Southeast Climate Science Center’s New Course on Climate Science

 JUL 27, 2015    by ADAM DALE

Photo: Adam Dale

This morning I’m sitting on my porch with my computer in my lap, sipping coffee from my Star Trek mug and enjoying the beautiful morning sky. I’m staring out over a temperate deciduous forest surrounding a beautiful lake, all beneath patches of clouds, the blue sky, and a faint moon descending over the horizon. What makes this even better is that I am near the middle of downtown Raleigh, NC surrounded by urban habitat and you can’t tell (at least not from this view).

This past year I was fortunate enough to be selected as one of 5 global change fellows with the Southeast Climate Science Center at North Carolina State University. I research the effects of urbanization and urban warming on arthropod pests of urban forests, which my lab also uses as a surrogate for predicting the impacts of future climate change on natural forests. Given my research interests, it seems like I would already know a fair amount about climate science and what’s going on with our planet. However, until this past semester, my only knowledge of climate science and climate change was what I had learned from the primary literature and the parts of the latest IPCC report that I managed to skim through.

Fortunately, Dr. Ryan Boyles and Dr. Adam Terando, here at NC State, offered a seminar course on climate science this past semester, and as a fellow with the climate science center, I was encouraged to attend. And it’s a good thing I did.

Now I can explain the basic physical climatology behind why the earth is warming faster than ever in the history of our planet. I learned the details of the snow/ice albedo feedback loop, what a black body is, and what the heck radiative forcing is. I can understand papers that discuss climate model downscaling and know why and how scientists go about doing downscaling. When someone asks if global warming is real, I can say more than, yes, it’s the greenhouse effect. I can explain the laws of thermodynamics in the context of the climate system. I can explain longwave and shortwave radiation. I can discuss the carbon cycle and why so much CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere, and describe how this and other greenhouse gases create feedbacks that either enhance or slow the warming trend.

We were also lucky to have a guest lecture by Susan Hassol, an expert in climate science communication. We learned about the best ways to effectively communicate climate science to non-scientists, which can be one of the biggest hurdles we must overcome in our field. We learned the best ways to convey that climate change is real, how to tell people that there will be serious repercussions, and that there are things that we can do to mitigate and adapt to these changes. It was also emphasized during our course that effectively disseminating our science to the public and lawmakers is the only way we’ll see change. Personally, this has driven me live more as an example of the changes I am hoping to see in our society.

Not only do I now have a better understanding of the science behind our planet’s changing climate, I have a better understanding of how climate science as a discipline works. It’s not all too different from my world of entomology, ecology, and urban forestry. But it certainly gives me a better understanding and perspective of environmental science, which I think has made me a better scientist and shaped the way I ask questions in my own research.

Now, as I sit on my porch, I don’t just think about how beautiful my view is. I picture photons of solar radiation coming through the atmosphere (those that aren’t reflected) and being absorbed by the earth and then being released as longwave radiation, which is then reflected back to the earth once it reaches the increasingly CO2 – concentrated atmosphere (which I’m reminded of again as a 12mpg pickup drives by). I picture the lake’s water temperature warming, the forest temperature warming, and all of the animals in those habitats responding to that warming. Then I picture this little ecosystem as a proxy for the southeastern U.S. and a global climate model of the region, which could be dynamically downscaled to create a species distribution model for some of the herbivores feeding on trees in the forest. Then I think about how the city around me is contributing to this warming, and how the ecological interactions in this forest compare to those within the city. And while I’ve been thinking about all of this, I haven’t noticed my dog finishing up my breakfast…so maybe the course wasn’t entirely beneficial. Thanks, Ryan and Adam.

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