What is climate science, after all?

So I am done with the conference in Seattle, and it left me thinking about climate science. What are people really doing when they study climate change? What is useful for people who are not scientists – that is, managers, policy-makers, and voters?

There was a lot of great stuff at the conference, but there were also quite a few presentations that were just not my cup of tea. I had predicted that the conference would be a 50/50 mix of on-the-ground science and modeling. Well, I’d say that only about 15 percent of the presentations included actual empirical data that the researchers had collected themselves. Bummer.

It’s not just that I felt out of place in a sea of modelers, but worse than that, I wasn’t entirely sure that I supported so much money and effort being devoted to making computer models. I think there is a place for them, definitely; it is amazingly helpful to be able to predict what will happen in the future, and without models, we would have no way of communicating to the public why, exactly, climate change is going to be bad.

But listening to presenters stand up and present slightly different models of the same thing, using the same data, made me wonder if this was really helping. Instead of competing to see who could make the best model and endlessly tweaking it, couldn’t all these modelers work together, make one good model, revisit it periodically, and devote the rest of the resources to observing what is actually happening.

I discussed this with both Laurel, the postdoc who is my boss, and Scott, the professor who is her boss.

“Modeling is what helps managers,” Scott said  (or something like that). “You show them our data, and they go, well what am I supposed to do with that?”

But in my mind, the response shouldn’t be to show them some computer-generated numbers instead. What was a little disappointing about the conference was that the modelers and the ecologists didn’t seem to have come together in a lot of cases. The models were of temperature and water flow, and were being used to predict, well, weather and flooding, for the most part. But you would think that those climate models could dovetail with on-the-ground science to give us a better clue about how to care for our ecosystems.

There were a couple presentations which were spot on. Dr. Kevin McKelvey of the Rocky Mountain Research Station talked about his work on wolverines. McKelvey and his colleagues had noticed that the wolverines only denned in places where there was year-round snowpack, and hypothesized that the animals also only traveled through these corridors. They did some modeling and some work with radio transmitters, and found that this was true. Then, they thought, how is this going to affect the wolverines when the climate changes? So they found a modeler, made a map of the places where wolverine habitat would be in the future, and bingo, you have data that can help manage wolverine populations.

That’s the kind of work I want to do! Maybe. I’m not sure. But if I keep doing ecology, I want to see more projects like this. It just makes sense – and shouldn’t be limited to wolverines. (Although they are certainly interesting: here’s an article about McKelvey’s work in High Country News.)

Another really interesting presentation, I thought, was by Tobias Kock of the U.S. Geological Survey. Kock studies salmon, and talked about how the downstream migration of salmon through dams will be affected by climate change. In the river where he was doing his research, there is one of the tallest dams in the country, and salmon can’t get around it; if they go through the turbines of the upstream dam, they end up as landlocked salmon in a large reservoir above the tall one, stuck forever. Amazingly, the dam operators have installed a fish catchment system below the upstream dam, and they drive the fish they have caught to below the downstream dam where they can then swim their way out to the sea.

Because catching the fish is a pain in the butt and driving them around is expensive, the fish-catching system isn’t operated year-round, but rather only when the yearling salmon are migrating for a few months in the summer. Kock looked at how many smaller fish get washed through the dam in high-flow situations in the winter (hint: it can be a lot) and suggested that managers in the future might switch priorities and use the catchment system in the winter as more and more extreme weather events come to the northwest. He also suggested adjusting the system so it could catch the smaller fish, which it currently doesn’t do well at.

Again: pretty cool stuff, and useful for wildlife managers!

I found some of the pure modeling/statistics talks interesting, too – for instance, one mapping household water use in Portland by neighborhood – but overall, there were just too many of them. I wanted to see more presentations like these two, or the ones that Scott and Laurel gave about our project.

Overall, I was really glad I went to the conference – besides seeing some interesting science, I got a reality check about what climate science really is these days, and where all of the research money is going. As an ecologist, that’s a little sobering, but it’s good to know.

The best part of the trip? Having dinner and ice cream with my old housemate Liz Embick! It was so fun to see her, so exciting, and I didn’t want to say goodbye. Hopefully we’ll see each other again soon!

Because while we know that climate change is taking place – quickly – we still don’t know, necessarily, how the world is going to change in response. We have theories, some of them supported by data and others less so. But it’s really hard to convince people to

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One thought on “What is climate science, after all?

  1. Chelsea, nicely done. I agree with you on the need for data first, and I think of the models as only derivatives of data. Just been reading some Enos Mills, Wildlife of the Rockies, published in 1900. Lots of experience, interesting country, but very little data and that not organized. So it is a vague tale saturated with opinion. How much more valuable in charting whats happening in this world if he had recorded some facts.
    O.Ross McIntyre

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