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May 2007

NCAR scientists contribute to climate change assessments

sea ice

An iceberg floats in Wolstenholm Fjord, just north of Thule, Greenland. As glaciers and ice sheets melt, they add to the amount of water in the ocean. The IPCC Working Group I report predicts seas to rise 18–58 centimeters (7–23 inches) by 2100. (Photo by James Hannigan.)

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began releasing assessments of climate change research earlier this year, NCAR scientists played a major part. Some 10 scientists in ESSL served as coordinating lead authors or lead authors, and many more worked as contributors or reviewers.

“This probably speaks to the breadth of research in climate science that’s being done at NCAR,” says CGD’s Bette Otto-Bliesner, a lead author of the IPCC chapter on paleoclimate.

The IPCC, a group representing more than 180 governments, operates under the auspices of the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization. Every few years, it commissions assessments of global climate change by hundreds of scientists who are experts in the field. This year, the panel is issuing a series of three reports, which focus on the physical climate system (Working Group I), the impacts of climate change (Working Group II), and options for mitigating climate change (Working Group III). NCAR scientists made substantial contributions to the first two working groups.

The reports, which concluded that climate change is “very likely” caused by human activities and may have widespread societal impacts, garnered significant media coverage across print, broadcast, and Web outlets. The attention may well be one factor in encouraging dramatic changes in public perceptions of climate change, as recent polls show that more Americans than ever view global warming as a significant problem.

NCAR scientists took part in two national teleconferences for the media to help reporters cover the IPCC reports, and they were quoted in newspaper articles and television broadcasts across the United States and overseas.

“The IPCC assessments are one of the few mechanisms we have to synthesize the science and integrate it into a form that’s useful for the rest of the scientific community as well as for the general public and policy makers,” says ACD’s Beth Holland, a lead author on the chapter on biogeochemistry. Several key IPCC authors at NCAR—including CGD’s Jerry Meehl and Kevin Trenberth, and ISSE’s Kathy Miller—spoke on Capitol Hill about climate change research. They also met with Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who is considering legislative approaches to the problem of climate change.

“We were all encouraged that Chairman Dingell seemed genuinely interested in the science of climate change,” Jerry says.

NCAR collaborators

Jerry was a coordinating lead author for Working Group I, helping oversee the chapter on global climate projections. Reto Knutti and Bill Collins, both of whom were in CGD, also helped write the chapter. (Reto, a visitor, has since returned to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and Bill is now at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.)

Kevin served as coordinating lead author of the chapter on observations, and ESSL director Guy Brasseur served as coordinating lead author of the chapter on biogeochemistry. NCAR scientists who worked as lead authors for Working Group I chapters included ISSE’s Linda Mearns, in addition to Beth, Bette, Reto, and Bill.

ISSE was the center of action for Working Group II. Paty Romero Lankao served as coordinating lead author for the chapter on industry, settlement, and society. Linda was a lead author on the chapter on assessment methodologies and the characterization of future conditions, and Kathy was a lead author on the freshwater resources chapter.

A number of other scientists also played important roles. For example, Jerry Mahlman (ISSE) reviewed drafts of the Working Group I report and Susi Moser (ISSE) helped write and review parts of the Working Group II report, including the chapter on coastal areas.

The scientists found the work rewarding.

“It was intellectually challenging,” says Bette. “I enjoyed the interactions with scientists in other specialties.”•

On the Web

More about the IPCC assessment and NCAR’s research on climate change

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Study predicts permanent drought in Southwest

NCAR scientists contribute to climate change assessments

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