Recent scientific evidence shows that major and widespread climate changes have occurred with startling speed. For example, roughly half the north Atlantic warming since the last ice age was achieved in only a decade, and it was accompanied by significant climatic changes across most of the globe. Similar events, including local warmings as large as 16°C, occurred repeatedly during the slide into and climb out of the last ice age. Human civilizations arose after those extreme, global ice-age climate jumps. Severe droughts and other regional climate events during the current warm period have shown similar tendencies of abrupt onset and great persistence, often with adverse effects on societies.
Abrupt climate changes were especially common when the climate system was being forced to change most rapidly. Thus, greenhouse warming and other human alterations of the earth system may increase the possibility of large, abrupt, and unwelcome regional or global climatic events. The abrupt changes of the past are not fully explained yet, and climate models typically underestimate the size, speed, and extent of those changes. Hence, future abrupt changes cannot be predicted with confidence, and climate surprises are to be expected.
The new paradigm of an abruptly changing climatic system has been well established by research over the last decade, but this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider community of natural and social scientists and policy-makers. At present, there is no plan for
improving our understanding of the issue, no research priorities have been identified, and no policy-making body is addressing the many concerns raised by the potential for abrupt climate change. Given these gaps, the US Global Change Research Program asked the National Research Council to establish the Committee on Abrupt Climate Change and charged the group to describe the current state of knowledge in the field and recommend ways to fill in the knowledge gaps.
It is important not to be fatalistic about the threats posed by abrupt climate change. Societies have faced both gradual and abrupt climate changes for millennia and have learned to adapt through various mechanisms, such as moving indoors, developing irrigation for crops, and migrating away from inhospitable regions. Nevertheless, because climate change will likely continue in the coming decades, denying the likelihood or downplaying the relevance of past abrupt events could be costly. Societies can take steps to face the potential for abrupt climate change. The committee believes that increased knowledge is the best way to improve the effectiveness of response, and thus that research into the causes, patterns, and likelihood of abrupt climate change can help reduce vulnerabilities and increase our adaptive capabilities. The committee’s research recommendations fall into two broad categories: (1) implementation of targeted research to expand instrumental and paleoclimatic observations and (2) implementation of modeling and associated analysis of abrupt climate change and its potential ecological, economic, and social impacts. What follows is a summary of recommended research activities; more detail is presented in the chapters, particularly in Chapter 6.
IMPROVE THE FUNDAMENTAL KNOWLEDGE BASE RELATED TO ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE
Recommendation 1. Research programs should be initiated to collect data to improve understanding of thresholds and nonlinearities in geophysical, ecological, and economic systems. Geophysical efforts should focus especially on modes of coupled atmosphere-ocean behavior, oceanic deepwater processes, hydrology, and ice. Economic and ecological research should focus on understanding nonmarket and environmental issues, initiation of a comprehensive land-use census, and development of integrated economic and ecological data sets. These data will enhance understanding of abrupt
climate change impacts and will aid development of adaptation strategies.
Physical, ecological, and human systems are imperfectly understood, complex, nonlinear, and dynamic. Current changes in climate are producing conditions in these systems that are outside the range of recent historical experience and observation, and it is unclear how the systems will interact with and react to the coming climatic changes. Our ability to adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change will be improved if we can recognize climate-related changes quickly. This will require improved monitoring of climatic, ecological, and socioeconomic systems. Many of the needed data sets overlap with those used to study gradual climate change.
To increase understanding of abrupt climate change, research should be directed toward aspects of the climate system that are believed to have participated in past abrupt changes or that are likely to exhibit abrupt and persistent changes when thresholds in the climate system are crossed. Key research areas for increasing our understanding of abrupt climate change include:
oceanic circulation, especially related to deepwater formation;
sea-ice transport and processes, particularly where they interact with deepwater formation;
land-ice behavior, including conditions beneath ice sheets;
the hydrological cycle, including storage, runoff, and permafrost changes; and
modes of atmospheric behavior and how they change over time.
In the ecological and human sphere, data collection should target sectors where the impacts of abrupt climate change are likely to be largest or where knowledge of ongoing changes will be especially useful in understanding impacts and developing response alternatives. Data collection should include a comprehensive land-use census that monitors fragmentation of ecosystems, tracking of wildlife diseases, and conditions related to forest fires, as well as improved seasonal and long-term climate forecasts, and sustained study of oceanic regimes of intense biological activity, particularly near the coasts. In the social arena, priority should be given to development of environmental and nonmarket accounts, and analyses of possible threshold crossings.
IMPROVE MODELING FOCUSED ON ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE
Recommendation 2. New modeling efforts that integrate geophysical, ecological, and social-science analyses should be developed to focus on investigating abrupt climate changes. In addition, new mechanisms that can cause abrupt climate change should be investigated, especially those operating during warm climatic intervals. Understanding of such mechanisms should be improved by developing and applying a hierarchy of models, from theory and conceptual models through models of intermediate complexity, to highresolution models of components of the climate system, to fully coupled earth-system models. Model-data comparisons should be enhanced by improving the ability of models to simulate changes in quantities such as isotopic ratios that record past climatic conditions. Modeling should be used to generate scenarios of abrupt climate change with high spatial and temporal resolution for assessing impacts and testing possible adaptations. Enhanced, dedicated computational resources will be required for such modeling.
Developing theoretical and empirical models to understand abrupt climate changes and the interaction of such changes with ecological and economic systems is a high priority. Modeling is essential for collaborative research between physical, ecological, and social scientists, and much more effort is needed to develop accurate models that produce a useful understanding of abrupt climate processes. Model analyses help to focus research on possible causes of abrupt climate change, such as human activities; on key areas where climatic thresholds might be crossed; and on fundamental uncertainties in climate-system dynamics. To date, most analyses have considered only gradual climate change; given the accumulating evidence of past abrupt climate change and of its capacity to affect human societies, more attention should be focused on scenarios involving abrupt change.
Climate models that are used to test leading hypotheses for abrupt climate change, such as altered deep-ocean circulation, can only partially simulate the size, speed, and extent of the large climatic changes that have occurred. The failure to explain the climate record fully suggests either that the proposed mechanisms being used to drive these models are incomplete or that the models are not as sensitive to abrupt climate change as is the natural environment. It is also of concern that existing models do not accurately simulate warm climates of the past.
A comprehensive modeling strategy designed to address abrupt climate change should include vigorous use of a hierarchy of models, from theory and conceptual models through models of intermediate complexity, to high-resolution models of components of the climate system, to fully coupled earth-system models. The simpler models are well suited for use in developing new hypotheses for abrupt climate change and should focus on warmer climate, because warming is likely. Because reorganizations of the thermohaline circulation have never been demonstrated in climate models employing high-resolution ocean components, improving the spatial resolution in climate models assumes high priority. Complex models should be used to produce geographically resolved (to about 1° of latitude by 1° of longitude), short-time (annual or seasonal) sensitivity experiments and scenarios of possible abrupt climatic changes.
Long integrations of fully coupled models under various forcings for the past, present, and future are needed to evaluate the models, assess possibilities of future abrupt changes, and provide scenarios of those future changes. The scenarios can be combined with integrated-assessment economic models to improve understanding of the costs for alternative adaptive approaches to climate change with attention to the effects of rising greenhouse-gas concentrations and nonclimatic factors, such as land-use changes and urbanization. Model-data comparisons are needed to assess the quality of model predictions. It is important to note that the multiple long integrations of enhanced, fully coupled earth-system models required for this research are not possible with the computer resources available today, and thus these resources should be enhanced.
IMPROVE PALEOCLIMATIC DATA RELATED TO ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE
Recommendation 3. The quantity of paleoclimatic data on abrupt change and ecological responses should be enhanced, with special emphasis on:
Selected coordinated projects to produce especially robust, multiparameter, high-resolution histories of climate change and ecological response.
Better geographic coverage and higher temporal resolution.
Additional proxies, including those that focus on water (e.g., droughts, floods, etc.).
Multidisciplinary studies of selected abrupt climate changes.
The current scientific emphasis on abrupt climate change was motivated by strong evidence in proxy records that showed extreme climatic changes in the past, sometimes occurring within periods of fewer than 10 years. Paleoclimatic records provide important information related to changes in many environmental variables. However, not all proxy archives provide equally high confidence for estimating past climatic conditions, such as temperature and precipitation, and for determining when and how rapidly changes occurred.
Confidence can be improved by encouraging coordinated, multi-parameter, multi-investigator study of selected archives that have seasonal to decadal time accuracy and resolution, substantial duplication of measurements to demonstrate reproducibility, and extensive calibration of the relation between climate and sedimentary characteristics. As one example, in the ice-core projects from central Greenland, duplication of the measurements by independent, international teams provides exceptional confidence in most data and reveals which data sets do not warrant confidence. Sampling at very high time resolution to produce data sets complementary to those of other investigators gives an exceptionally clear picture of past climate. Such projects require more funding and effort than are typical of paleoclimatic research, but they provide an essential reference standard of abrupt climate change to which other records can be compared. A difficulty is that this reference standard is from one place in high northern latitudes and is inappropriate for study of much of the climate system.
Not all paleoclimatic records can be studied in the same detail as those from Greenland, but generation of at least a few similar highly resolved (preferably annually or subannually) reference standards including a North Atlantic marine record comparable with Greenland records, would be of great value. The ultimate goal is to develop a global network of records with at least decadal resolution. Terrestrial and marine records of climate change and ecological response from the regions of the western Pacific warm pool (the warmest part of the global climate system) and the Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent (the southern cold pole of the climate system) are among the most critical targets for future paleoclimate research, including generation of reference standards.
Abrupt climate change is likely to influence water availability and therefore is of great concern for economic and ecological systems. Focus on measures of precipitation, evaporation, and the quantitative difference between them is particularly important. Freshwater balance is also important
in controlling water density and thus the thermohaline circulation of the oceans; reconstructions of water-mass density in polar and subpolar regions are central. New methods for investigating past changes in the hydrological cycle are important, as are additional studies of the relation between a range of climatic changes and the signals they leave in sedimentary archives.
Global maps of past climates, with high resolution in time and space and spanning long intervals, would be of great use to the climate community. However, such maps are unlikely to be available soon. The traditional alternative of reconstructing climate for selected moments, or “time-slices,” fails to capture the short-lived anomalies of abrupt climate changes. Instead, mapping efforts are needed and should focus on the patterns of selected abrupt climatic changes in time and space and on their resulting effects. Additional emphasis on annually resolved records of the last 2,000 years will help to place the warming and associated changes of the last 100 years in context.
IMPROVE STATISTICAL APPROACHES
Recommendation 4. Current practices in the development and use of statistics related to climate and climate-related variables generally assume a simple, unchanging distribution of outcomes. This assumption leads to serious underestimation of the likelihood of extreme events. The conceptual basis and the application of climatic statistics should be re-examined with an eye to providing realistic estimates of the likelihood of extreme events.
Many societal decisions are based on assumptions about the distribution of extreme weather-related events. Large capital projects, for instance, often have embedded safety margins that are derived from data and assumptions about the frequency distribution of extreme events. Many major decisions are based on statistical calculations that are appropriate for stationary climates, such as in the use of “30-year normals,” for deriving climate data for individual locations.
On the whole, those assumptions are reasonable, if imperfect, rules of thumb to use when the variability of weather is small and climate is stationary. If climate follows normal distributions with known and constant means and standard deviations, businesses and governments can use current practices. However, in light of recent findings related to nonstationary and of-
ten highly skewed climate-related variables, current practices can be misleading and result in costly errors.
The potential for abrupt climate change and the existence of thresholds for its effects require revisions of our statistical estimates and practices.
INVESTIGATE “NO-REGRETS” STRATEGIES TO REDUCE VULNERABILITY
Recommendation 5. Research should be undertaken to identify “no-regrets” measures to reduce vulnerabilities and increase adaptive capacity at little or no cost. No-regrets measures may include low-cost steps to: slow climate change; improve climate forecasting; slow biodiversity loss; improve water, land, and air quality; and develop institutions that are more robust to major disruptions. Technological changes may increase the adaptability and resiliency of market and ecological systems faced by the prospect of damaging abrupt climate change. Research is particularly needed to assist poor countries, which lack both scientific resources and economic infrastructure to reduce their vulnerabilities to potential abrupt climate changes.
Social and ecological systems have long dealt with climate variability by taking steps to reduce vulnerability to its effects. The rapidity of abrupt climate change makes adaptation more difficult. By moving research and policy in directions that will increase the adaptability of economic and ecological systems, it might be possible to reduce vulnerability and increase adaptation at little or no cost. Many current policies and practices are likely to be inadequate in a world of rapid and unforeseen climatic changes. Improving these policies will be beneficial even if abrupt climate change turns out to fit a best-case, rather than a worst-case, scenario. Societies will have “no regrets” about the new policies, because they will be good policies regardless of the magnitude of environmental change. For example, the phaseout of chloroflourocarbons and replacement by gases with shorter atmospheric lifetimes have reduced the US contribution to global warming while at the same time reducing future health risks posed by ozone depletion.
In land-use and coastal planning, managers should consider the effects on ecosystem services that could result from interaction of abrupt climate changes with changes caused by people. Scientists and government organi-
zations at various levels may be used to develop and implement regulations and policies that reduce environmental degradation of water, air, and biota. Conservation measures related to land and watersheds might be put into place to reduce the rate of biotic invasions, with management strategies used to limit the spread of invasions. The potential economic and ecological costs of disease emerging from abrupt climate change should be assessed.
A promising option is to improve institutions to allow societies to withstand the greater risks associated with abrupt changes in climate. For example, water systems are likely to be stressed by abrupt climate change; to manage scarce water, it might prove beneficial to seek more flexible ways to allocate water, such as through use of water markets. Another example of a “no-regrets” strategy is insurance against the financial impacts of fires, floods, storms, and hurricanes. Through the development of new instruments, such as weather derivatives and catastrophe bonds, markets might better accommodate extreme events such as the effects of abrupt climate change. It will be important to investigate the development of better instruments to spread large losses that result from extreme events, priced realistically to reflect the risks but not to encourage excessive risk taking.
Because of the strength of existing infrastructure and institutions, the United States and other wealthy nations are likely to cope with the effects of abrupt climate change more easily than poorer countries. That does not mean that developed countries can remain isolated from the rest of the world, however. With growing globalization, adverse impacts—although likely to vary from region to region because exposure and sensitivity will vary—are likely to spill across national boundaries, through human and biotic migration, economic shocks, and political aftershocks. Thus, even though this report focuses primarily on the United States, the issues are global and it will be important to give attention to the issues faced by poorer countries that are likely to be especially vulnerable to the social and economic impacts of abrupt climate change.
The United States is uniquely positioned to provide both scientific and financial leadership, and to work collaboratively with scientists around the world, to gain better understanding of the global impacts of abrupt climate change as well as reducing the vulnerability and increasing the adaptation in countries that are particularly vulnerable to these changes. Many of the recommendations in this report, although currently aimed at US institutions, would apply throughout the world.