Climatologist encourages sensible adaptation to changing environment

August 8, 2013

PLAINVIEW — Approximately 50 people attended a morning meeting Thursday at the Ollie Liner Center in Plainview addressing the ongoing drought conditions on the High Plains. The message they received was one of hope, but caution.

The meeting, “21st Century Drought on the Southern High Plains: Principles; Dimensions; and Prospects” was organized by Wayland Baptist University in partnership with the Hale County Texas A&M Extension Office and the Plainview/Hale County Industrial Foundation. Wayland biology professor and Dean of the School of Mathematics and Sciences, Dr. Herb Grover, moderated the meeting and the keynote speaker was Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. 

In addition to teaching at Tech, Hayhoe — who received a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from the University of Toronto and master’s and doctor’s degrees in atmospheric science from the University of Illinois — is the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research. In 2012 she was named one of Christianity Today’s “50 Women to Watch.”

In introducing Hayhoe to the audience, Grover pointed out the speaker’s Christian background and indeed, as a portion of her presentation, Hayhoe explained the reasons that she believes addressing climate change responsibly is important for people of faith.

Hayhoe spent approximately an hour outlining the results of her and her colleagues’ extensive research into the climate of the High Plains, in particular, and the Earth, in general, and pointed out that the climate is changing. Part of the problem, she continued, is that change always seems to impact most those who are least able to adapt.

“We are told (in the Bible) to love our neighbors as ourselves,” she said, adding that part of that love, from an individual standpoint, is to be a good steward of creation.

Hayhoe explained that when she looks at information about the planet through her research, she likes to think of that information, in a way, as God’s voice to his people.

So what is that voice saying?

“God’s creation is telling us it’s running a fever — a low-grade fever,” she said.

Hayhoe explained that scientific data consistently is showing that the climate is changing and the biggest mistakes people can make is to not acknowledge that or begin to look at ways to modify human behavior to decrease the impact of that change.

She used the analogy of driving with one’s eyes fixed on the rearview mirror to explain how many people traditionally have viewed weather patterns. After all, she said, the climatological history of the region is one of cyclical change between hot and cold, wet and dry.

“It is part of our climate to have drought,” she said. “We have a cold-desert environment with highly variable precipitation.”

Historically, she said, weather patterns across time have tended to balance out and the region has been able to prosper through those cycles because of “the aquifer under our feet.” That balance was depicted in a slide from her presentation of a black line on a graph.

The growing concern, though, Hayhoe said, is the realization that the historical balance is going away, according to the data climatologists are collecting.

“Is this black line starting to tilt?” she asked, and then she answered her own question.

“This black line is starting to tilt. Things are changing,” she said.

Hayhoe explained that research is showing an interesting irony. Over time, the temperature across the region is getting warmer, and that is true in particular, during the winter. At the same time, data shows that precipitation has been fairly normal, although the timing of when that precipitation comes is changing. In fact, she continued, long-term forecasts predict that those two phenomena will continue — and that the current drought conditions will persist.

She then posed the question of how drought could persist if rainfall amounts are normal. The answer, she said is that research is showing an increase in extreme precipitation events where several inches of that normal annual moisture come at once. That means that there are longer dry spells between precipitation events. Additionally, she continued, there is such a deficit right now, it will take greater than average rainfall to catch up.

While if taken to an extreme, the research Hayhoe described could seem to lead to pending disaster, the researcher said that wasn’t necessarily the case, because of the human element of the equation. After all, she said, it is the human element that is creating much of the problem — and she went into some detail about how natural phenomena that influence climate can be shown not to be causing the problem. The energy from the sun is decreasing over time, she pointed out, and that should be causing the planet to cool, as should any increase in volcanic activity, and she cited other issues that, in reality, should be causing the planet to cool.

She explained that while the atmosphere allows sunlight through to the earth, carbon dioxide that is naturally a part of the atmosphere holds heat so the planet stays warm. The problem is that additional carbon dioxide has been introduced over time by humans and that is acting like an extra blanket.

“This extra blanket is trapping too much heat,” she said, at which point she returned to her analogy of driving while looking into the rearview mirror and to personal responsibility, although she acknowledged that climate change, and how to address it, can be a controversial subject.

“This is why we can’t drive the car looking in the rearview mirror anymore,” she said bluntly. “Climate is changing because of what we are doing, and there is no way around it.”

Hayhoe said that rather than looking to the past, people have to look ahead so they can negotiate the curves in the road. She brought up a slide that drove her point home:

“Just because we disagree about the solutions, doesn’t mean we have to disagree about the science; and what if there were some solutions we could agree on?” the slide read.

She explained that simply switching to LED light bulbs could have a dramatic impact on energy savings, which in turn could have an impact on pollution. In fact, she continued, anything that an individual does to reduce the use of fossil fuels would help reduce the pollution that is causing climate change. The important thing, she concluded, is people have to start doing something.

“We have to start making sensible choices now,” she said.