Blog Archive

Sunday, June 21, 2009

"Climate Change: Picturing the Science" by Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe

Climate Change: Picturing the Science

Book Review

Digg this! Share this on Twitter - Book Review: Climate Change: Picturing the ScienceTweet this submit to reddit Share This

Sunday, June 21, 2009, 5:58:38 a.m. PDT

Climate Change: Picturing the Science
Authors: Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009

Books on the environment in general and climate change in particular have become visual works of art over the years. The two authors teamed up to take that trend to its logical end: I asked Dr. Schmidt why the focus on pictures:

Much of the reporting in traditional media fixate on polar bears and extreme weather. We wanted a bigger picture, the intricacies and subtleties beyond those notable icons. We felt that eye catching imagery integrated with easy to read vignettes would better convey to readers of all background what our work is really all about.

The lexicon of climate change may intimidate the non-scientist, but the concepts involved are intuitive for any species on earth. Temperature, humidity, salinity, wind and rain. These and other factors can interact in surprisingly elegant and sometimes unforeseen ways. A few examples:

The documented decline of glaciers over the last century are powerful illustrations of climate change and amplification in the cyrosphere. But as the authors point out, a few glaciers, for example, along the western coast of Norway, increased slightly up until a few years ago. Climate change brings about changes in weather; in some cases that can mean more humidity which can translate to more snowfall feeding the glacier. But it also brings more extreme freeze/thaw cycles which eventually overwhelm the higher rates of snowfall along with earlier seasonal changes. This may be part of the reason the once resistant Norwegian glaciers are now retreating as well. More below the fold.

  • ::

Case in point, dramatic satellite images of the Larsen B Ice Shelf made headlines around the world when it collapsed in 2002. But the effects of climate change across the continent of Antarctica is a lot more complex and a lot less clear than most people appreciate. Antarctica appeared to be relatively unaffected by climate change until more recently. The continent is classified as a cold desert. But precipitation in the form of snowfall is expected to increase due to higher humidification. This effect could in principle delay sea level rise from melting Antarctic ice sheets. But wind currents and other factors have changed noticeably and it remains to be seen how this vast, poorly understood region will react under changing conditions humans have never witnessed.

One common critique of climate change is that if local weathermen can't accurately predict if it will rain next weekend, how can the public have faith in complex computer models that make predictions on far greater time scales? The answer is, scientists can make predictions about long-term climate, because climate and weather are not the same thing. No one can say it will snow on Christmas day wherever you are in 2050, but we do know it will get warmer in the spring and cooler in the fall because climate is forced by seasons. It should come as no surprise that it can be forced by factors like high-altitude aerosols that reflect solar radiation, or greenhouse gases that retain it. An event like the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was a grand experiment that allowed researchers to test the accuracy of high-altitude aerosol layers vs. GHG models. Empirical observations from real world phenomena give researchers the opportunity to test models with many variables. As those models have become more sophisticated and their results confirmed, climate scientists have grown more confident in their long-range predictions.

Flammable bubbles of the potent greenhouse gas methane, once sequestered away in permafrost and sea floor, now rise to the icy surface. This is visual representation of a mostly unseen changes in the chemical and thermal properties of the Arctic ocean. Methane breaks down into other GHGs causing more warming releasing more methane. It's a powerful feedback process already underway. For decades the subtle changes were mostly noticed by a handful of scientists and indigenous people. But it's all connected and growing: those changes now threaten the seasonal blooms of plankton which form the basis of a rich food chain ultimately affecting fisheries and sea life all over the planet.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Schmidt and Wolfe’s new book is worth the modest asking price many times over. The number of breathtaking images and fascinating lessons that can be drawn from them exceed the scope of any review. Suffice it to say the book is well worth the price for the images alone. The illustration are clear, text does not run into or overlap them, diagrams are straightforward, and the information that goes along with the pictures is easy to follow for even a casual reader, not to mention completely apolitical. The latter is not an accident: as the title suggests, the authors chose to let the science and pictures make the case for them. In my opinion they succeed wildly.

Dr. Gavin Schmidt is a senior climate scientist at NASA Goddard Space Science Institute and a founding member of the popular blog Real Climate; Josh Wolfe is an up and coming young photographer with a longstanding interest in the natural world.

Link to book review:

No comments: