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Expert offers climate answers

Warren Washington, an atmospheric scientist, said in his talk on Tuesday that we must reduce greenhouse pollutant emissions. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Warren Washington, an atmospheric scientist, said in his talk on Tuesday that we must reduce greenhouse pollutant emissions. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

Warren Washington, an atmospheric scientist, visited campus on Tuesday to lecture on the use and history of climate models to study and predict climate change. Washington, who is a winner of the National Medal of Science and was the second African-American to receive a doctorate in atmospheric sciences, covered the history of the first climate models he worked with back in the ’60s. He also discussed how the accuracy of computer-simulated models has changed, and how with future innovation “we can improve the simulation of the atmosphere.”

After showing “a glimpse into the future of climate modeling,” he discussed the danger that these models are trying to predict. Washington said that carbon dioxide levels will be two to three times higher by 2100 than they were two centuries ago.

When asked how he responds to climate change skepticism, even in the face of evidence like the earlier openings of the Northwest Passage and overall glacial retreat, Washington responded, “Skepticism is good for us in many ways. It makes [scientists] work harder.”

Washington emphasized, however, the need for “open-minded skepticism,” and recounted a story of a skeptical colleague who changed his mind on climate change after designing his own experiment and achieving the same results as Washington and other scientists.

During the lecture, he stressed the improvement in model design for the global climate, from the modern high-resolution ocean models to a new atmospheric grid structure that allows for more accurate simulations of the El Niño and the La Niña effects.

“His use of empirical data and detailed computer models went beyond common environmental rhetoric,” said James Petka, a first-year engineering and public policy and chemical engineering double major who attended the lecture, in an email. “Transforming all of the world’s natural forces into a single computer program is an absolutely incredible feat.”

Coordinator of Student Development M. Shernell Smith, who was one of the people who worked to bring Washington to campus, said that in addition to being accurate, Washington was accessible. “I liked the fact that he was very plain-spoken,” Smith said. “He could bring it down to a place where people who that may not be their interest ... can see the effect the changes have had on their lives.”

Washington addressed two strategies that can be implemented to confront climate change: mitigation, or the reduction or elimination of what is causing the problem; and adaptation, in which society adjusts to what changes will come.

He said that this problem is far different than that of typical water or air pollution, which fade from the environment within a few years after pollutants are restricted, because greenhouse gases take so long to break down in the atmosphere.

“Stopping on this problem late means we have a large amount of warming in the system that will keep on warming for some time,” Washington said.

Because of this, Washington argued for as much mitigation as possible. Geoengineering methods such as space mirrors or high altitude sulfur injections would limit heat levels in the atmosphere; but according to Washington, they would not solve other problems from greenhouse pollutants, and in many ways are Band-Aids on a broken leg. The strategy Washington recommended to the audience is to reduce the emission of the pollutants themselves.

Without any action done to mitigate the effects of climate change, Washington’s models and his colleagues’ models predict more heat records, fewer cold records, and stronger rain and snowfall. The models predict that these weather conditions, coupled with severe drought, will result in the northward spread of tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever, as the increasing temperatures favor their disease vectors.