In my RSS reader this week, I got this uplifting story about current research in Antarctica: Sea Levels May Rise Faster Than Expected. Much of the story speculates on rather scary possibilities down the road and should be taken with a certain amount of skepticism, the degree of warming we might expect in the future being a question rife with uncertainties. Climatologists rely on computer modeling to predict future conditions, and, as skeptics like to assert, perhaps the climate change models are wrong.
But here’s the thing—as long as I’ve been following the climate change issue, scientists DO seem to consistently have gotten their predictions wrong, just not in ways that Fox News will be in a rush to tell you. Over the last several years, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read scientist comments like the one from NASA’s Robert Bindschlader in this particular article:
“It’s caught us all very much off guard,” says Bindschadler. “These are not the ice sheets that I was being taught when I was in graduate school. They are changing at magnitudes and at rates that were thought impossible just 15 years ago.”
Particularly where the poles are concerned, reports of current observable climate change routinely include words like “unexpected” and “unprecedented” and “underestimated.”
I dunno. I’ve written before about the difficulty, as a non-scientist, of separating signal from noise when it comes to a complex, contentious issue like climate change. I think the tendency among many people, myself included, is to assume “the truth is somewhere in the middle” when faced with competing narratives about a given issue. When we hear about uncertainties in climate predictions, it’s comforting (and easier) to think that maybe things won’t be as bad as climate scientists project. The scientists could be wrong.
But it’s important to remember that underestimation could be just as likely as overestimation when it comes to future climate change predictions. Yes, the models might be wrong, so scientists test them by documenting observable changes over time. What’s happening now matters, and we need to pay attention.
For that matter, what has happened in the past matters, too. This detail from the PRI article was news to me:
Scientists like Wanless are studying sediments from past warming periods to find clues as to how quickly sea levels changed. And what they’ve found is the stuff of Hollywood movies—rapid pulses in the 20-foot range, and on a time scale that could be not centuries, but decades.
I honestly don’t know what to do with this information. Am I being alarmist for highlighting it? What do we do when the science is alarming? I’ve always liked the analogy about humankind and the climate that we’re poking a sleeping tiger with a stick, unsure of exactly what it will do. Well, I’m a wee bit alarmed to find what this tiger has done upon waking in the past.
I’ll be in New Orleans this weekend, trying hard not to think about these things (especially there).