If anybody has seen the big picture when it comes to climate, it’s Kathryn Sullivan. As a former NASA astronaut and the first woman to walk in space, she’s gotten more than a bird’s eye view.
“When you get even a couple hundred miles away and look back the planet you get a really different sense of proportion,” she marvels. The atmosphere we depend to survive on looks “like the fuzz on the tennis ball. It's remarkably thin…a little fluid membrane that envelops this ball of dirt and makes it habitable. It's very elegantly and finely structured.”
It’s an elegance that the public first glimpsed in the famous “Earthrise” photos, taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders. This new perspective on our home planet helped shape our understanding of the effects we humans were having on it, and spurred the environmental movement.
“We are the first generation of human beings ever in the history of humankind that has the ability to comprehend and measure our planet with satellites and other instrumentation,” says Sullivan, who now heads up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We can essentially take a snapshot of global conditions, oceanic conditions, atmospheric conditions. And this has what’s made it possible for us to have the kind of forecasting we have in weather forecasting and longer range outlooks. “
The outlook for California is sobering, according to Louise Bedsworth of the state’s Office of Planning and Research. California has seen its share of recent extreme weather events, including the 2013 Rim Fire, which burned over 250,000 acres and impacted tourism and other businesses throughout the region. And there’s more to come this year as the summer heats up.
“I think probably one of our biggest impacts of concern is going to be the effect on the state's water supply,” Bedsworth warns. While the amount of precipitation is hard to predict, “we’ll have more of that precipitation as rain than as snow, so that is going to really impact the state's water supply.
We also know that we'll see more extreme events, more large destructive wildfires, severe droughts and heat waves.”
And it’s not just California that’s feeling the heat. According to NOAA’s latest National Climate Assessment, the frequency of extreme weather events, from hurricanes and floods to wildfires and drought, is on the rise across the country. We know that climate change is causing this weather whiplash, but how? Kathryn Sullivan describes it as “kitchen table science.”
“The energy that drives weather in our planet is the heat coming in from the sun, the moisture content of the atmosphere, and obviously the rotation of the earth all of the swirling that that introduces,” she explains. “So we’re dialing up the extra heat in the atmosphere...when you heat up the water, the relative humidity in a hot atmosphere can be much higher than in the cooler and drier atmosphere.
“It’s really stovetop science working on the planetary scale.”
This global chemistry experiment has given birth to some familiar names in the news: Superstorm Sandy. Hurricane Katrina. Winterstorm Juno. While the practice of naming our weather has been criticized as media hype, Hunter Cutting of communications firm Climate Nexus says it’s actually helpful to the average viewer. “If you give something a name, it's a character in the story,” he says. “Scientists work with numbers and formulas. Average folks tell stories…then that story can be expanded to talk about what causes storm, what changed the odds of the storm happening. That’s how you can bring climate change into the conversation.”
Human, plant and animal migration is an important, if less dramatic, part of the climate story, adds Kathryn Sullivan.
“Disease patterns are migrating. The hay fever seasons have already expanded by up to 26 days” throughout North America, she says. Biologists have observed growing seasons changing all around the globe. “Human migrations are also being observed, and are very much a concern of national security officials in many, many, many countries.” Sullivan cited a recent National Academy of Sciences study that draws a link between climate change, drought and the Syrian uprising.
When it comes to escaping disaster, Sullivan emphasizes that it’s not about location – it’s about community. The word “resilience,” she says, has three strands: “It’s societal, it’s economic and its ecological resilience. You’ve got to be looking at all three, you’ve got to be weaving all three, or the notion is meaningless.”
So, “adaption or mitigation?” asked one audience member. Which strategy will better ensure our survival? Hunter Cutting believes that with the temperature projected to increase by up to eight degrees, we can – and should – do both.
“It’s a bit of a balancing act, right?” he replied. “Eight degrees may not sound like much. But that's about the amount of temperature change that we saw that ended the last Ice Age, and we’d have crocodiles living in the Arctic. So we really don’t want to go there.” Reducing emissions will help keep that number down, but what’s a manageable number?
“Two degrees…we can adapt to that much,” he concludes. “So I think we have to do both. We have to mitigate to avoid the catastrophic, and adapt to what we can’t avoid.”
And change, Cutter points out, is one of the signature characteristics of our species.
“Adaptation is just going to be part of what we do now going forward in the future.”