gloat about the public’s subsequent confusion and apathy.
But global warming research remains largely unscathed. And climate scientists continue to develop and expand their knowledge of its causes and effects.
One focus of that research stands out in particular: the perilous challenge of attributing specific events to the effects of global warming.
Two recent articles illustrate how difficult it is to single out the factors contributing to any one weather event. It is like trying to find the proverbial butterfly, then tracing its evolutionary roots. Perhaps that’s overstating it, but climate science traditionally deals in trends, not single events.
First, Monday’s Globe and Mail reported on a Canadian study into a severe Arctic storm in September 1999 that swept salt water 20 kilometres inland at the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories. The salty surge left huge areas of shoreline bereft of vegetation, a state that persists to this day.
Researchers with Carlton and Queen’s universities studied tree rings in the region and compared their data with anecdotal evidence from Inuvialuit elders. They then collected core samples from local lakes.
Their finding? It was the first such event in at least 1,000 years.
“We actually have evidence now that (global warming) has started happening and it isn’t just part of some natural variability,” said Queen’s professor John Smol, as quoted in the Globe. “It’s sort of a harbinger or a bellwether of things to come. We’re only at the beginning of what’s going to be happening here.”
It’s a bold conclusion, and one that may not always apply in other extreme weather events.
Which leads to the second article, an explainer on the severe floods that are devastating Mississippi (and, of course, other areas of Canada and the American Midwest), published Friday in the science journal Nature.
The causes of the flooding are spelled out at length. First, author Richard A. Lovett points simply to excessive winter snow and spring rainfall, a classic predictor of floods.
Next, he points to the creeping alteration of the landscape by shopping malls and other developments which redirect more water into rivers.
Finally, Lovett points out that the region in question is subject to a consistent weather pattern that has contributed to a similar pattern of flooding in the past. Rather than being a unique event, the current crisis mirrors a number of major floods that have occurred over the past century.
In this case, he concludes, the phenomenon of global warming plays only a minor role.
“By January or February, everybody should have known we were going to have May floods,” says NASA climatologist Bill Patzert, quoted in the article.
“To be shocked and awed by these kinds of events is disingenuous. It means you haven’t read your history.”
Only the passage of time will unveil the true impact of climate change. But the fact that such studies are trickling out suggests we are — as intuition suggests — already seeing more and more tangible results.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.