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Effects of Human Activity on Global Climate Change: What Do We Know, and How Do We Know It?

A talk and public discussion by Dr. Benjamin Santer
Friday, April 4th at 8:00 p.m. in the Museum Space Gallery

Human activities have significantly altered not only the chemical composition of Earth's atmosphere, but also the climate system. Identifying human effects on climate is a difficult statistical problem. "Fingerprint" methods are typically used for this purpose, involving rigorous statistical comparisons of modeled and observed climate change patterns. Fingerprinting assumes that each individual influence on climate leaves a unique signature in the climate record. Scientists use computer models to estimate the climate systems’ response to different influences, and to perform controlled experiments that cannot be conducted in the real world, e.g., doubling levels of atmospheric CO2 to see what happens.

One criticism of previous scientific assessments is that they have relied heavily on fingerprint studies involving changes in just one variable, namely the Earth's surface temperature. Recent fingerprint work, however, has looked at other climate variables, such as ocean heat content, stratospheric temperatures, surface pressure, and atmospheric water vapor. These studies illustrate that a human-induced climate change signal is identifiable in many different variables and geographic regions, and that the climate system is now telling us an internally- and physically-consistent story.

As the debate shifts, both in the scientific community and in the media, from “Is climate change real?” to “What should we do about it?”, the results from these kinds of studies can help policymakers and citizens to make more informed decisions on responses and solutions to the climate change problem.

About Dr. Santer

Dr. Benjamin Santer is an atmospheric scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). His research focuses on climate model evaluation, the use of statistical methods in climate science, and identification of natural and anthropogenic “fingerprints” in observed climate records. Dr. Santer’s early research on the climatic effects of changes in greenhouse gases and sulfate aerosols contributed to the historic “discernible human influence” conclusion of the 1995 Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). His recent work has attempted to identify human influences on a number of different climate variables including atmospheric water vapor, the temperature of the stratosphere and troposphere, and ocean surface temperatures in hurricane formation regions.

Dr. Santer holds a Ph.D. in Climatology from the University of East Anglia, England. Upon completing his degree in 1987, he spent five years at the Max-Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany. He joined LLNL’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison in 1992.

As a contributor to all four IPCC Scientific Assessment Reports, Dr. Santer is among those sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (jointly with Al Gore) for efforts to “build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change”. His other awards include a Distinguished Scientist Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research (2005), the U.S. Department of Energy's E.O. Lawrence Award (2002), and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1998).

Future Events

May 2nd:
Nanoscale Science & Engineering: How Nanotechnology is Impacting Our Everyday Lives
by Dr. Aldrin E. Sweeney

June 6th:
The 2008 Hurricane Season
by Dr. Chris Landsea

For more information about the MiaSci FYI Lecture Series Click Here

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