Climate Change: It's Here and Now

Vanishing islands. Since 1938, sea level rise in the Rhode River has drowned two islands and shrunk another.

Scientists like to make predictions, but we’re cautious, self-critical types. We make predictions in terms of probabilities and often set 95 percent confidence as a very high standard, given the complexities of environmental interactions. But as data increases, scientific confidence builds. So when more than 800 of the world’s leading scientists agree to make a statement about the planet’s future through 2100, there’s a very good reason.

This spring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change did exactly that. In March and April, the international group of scientists released a comprehensive update on the latest climate change research. Along with many detailed predictions for impacts around the world, the report conveys one clear, crucial message: Climate change is no longer simply about the future. It’s happening now.

Climate change is uneven around the planet. We’ve seen it on the west coast of the U.S., where spring snowmelts are peaking earlier and precipitation has decreased markedly, leaving millions of people more vulnerable to drought. In areas like the mid-Atlantic we’ve seen crop yields increase, thanks in part to higher temperatures and rainfall. In other areas we’ve seen hard-hitting crop losses thanks to climate-related events like droughts and storms. And we’ve seen it here at SERC. In the last 25 years, we’ve measured an 18 percent increase in CO2 in the air around us, as burning of coal and petroleum continues. Our trees have grown two to four times more quickly and the growing season has lengthened by more than a week, with the warmest years ever recorded. In the time it took to pay off a 30-year mortgage, I watched sea level rise to the point that where there once had been four islands in the Rhode River, only one and a half remain. We’ve experienced more severe tropical storms in the last decade than any in the past. Meanwhile in Florida our ecologists have spotted tropical mangroves marching steadily northward, now that fewer cold snaps force them back.

Our researchers have been watching the effects of climate change around the Chesapeake for almost 50 years. But this spring we’re taking it a step higher. In April we launched construction of a new research tower with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON, Inc.), a continental-scale project monitoring environmental issues all over the U.S. The 205-foot tower will join more than 100 field sites across the country gathering information on climate change, land use and invasive species. The SERC data—with the rest of the NEON data—will be available to the public for free. Anyone will be able to see the network’s findings and discover what’s happening to the environment across the U.S. or near their homes.

There’s at least one encouraging note from the IPCC report: While the risks of climate change are great, they drop significantly if countries take steps to adapt. At SERC we believe a nation of smart, driven researchers, business leaders, policymakers and concerned citizens can inspire change. That is the reason we share our discoveries—so people like you can use them to create new ideas and lead us forward.

-Tuck Hines, director