We Make Progress -- but Need More -- on Climate Change

While we were experiencing record cold weather in Central New York (-17°F on Feb. 16, 2015), it was hard to assimilate the Jan. 16 New York Times article headlined, "2014 Breaks Heat Record, Challenging Global Warming Skeptics." The article cited the recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report that said that, in 2014, the combined land and ocean surface temperature was 1.24°F above the long-term average dating back to 1880. This makes 2014 the warmest year on record.

Is it a contradiction that as the Northeast has had a very difficult winter, Alaska has had a modestly mild winter? Would we have thought that temperatures in Texas would be lower on certain dates in January and early February than those in Alaska? Clearly, in 2014, we observed some extreme temperatures in the United States, on both the low and high ends.

An article written by Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus in Geophysical Research Letters in 2012 suggested that the loss of Arctic summer ice is adding enough heat to the ocean and atmosphere that it may result in more extreme oscillations of the jet stream. Could the loss of Arctic ice and the more frequent and deeper oscillations be contributing to the more extreme weather we have observed in the Northeast?

There is no question that humankind's emission of greenhouse gases, particularly CO2, is a major contributor to the obvious global warming trend experienced over the last three decades. And, the atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise with 2014 being the highest, exceeding 400 parts per million (ppm). This is in the context that most climate scientists have suggested that 500 ppm is a critical barrier that will define the impact for at least the next 200 years.

I am glad to see some evidence of progress. The U.S. Senate on Jan. 21 voted 98 to 1 to approve a measure stating climate change is real and not a hoax. This is a significant breakthrough. However, a second vote in the Senate could draw the support of only 15 Republicans for a measure that supported the fact that humans contribute to climate change. Despite the obvious, more education is required.

Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the journal Science, has given us excellent advice. Those of us in the sciences need to have genuine, "respectful dialogues" with people in order to ensure that "the opinion gap must not be allowed to swell into an unbridgeable chasm." I think that we are making some progress, but is it enough?

Another important event occurred Jan. 31: the launch of NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive probe. This $916 million satellite can map the global soil moisture every 2 to 3 days. Although the Earth's soils hold only a fraction of our water, the moisture in soil helps to determine how well plants thrive and sequester carbon in our atmosphere and gives us information on what areas are vulnerable to drought and flooding. We now have another tool to better understand our atmospheric energy cycles.

We continue to make progress and must move forward.