From Science to Action: Using Climate Science for Adaptation

We have all heard about the doomsday climate change can bring. Rising seas, blistering heat waves, and epic storms are but small samples from the chronicle of destruction possible due to climate risk.  When considering the doomsday scenarios, questions arise about where, when, and how these changes will take place.

Recent research from a team of climate scientist led by James Hansen posits that the timeframe in which we will begin to see the impacts from sea level rise and super storms, may be more severe and shorter than expected. The paper argues that the phenomenon of stratification (when melting freshwater from glacier melt disrupts the saline pumps of the deep ocean, causing warm water to collect at the bottom of the sea where it melts ice shelves) along with other feedback loops, have not been fully captured in previous climate models.

The Hansen Theory

Hansen and his team suggest that with the new math in place “ice mass loss from the most vulnerable ice, sufficient to raise sea level several meters, is better approximated as exponential than by a more linear response. Doubling times of 10, 20 or 40 years yield multi-meter sea level rise in about 50, 100 or 200 years.” In other words, ice melt that was previously thought to be occurring at a predictable rate is now potentially occurring at rate several times higher.

This is not the first time that the science has been updated and caught the eye of the media. As a result, climate scientists like James Hansen and Michael Mann have become well known in environmentalist circles.  In 2012, climate activist Bill McKibben became especially revered when his article in Rolling Stone Magazine: Climate Change’s Terrifying New Math gathered similar attention and reactions from the media as the Hansen report.

As suggested by the new research and steady stream of media updates, it is clear that climate science is a constantly evolving and improving practice. While it is true that the data points are becoming more robust, and new discoveries like stratification are being baked into the latest climate models, scientists will be the first to tell us that we still have a lot left to learn about how climate change is altering our earth’s systems.

Climate Scientist James Hansen stands by a 1000 ton boulder that is theorized to have been lifted by a super storm 120,000 years ago onto the cliffs of North Eleuthera in the Bahamas. At the time of the ancient storm, ocean temperature was only 1 degree C warmer than today.
Climate Scientist James Hansen stands by a 1000 ton boulder that is theorized to have been lifted by a super storm 120,000 years ago onto the cliffs of North Eleuthera in the Bahamas. At the time of the ancient storm, ocean temperature was only 1 degree C warmer than today.

Michael E. Mann, the scientist who popularized the classic hockey stick graph stated in response to the new report “Some of the claims in this paper are indeed extraordinary. They conflict with the mainstream understanding of climate change to the point where the standard of proof is quite high.”

Towards Climate Adaptation Science?

While the work climate scientists like Hansen and Michael Mann continues to advance the science, some members of the climate community are beginning to question the value of continuing to refine the accuracy of climate science. Suggesting instead that it may be time to refocus resources traditionally spent on increasing the degree of confidence towards adaptation science.

The argument is that after a certain point the ability for climate science to generate new insights is subject to diminishing returns. As such, it doesn’t matter as much to nail down exact predictions of when and where and by how much the impacts of climate change will hit, when we know they are already here and will continue to grow. With the climate science we have now, we are very good at projecting what 60 cm of sea level rise looks like, and how that sea level rise will impact our coasts. However, we are not great at knowing when that sea level rise will happen.

Those wanting to focus resources on adaption science argue that this distinction shouldn’t really matter. Think of the results of climate science like a high blood pressure reading, how bad the reading is doesn’t change the fact that you still have to go exercise and change your diet if you want to be healthier; and its better to hit the gym sooner rather than later.

Using Science for Decision-Support

This is not to say that advancements from Hansen and other climate scientists are irrelevant. On the contrary, it is extremely valuable work, but their findings provide information that should be used to spark interventions that buffer vulnerable regions from the worst of climate change.

At Four Twenty Seven we are picking up where the scientific reports stop. By translating the key warnings and lessons of climate science into strategies that can reduce financial, infrastructural, and social risk, we can prepare for the impacts of climate change regardless of when they occur. By analyzing, monitoring, and providing site specific insights into how climate change affects normal operations, we manage the complexities for stakeholders whose responsibilities cover a wide range of populations and global facilities.

“LIDAR data is often collected by air, such as with this NOAA survey aircraft (top) over Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, CA. Here, LIDAR data reveals a top-down (bottom left) and profile view of Bixby Bridge. NOAA scientists use LIDAR-generated products to examine both natural and manmade environments. LIDAR data supports activities such as inundation and storm surge modeling, hydrodynamic modeling, shoreline mapping, emergency response, hydrographic surveying, and coastal vulnerability analysis.” (source)
“LIDAR data is often collected by air, such as with this NOAA survey aircraft (top) over Bixby Bridge in Big Sur, CA. Here, LIDAR data reveals a top-down (bottom left) and profile view of Bixby Bridge. NOAA scientists use LIDAR-generated products to examine both natural and manmade environments. LIDAR data supports activities such as inundation and storm surge modeling, hydrodynamic modeling, shoreline mapping, emergency response, hydrographic surveying, and coastal vulnerability analysis.” (source)

Having reliable climate data and a robust understanding of the changes climate change has put in motion is a great starting point for determining risk factors. LIDAR data from NOAA and other hydrological data sets can be used to anticipate coastal vulnerability to climate charged changes like sea level rise.  NASA has its own set of valuable climate data, which has been used to map everything from melting ice in Greenland to diminishing wine grape harvests in France and Switzerland. Such robust and continuously updated datasets allow for meaningful vulnerability assessments that can inform effective adaptation plans.

Our team has been putting climate data like this to use for our clients. As part of our commitment to the White House Climate Data Initiative we created a dashboard tool of Heat and Social Inequity in the United States, designed to help health care providers understand the risks climate change poses to their community and hospital operations.  It’s through tools like this that we hope to help our clients prepare for the risks climate change presents to the businesses and communities they serve.

It is our hope that the science continues to advance, and new research like that presented by Hansen and his team continues to give us a better picture of the rate at which we can expect climate change to escalate. We also hope to use this information to advance the important work of adaptation. Solving climate change takes both good science and a roadmap forward.  A ‘climate doomsday’ becomes less scary when we realize the power is in our hands to be prepared regardless of when it happens.

Learn more about our work to prepare for the impacts of climate change.