A new UC Davis study cautions that climate change will ‘tip’ without warning
Critics who denounce global warming cited this winter’s snowpocalypse storms on the East Coast as evidence that climate change doesn’t exist. But new research by environmental scientists at UC Davis rebuffs their red herring—perhaps once and for all.
“[C]limate change doesn’t necessarily mean that there is global warming; it means climates are going to be harder to predict,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis professor who recently unveiled these new findings. He, along with co-author and mathematician Derin Wysham, discovered that, unfortunately, changes in climate with potentially large consequences can happen without warning.
As Hastings put it, “Systems can ‘tip’ precipitously.”
Specifically, Hastings research notes that shifts in the Earth’s natural climate systems can be extreme and occur without warning, which may force radical changes on our world seemingly overnight.
“What we do know is that our world’s ecosystems are part of a very complex system, and it’s very hard to predict how things will result from continued pressures from energy use,” he said.
Hastings, who was awarded the Robert H. MacArthur Award in 2006, a top honor given by the Ecological Society of America, says that the negative consequences of his studies, titled “Regime Shifts in Ecological Systems Can Occur With No Warning,” include increased tropical pathogens, which cause human illness; natural disasters; sudden and drastic temperature changes; and impacts on food ripening and agriculture’s nutritional value.
As always, Hastings urges that climate-change research and policy be a government priority.
“If we are not careful, we may not be able to reverse these changes,” he said. “I don’t think it’s too late, but there needs to be action relatively quick in the ways humans use and produce energy and food.”
For many scientists at UC Davis, climate shifts will also affect their fields of study. Arnold Bloom, a professor of plant sciences at UC Davis, is currently worried about the Sierra Nevada snowpack melting and how that affects Sacramento.
“The sad part is that most Americans think climate change isn’t an important issue anymore,” said Bloom, who notes that hotter temperatures and shifts in the climate will cause faster and stronger runoff of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, causing flooding.
Bloom reminds that Sacramento is the second-most-vulnerable city to flooding in the country, because most of Sacramento is 20 percent below river level.
UC Davis professor of land, air and water resources Louise Jackson agrees with Bloom’s findings. “It’s been shown that the Sierra snowpack will decrease quite a bit. It’s going to come as rain, and that means there is going to be less storage capacity,” she said.
Jackson also points out the domino effect of reduced snowpack, which includes increased moisture in the Delta. “[Climate change] is a long-term problem in that we know change is happening. What we need to do is try out more options in the here and now. Things that are not economically viable may help unforeseen changes,” she said.
“Our community needs to think of this issue as a long-term issue,” Bloom said. “They need to realize that certain patterns that they take for granted now may drastically change [in] 50 years.”