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Humans have been an integral part of the climate system since the first hominid set foot on the African continent, 6.5 Million years ago. As humans spread out of Africa and throughout the rest of the world, they influenced local and global environmental change through control and use of fire, development of agriculture, domestication of animals, and development of civilization. The cultural diversity seen in modern day social systems provides the framework for influencing not only our impact on climate change but also how we react and adapt to it. Successful decisions regarding climate change need to include the human component at all levels. The institute has focused research programs concerning human societies past and the present on issues surrounding human interaction with the environment in the Northeast, North and South America, and the Pacific Islands, as well as in zooarchaeology, taphonomy, and forensic anthropology.
The instrumental climate record extends back in time ~100 years in the Northern Hemisphere and is shorter and sparser in the Southern Hemisphere. Yet to understand natural climate variability and assess human impact on modern climate requires significantly longer records. Ice cores provide robust sub-annually resolved records of past temperature, precipitation, atmospheric circulation, sea ice extent, volcanism, biomass burning, chemistry of the atmosphere, and much more. The Climate Change Institute is a world leader in the recovery, analysis, modeling and interpretation of ice cores covering the last several hundred to hundreds of thousands of years. Our global array of ice cores includes records recovered from Antarctica, Greenland, Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau, Alaska/Yukon Territory, Iceland, Tierra del Fuego, and New Zealand. CCI researchers have a prominent record of leadership in several highly successful ice core programs including: Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2, 25 US institutions), International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE, 21 nations), Asian Ice Core Array (AICA), Climate of Antarctica and South America (CASA), and Polar Tropical Connections (PTC).
Institute modeling activities focus on physical, chemical, biological and human phenomena influenced by climate at multiple time and space scales. Our ability to expand observations of coupled dynamic systems that collectively constitute past, present and future global climate depends on numerical modeling of the global phenomena at local scales. We have developed and acquired a computational framework for 3D time-dependent modeling of the silicate earth, cryosphere and oceans at multiple time and space scale that are coupled to the changing climate via global and mesoscale circulation models. We seek to identify and investigate the non-linear interactions among the physical, chemical, biological and human components of the climate system with the goal of prediction of climate change at centennial and decadal scales.
Significant advances have been made in modeling future anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and human mitigation and adaptation responses, but these efforts can be improved in two ways. First, the cultural scope of their analytical frameworks needs to be expanded beyond an ecological-economic focus. Human behavior consists of social, political, and ideological (worldview) action in addition to ecological-economic behavior, and these realms have major implications for climate change responses. Cosmological views of climate and weather, for instance, affect such basic issues as whether people are willing to consider that climate can change, what agents they will consider responsible for such change (e.g., humans, deities), and the suite of responses they consider appropriate for mitigating and/or adapting to it. For another example: the political as well as the technological and economic structures of human communities affect their capacity to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The nation-states of the colonial and post-colonial world have quite different political structures and dynamics to those of First World nation-states, and these differences need to be incorporated in modeling global greenhouse gas emissions and devising mitigation and adaptational policies.
In addition to expanding the cultural scope of efforts to model climate-change futures and policies, the geocultural resolution of these models also needs improvement. The current resolution of IPCC models, for example, is the nation-state, aggregated into four blocs: the OECD90, Asia, REF, and ALM. But nation-states embrace multiple sub-cultures with varying levels of agency at the national level. In the case of some post-colonial nations, it is debatable whether the state can even be considered an agent. Future models will need a finer cross-cultural resolution in addition to an expansion of the realms of human behavior they incorporate.
Analysis of climate data collected by satellite, airborne, undersea and sub-soil surface platforms involves identification of periodic variations, backgrounds, and trends. Unfortunately the threshold of climate variability is not always captured during the limited time that instrumental measurements have been available. How rapidly can the climate system change? What is the impact of these changes on sea level, global temperatures, and food security? The volume and variety of data available to climate scientists to help answer these and similar questions have grown dramatically in the past few decades. This growth, fueled by technological advances in instrumentation and increased exploration, holds the potential to significantly increase the rate of scientific discovery and understanding. However, this potential is frequently difficult or impossible to realize due to the challenges faced by scientists in integrating, analyzing, visualizing, and, in general, managing the vast and diverse datasets. Tools and techniques that were adequate in the recent past (often a collection spreadsheets and scripts in various formats and languages) are no longer able to cope with the increased volume and diversity of data. This difficulty in managing data leads to several related problems: (1) Scientists, who are often not experts in data management, often spend an inordinate amount of time and effort on data management tasks. (2) The rate at which data can be analyzed and used in support of scientific discovery is limited by the difficulties in processing. (3) Potential scientific breakthroughs that are discernible only after careful integration, analysis, and interactive exploration of large, diverse datasets (and qualitatively different from those derived from simpler, smaller datasets) are currently practically unrealizable. The primary goal of the cyberinfrastructure team at CCI is to develop methods to solve the above data management and related computing problems, making it easier for climate scientists to use the growing data resources, yielding scientific breakthroughs.
Ecosystems and the ecosystem services (e.g., food security, fiber, renewable energy, clean water, recreation, habitat, carbon sequestration) they provide are the foundation of our society and economy, and provide critical feedbacks to the climate system (e.g., GHGs, albedo). Research in the Institute has focused on the effects of both chemical and physical changes in our environment on ecosystem function. This research encompasses issues such as acid deposition, reactive nitrogen, biodiversity, eutrophication, mercury and heavy metals, as well as changing temperature and moisture regimes on both short-term (weather) and long-term (climate) timescales.A key component of this research has been long-term calibrated watershed studies that serve as ecological observatories of change, providing insights into climate change effects not possible with short-term experiments. This area of research is fundamental to effective climate change adaptation programs with direct linkages to policy and management decision-making.
Glaciers are sensitive recorders of past climate and are useful for reconstructing past temperature and precipitation changes. The Glacial Geology research group has a field-based program that focuses on using glacial geology and geochronology to understand large-scale climate and glaciological problems, such as: 1) the origin of ice ages, 2) the cause of ice-age terminations, 3) the origin of abrupt climate change, and 4) the stability of ice sheets. Our research group has ongoing projects in Antarctica, Greenland, New Zealand, Patagonia, Peru, Maine, and the western United States.
Ice sheets and glaciers are a significant component of Earth's climate system, and they play a major role in modulating global sea levels. Glaciological research in the Institute includes observational and modeling programs that focus on examining the dynamics and characteristics of modern ice sheets and outlet glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica as well as understanding past and future ice-sheet behavior. Recent institute work has highlighted the complex interaction between ice sheets and the ocean, and shown that ice sheets will potentially lead to a rapid rise in sea level during the 21st century.
The response of shorelines and the people who inhabit them to rising sea level and associated coastal processes is the major research focus of the Marine Geology group. Sea-level change over the past 20,000 years has been studied intensively from locations above and below the present shoreline, through mapping of the seafloor as well as lake bottoms. This research is used to influence state and national policies on coastal hazards and construction.
Paleoecology focuses on the use of preserved fossil and chemical signatures in lake sediments to reconstruct past terrestrial and freshwater environments. Research at the Institute includes the use of chironomid and diatom fossils to reconstruct climate, acidification, and eutrophication. The use of paleoecological records to understand the effects of climate change on terrestrial and aquatic biota is also a component of research in this theme.
An emerging need is the prediction of local climate change based on high-resolution data. The data must be of a quality and resolution that is suitable for input into fine grid regional climate models. At the same time that modeling of local impact of climate change is developing, plans for both mitigation and local actions can be developed. The future focus includes potential local changes to the human impact on climate though conservation and the deployment of renewable energy. Understanding energy usage and carbon production on a local scale can lead to the prioritizing of investment toward the most cost effective reduction of carbon equivalent emissions.