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For many years politicians said, “We’re not even sure climate change is real, so why should we waste money studying it?”

And seemingly overnight, the message has become, “Now that we know climate change is real, we can stop studying it.”

Don’t believe me? This is what Larry Marshall, the chief executive of Australia’s federal science agency CSIRO, wrote in an email to staff earlier this month:

Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?

And then he cut 110 of the 140 climate research jobs in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division.

Larry’s statement on its own is perfectly reasonable, but as justification for cutting basic research it is nonsensical. As Andy Pitman, the director of my research centre, responded, “What he fails to realise is that to answer these new questions, you need the same climate scientists!”

Luckily climate scientists are a tough bunch, and we don’t take shit like this lying down.

Why CSIRO matters

There’s not very many people in the Southern Hemisphere, and certainly not very many people studying the climate. Australia is really the only Southern Hemisphere country with the critical mass of population and wealth to pull off a significant climate research programme. And historically, Australia has done this very well. I can attest that the climate modelling community is larger and more active in Australia than it is in Canada, despite Canada’s population being about 50% higher.

Some of this research is done in universities, mainly funded by Australian Research Council grants. I’m a part of this system and I love it – we have the freedom to steer our research in whatever direction we think is best, rather than having someone from the government tell us what we can and can’t study. But there isn’t very much stability. Projects are typically funded on a 3-5 year timeline, and with a success rate around 20% for most grant applications, you can never be sure how long a given project will continue. You wouldn’t want to be the official developers of a climate model in an environment like that. You certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of a massive network of observations. And that is why we need governmental research organisations like CSIRO.

Right now CSIRO hosts the ACCESS model (Australian Community Climate and Earth-System Simulator) which is used by dozens of my friends and colleagues. ACCESS has a good reputation – I particularly like it because it simulates the Southern Ocean more realistically than just about any CMIP5 model. I think this is because it’s pretty much the only contribution to CMIP5 from the Southern Hemisphere. Even if a model is ostensibly “global”, the regions its developers focus on tend to be close to home.

The official ACCESS developers at CSIRO distribute new releases of the code, collect and resolve bug reports, organise submissions to model intercomparison projects like CMIP5, and continually work to improve model efficiency and performance. Some of this work is done in collaboration with the Bureau of Meteorology, the National Computational Infrastructure, the UK Met Office (which provides the atmosphere component of the model), and researchers at Australian universities. But CSIRO is the backbone of ACCESS, and it’s unclear what will happen to the model without its core development team. The Bureau and the universities simply will not be able to pick up the slack.

[It’s] completely understandable that someone who’s spent 20 years, for example, studying climate change, measuring climate change or modelling climate change, it’s perfectly understandable that they don’t want to stop doing that and we must respect that, and we must find a place for them in the rest of the innovation system, perhaps in an university.
Larry Marshall

Changing directions

In his letter to staff, Larry Marshall wrote that he wants CSIRO to focus on (among other things) “our management of the oceans, climate adaptation, climate interventions (geo-engineering), [and] emergency response to extreme events”. It’s clear that he wants climate research to move away from the question “Are we really, really, really sure that climate change is real?” and more towards “How will climate change impact us and what can we do about it?” Again, I completely agree. But here’s the thing, Larry: We’re already doing that. The research program that you want to eliminate is already evolving into the research program you want to replace it with.

Climate science is evolving in this manner all over the world, not just at CSIRO. Try publishing a paper that concludes “Yes, humans are changing the climate” and see how far you get. Your reviewers will almost certainly respond with “Is that all?” and hit reject. Papers like that were a big deal in the 80s and the 90s. But by now we’ve moved on to more interesting questions.

For example, I’m using ocean models to study how the Southern Ocean might melt the Antarctic Ice Sheet from the bottom up. I’m not doing this to “prove” climate change – how could I even do that in this context? – but to get a better understanding of how much and how fast the sea level will rise over the next few centuries. If we’re going to have to move Miami, Shanghai, New York, and countless other major coastal cities, it would be good to have a few decades’ notice. And we won’t have that kind of notice unless we understand what Antarctica’s doing, through a network of observations (to see what it’s doing right now) and modelling studies (to predict what it might do next).

Without measuring and modelling, our attempts at adaptation and mitigation will be shots in the dark. “The one thing that makes adaptation really difficult is uncertainty,” writes journalist Michael Slezak. “If you don’t know what the climate will be like in the future – whether it will be wetter or dryer, whether cyclones will be more or less frequent – then you can’t prepare. You cannot adapt for a future that you don’t understand.”

Someone’s going to have to convince me that measuring and modelling is far more important than mitigation – and at this point you know, none of my leadership believe that.
Larry Marshall

Scientists fight back!

My colleagues at CSIRO are having a difficult month. They know that most of them will lose their jobs, or their supervisors will lose their jobs, and that they may have to leave Australia to find another job. But they won’t know who’s staying and who’s going until early March – a full month after the announcement was first made. Due to Larry’s lack of consultation on this decision, the CSIRO staff are reportedly considering industrial action.

The really maddening part of this whole situation is that climate science was specifically targeted. Of the 350 job losses across CSIRO – which studies all kinds of things, not just climate science – 110 were to the climate unit of the Oceans and Atmosphere department, and a similar number to Land and Water. It wouldn’t be so insulting if CSIRO was trimming down a little bit everywhere to cope with its budget cuts. Instead, they’re directly targeting – and essentially eliminating – climate science. “”No one is saying climate change is not important, but surely mitigation, health, education, sustainable industries, and prosperity of the nation are no less important,” Larry wrote in response to mounting criticism. So are we going to cut all of those research programs too?

Climate scientists are rather battle-hardened after so many years of personal attacks by climate change deniers, and everyone jumped into action following CSIRO’s announcement. At the annual meeting of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society the following week, the attendees organised a bit of a demonstration. It’s not often that the Sydney Morning Herald publishes a photo of “angry scientists”:

(I know just about everyone in this photo. The guy front and centre shares a cubicle with me. Hi Stefan!)

Then scientists from outside Australia started to get involved. The normally-staid World Climate Research Program released an official statement condemning CSIRO’s decision. “Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change,” they warned.

A few days later an open letter, signed by 2800 climate scientists from almost 60 countries, was sent to the CSIRO and the Australian government. “Without CSIRO’s involvement in both climate measurement and modelling, a significant portion of the Southern Hemisphere oceans and atmosphere will go unmonitored,” the letter warned. You can tell it was written by scientists because it’s complete with references and footnotes, and the signatories are carefully organised both alphabetically and by country.

We’re not sure if our efforts will make any difference. We’ll find out next month whether or not these cuts really will go ahead. Media coverage of this issue has slowed, and there have been no more announcements out of CSIRO. But I suppose we’ve done everything we can.

I feel like the early climate scientists in the ’70s fighting against the oil lobby…I guess I had the realisation that the climate lobby is perhaps more powerful than the energy lobby was back in the ’70s – and the politics of climate I think there’s a lot of emotion in this debate. In fact it almost sounds more like religion than science to me.
Larry Marshall

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Around 55 million years ago, an abrupt global warming event triggered a highly corrosive deep-water current to flow through the North Atlantic Ocean. This process, suggested by new climate model simulations, resolves a long-standing mystery regarding ocean acidification in the deep past.

The rise of CO2 that led to this dramatic acidification occurred during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period when global temperatures rose by around 5°C over several thousand years and one of the largest-ever mass extinctions in the deep ocean occurred.

The PETM, 55 million years ago, is the most recent analogue to present-day climate change that researchers can find. Similarly to the warming we are experiencing today, the PETM warming was a result of increases in atmospheric CO2. The source of this CO2 is unclear, but the most likely explanations include methane released from the seafloor and/or burning peat.

During the PETM, like today, emissions of CO2 were partially absorbed by the ocean. By studying sediment records of the resulting ocean acidification, researchers can estimate the amount of CO2 responsible for warming. However, one of the great mysteries of the PETM has been why ocean acidification was not evenly spread throughout the world’s oceans but was so much worse in the Atlantic than anywhere else.

This pattern has also made it difficult for researchers to assess exactly how much CO2 was added to the atmosphere, causing the 5°C rise in temperatures. This is important for climate researchers as the size of the PETM carbon release goes to the heart of the question of how sensitive global temperatures are to greenhouse gas emissions.

Solving the mystery of these remarkably different patterns of sediment dissolution in different oceans is a vital key to understanding the rapid warming of this period and what it means for our current climate.

A study recently published in Nature Geoscience shows that my co-authors Katrin Meissner, Tim Bralower and I may have cracked this long-standing mystery and revealed the mechanism that led to this uneven ocean acidification.

We now suspect that atmospheric CO2 was not the only contributing factor to the remarkably corrosive Atlantic Ocean during the PETM. Using global climate model simulations that replicated the ocean basins and landmasses of this period, it appears that changes in ocean circulation due to warming played a key role.

55 million years ago, the ocean floor looked quite different than it does today. In particular, there was a ridge on the seafloor between the North and South Atlantic, near the equator. This ridge completely isolated the deep North Atlantic from other oceans, like a giant bathtub on the ocean floor.

In our simulations this “bathtub” was filled with corrosive water, which could easily dissolve calcium carbonate. This corrosive water originated in the Arctic Ocean and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic after mixing with dense salty water from the Tethys Ocean (the precursor to today’s Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas).

Our simulations then reproduced the effects of the PETM as the surface of the Earth warmed in response to increases in CO2. The deep ocean, including the corrosive bottom water, gradually warmed in response. As it warmed it became less dense. Eventually the surface water became denser than the warming deep water and started to sink, causing the corrosive deep water mass to spill over the ridge – overflowing the “giant bath tub”.

The corrosive water then spread southward through the Atlantic, eastward through the Southern Ocean, and into the Pacific, dissolving sediments as it went. It became more diluted as it travelled and so the most severe effects were felt in the South Atlantic. This pattern agrees with sediment records, which show close to 100% dissolution of calcium carbonate in the South Atlantic.

If the acidification event occurred in this manner it has important implications for how strongly the Earth might warm in response to increases in atmospheric CO2.

If the high amount of acidification seen in the Atlantic Ocean had been caused by atmospheric CO2 alone, that would suggest a huge amount of CO2 had to go into the atmosphere to cause 5°C warming. If this were the case, it would mean our climate was not very sensitive to CO2.

But our findings suggest other factors made the Atlantic far more corrosive than the rest of the world’s oceans. This means that sediments in the Atlantic Ocean are not representative of worldwide CO2 concentrations during the PETM.

Comparing computer simulations with reconstructed ocean warming and sediment dissolution during the event, we could narrow our estimate of CO2 release during the event to 7,000 – 10,000 GtC. This is probably similar to the CO2 increase that will occur in the next few centuries if we burn most of the fossil fuels in the ground.

To give this some context, today we are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere at least 10 times faster than than the natural CO2 emissions that caused the PETM. Should we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, we are likely to see the same temperature increase in the space of a few hundred years that took a few thousand years 55 million years ago.

This is an order of magnitude faster and it is likely the impacts from such a dramatic change will be considerably stronger.

Written with the help of my co-authors Katrin and Tim, as well as our lab’s communications manager Alvin Stone.

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It turns out that when you submit a paper to a journal like Nature Geoscience “just in case, we have nothing to lose, they’ll probably reject it straight away”…sometimes you are unexpectedly successful.

Read it here!

Assorted media coverage:

More detailed post to come…

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My supervisors are so distinguished that they now exist in cartoon form! If that’s not the mark of a successful science communicator, I’m not sure what is.

Here is Katrin:

And here is Matt:

A former supervisor of mine also got a cartoon:

There are 97 cartoons like this over at Skeptical Science, a site which is quickly becoming a force of nature. This campaign reached millions of people through Twitter alone, and was even retweeted by President Obama.

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It has been a very busy few months. Here are some of the things I have done since I last wrote:

  • Moved out of our apartment in Canada
  • Spent three weeks in Ireland with my partner’s family – this was great fun and featured lots of music, tide pools, castles, and sheep
  • Went back to Canada for six days
  • Mastered the art of packing checked luggage and carry-on bags so they are juuust under the weight limit
  • Said a lot of tearful goodbyes
  • Flew to Australia!
  • Discovered Sydney was 11°C and raining
  • Immediately regretted leaving all our warm sweaters behind (“It’s spring in Australia,” we said. “We won’t need these for months yet,” we said)
  • Saw all three animals I had missed the most – bats, lorikeets, and scientists – in the very first day
  • Officially enrolled as a PhD student at UNSW
  • Stumbled into the Sydney real estate market, where rent prices are more than double what we are used to, and only the wealthiest people can afford to buy property
  • Managed to find a great little apartment for rent within our budget
  • Bought out most of IKEA
  • Moved into said apartment (we’re getting good at this moving thing)
  • Helped to finish up 3 papers from the project Katrin, Tim, and I did last year, and 1 paper from the project Steve and I did 3 years ago
  • Read at least a dozen papers on interactions between Antarctic ice shelves and the Southern Ocean – my PhD project will be somewhere in this field
  • Gone out for climate beers (regular beers consumed by climate scientists) and discussed whether the Canadian or the Australian political system is more fundamentally broken
  • Swam in the ocean three times, and discovered that if you put on goggles and look underneath the water you can see FISH swimming around beneath you

Things are finally calming down now, and I should have time to write more frequently. Now that my head is not so full of flight schedules and rental agreements and shopping lists, it has a lot more space for climate science, and for topics to write about here.

I am so, so happy to be back at the CCRC. It is such a friendly, supportive, and enriching place to do research. While I miss my family and the Canadian wildlife and Canadian autumn (definitely not Canadian winter), this is the best time in my life to travel and explore the planet which I spend so much time studying, and hopefully, helping.

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Now that the academic summer is over, I have left Australia and returned home to Canada. It is great to be with my friends and family again, but I really miss the ocean and the giant monster bats. Not to mention the lab: after four months as a proper scientist, it’s very hard to be an undergrad again.

While I continue to settle in, move to a new apartment, and recover from jet lag (which is way worse in this direction!), here are a few pieces of reading to tide you over:

Scott Johnson from Ars Technica wrote a fabulous piece about climate modelling, and the process by which scientists build and test new components. The article is accurate and compelling, and features interviews with two of my former supervisors (Steve Easterbrook and Andrew Weaver) and lots of other great communicators (Gavin Schmidt and Richard Alley, to name a few).

I have just started reading A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. So far, it is one of the best pieces of science writing I have ever read. As well as being funny and easy to understand, it makes me excited about areas of science I haven’t studied since high school.

Finally, my third and final paper from last summer in Victoria was published in the August edition of Journal of Climate. The full text (subscription required) is available here. It is a companion paper to our recent Climate of the Past study, and compares the projections of EMICs (Earth System Models of Intermediate Complexity) when forced with different RCP scenarios. In a nutshell, we found that even after anthropogenic emissions fall to zero, it takes a very long time for CO2 concentrations to recover, even longer for global temperatures to start falling, and longer still for sea level rise (caused by thermal expansion alone, i.e. neglecting the melting of ice sheets) to stabilize, let alone reverse.

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It seems that every post I write begins with an apology for not writing more. I’ve spent the past few months writing another set of exams (only one more year to go), building and documenting two simple climate models for term projects (much more on that later), and moving to Australia!

This (Northern Hemisphere) summer I have a job at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, which has a close partnership with the UVic Climate Lab (where I worked last summer). I am working with Dr. Katrin Meissner, who primarily studies ocean, carbon cycle, and paleoclimate modelling. We have lots of plans for exciting projects to work on over the next four months.

Australia is an interesting place. Given that it’s nearly 20 hours away by plane, it has a remarkably similar culture to Canada. The weather is much warmer, though (yesterday it dropped down to 15 C and everyone was complaining about the cold) and the food is fantastic. The birds are more colourful (Rainbow Lorikeets are so common that some consider them pests) and the bats are as big as ravens. Best of all, there is an ocean. I think I am going to like it here.

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