Turning the tide: PSU researchers aim to derive better ways to address effects of climate change

December 30, 2012 

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    Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each bimonthly column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

    Coming up next: Every year, forest fires and the damage they cause make the news. Alan Taylor, a professor of geography has been studying fires — what fuels them and how to better predict their potential effects and characteristics — for years.

Would sea walls protect low-lying areas from the potential disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet and rising sea levels? How would those sea walls change flooding somewhere else?

Those are the types of scientific and ethical questions that climate change has brought to the forefront. Now, a Penn State faculty member is leading a research network designed to improve scientific understanding of the Earth system in hopes of contributing toward better strategies for managing the risks associated with climate change.

Klaus Keller, an associate professor of geosciences and part of Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, is principal investigator on the project — the Network for Sustainable Climate Risk Management or SCRiM — which recently received an $11.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant, part of the National Science Foundation’s Sustainability Research Networks, will support work over five years by the team of faculty and researchers from Penn State, 18 other universities and five research institutes across six countries. The project, just getting under way now, will continue to grow.

Keller said the idea is to improve the understanding of the Earth and assess ways to address climate problems, much as humans have gained a growing understanding of the human body and ways to prolong lives.

“In the same way as medical advances raise ethical and economic issues, Earth system science raises similar issues,” he said.

The research focuses on a range of subjects — from the potential impacts of melting of the Greenland ice sheet to the effect of climate change on monsoon systems. But the overall goal is to provide information that allows for more informed decisions about responding to and preparing for climate change in an Anthropogenic era — one that is seeing the effects of human beings.

“We live in the Anthropocene, an epoch where humans have significant impacts on the Earth system,” Keller said. “With the power to change the Earth system comes the need to make choices and the responsibility to think about the consequences and trade-offs associated with these choices.”

Key goals of the project are improving the ability to analyze those tradeoffs, communicating the findings to decision-makers and training the next generation of researchers.

To do that, the team is drawing on researchers from a range of fields, including Earth sciences, engineering, ethics, economics and mathematics. The researchers will look at a set of interrelated questions, such as: What are possible climate threshold responses? What are the associated risks? How can these risks be managed through the mitigation of greenhouse gases, for example? What are the trade-offs associated with different choices?

An example Keller gave is looking at the consequences and choices surrounding the potential disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet. That process could raise sea levels in many regions, and, in turn, affect many low-lying areas. Trying to mitigate that potential — for example by building sea walls — would affect the associated impacts.

Project manager Robert Nicholas said much of the work involves using computer models that simulate the climate system as well as human enterprises such as agriculture and trade. That includes simulating what climate change could mean for sea ice, ocean circulation, the carbon cycle and a variety of human systems. Nicholas said that these components interact in complex, often surprising ways, and that some modeling studies will explore how these interactions are affected by different ethical and policy assumptions.

A complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet would raise global mean sea-level by roughly seven meters. The response of the Greenland ice sheet to warming might be slow initially, but might quicken. The research will look at questions such as whether there will be early warning signs of crossing a threshold that could mean bigger problems down the road.

Co-principal investigators for the network are Robert Lempert, at RAND Corporation; Chris Forest, in Penn State’s Department of Meteorology; Karen Fisher-Vanden, in Penn State’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology and Education; and James Edmonds at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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