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Worldwide collaboration on climate

Press release issued: 3 February 2005

An international network of scientists collaborating through groundbreaking technology is aiming to shed new light on climate change.

An international network of scientists collaborating through groundbreaking technology is aiming to shed new light on climate change.  Their work will inject much more certainty into the global-warming debate and provide further evidence that is intended to encourage governments to respond to one of the world’s major challenges before it is too late.

The project will draw on and synthesise research at institutions belonging to the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) – an academic alliance with five members in the US, six in the UK, two in China and three in Europe – as well as other centres of excellence.

Called 1ACE (Arctic Climates and Environments), the initiative will deepen our understanding of changes in the earth’s biosphere and climate.  It will focus on the Arctic because global warming is having a more direct impact there than on any other part of the planet. 

The statistical evidence is already powerful:

  • a 0.6C temperature increase every ten years since the 1960s in the high northern latitudes;
  • a 40 per cent thinning of the Arctic sea ice between the 1950s and 1990s;
  • a reduction in the surface area of the ice of about four per cent each decade. 

The human evidence is even more compelling, with Inuit communities facing threats to their homes and way of life as the permafrost melts, traditional travel routes become dangerous and flora and fauna change with the climate. 

The Arctic may be remote, but climate change there is an issue for the whole world, not least because of its potential impact on ocean circulation systems.  Large volumes of water from melting ice caps could disrupt the thermohaline circulation, which starts in the North Atlantic.  The effects would be widespread and could include a marked cooling across Europe.

Collective action by governments on a substantial scale, including progressively cutting CO² emissions, is likely to be the only way of moderating climate change.  But such action is controversial and not something governments can contemplate without a solid foundation in science, even though the global bill in 2004 from natural disasters – most of them climate-related – was expected to top £52 billion even before the Asian tsunami.

To what extent has the climate already changed as a result of human actions rather than natural variations?  What are the implications of stabilising CO² at different levels, and how could this be done?  What impact is climate change expected to have on agriculture, water supplies, human health and international security?  Governments need convincing answers to questions like these if they are to accept as essential policies that are currently regarded as contentious.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 to provide the information world leaders need.  Hundreds of scientists around the world contribute research findings that are brought together in a major report every few years on which politicians can base decisions. 

The 2001 report was the first in which the scientific community confirmed it could detect man-made climate change.  Among the report’s conclusions was that “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities”. 

The contribution from WUN and other scientists to the next, 2006/07 report through the 1ACE project aims to reduce or remove lingering doubts about the causes and extent of climate change and significantly strengthen the case for concerted global action.  

Dr Sandy Harrison, Reader in Physical Geography at the University of Bristol, is co-ordinating 1ACE and is already developing sustained collaborations with colleagues at other WUN universities.  She says: “In the Arctic we can examine all the complex factors involved in determining climate change, including interactions between sea-surface conditions, ecosystems and the atmosphere.  We need a coherent international research programme to understand these factors.  WUN provides a unique platform to bring researchers together on a global basis for a sustained and substantive collaboration to yield answers.

“At present, scientific expertise, computing power and data are spread across many countries.  By joining forces and maintaining our interaction – not just by meeting at conferences and jointly authoring research papers – we will bring together existing pieces of the puzzle, undertake new, collaborative research and maximise our chances of making serious progress.

“This project should clarify the stark choice before governments: make comparatively modest shifts in behaviour to cut CO² emissions now, or commit future generations to huge economic and environmental damage prompted by climate change.” 

1ACE will help disentangle man-made climate change from the different cyclical variations that occur naturally over geological, millennial and shorter timescales.

The WUN partners are using a powerful tool to make close interaction on this and other collaborative projects easier: a sustained, interdisciplinary, international computer grid.

WUN’s Chief Executive, Dr David Pilsbury, says the grid allows huge computational tasks to be shared and massive data collections to be accessed and moved around the world.  It also makes virtual communication of the highest quality readily available. 

“Conventional videoconferencing has about 25 per cent of the communication power of face-to-face dialogue,” says Dr Pilsbury.  “The WUN grid ups that to around 80 per cent by providing an experience nearly akin to a face-to-face meeting.  It’s almost as though people who are in a number of far-flung locations were sitting together in a boardroom and communicating naturally, aided by high quality projected images.  And it allows ad-hoc discussions, not just the pre-planned showpieces or highly managed meetings that generally characterise videoconferencing.”

Dr Pilsbury feels that the WUN approach will help to provide coherent answers that will be a powerful force for action.  “Research has to be more joined up if it is to make a bigger and faster impact on issues of global significance such as climate change,” he claims.  “Governments need the evidence to allow them to adopt consistent approaches where the amelioration strategies are clear.”

The chairman of WUN, Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol, says: “WUN is about sustained interdisciplinary collaboration across universities to tackle major global issues in ways that institutions working alone simply cannot do.  Climate change is just such an issue. 

“We are also turning our attention to weathering and other Earth systems, the future supply of energy and water and other areas in which our member universities offer world-class expertise.  But WUN is not an exclusive club – we link with other centres of excellence on a worldwide basis and each member has its own academic connections that further enrich the partnership.”

Dr Harrison mentions a side benefit of the WUN approach: “More and more scientists in my field are growing uneasy about their frequent air travel around the world for meetings.  It adds to the very emissions that contribute to global warming.  It’s better for the environment – not to mention more efficient and effective – to share data and debate ideas through the grid whenever the need arises.”

The current members of WUN are: Pennsylvania State, California-San Diego, Illinois, Wisconsin-Madison and Washington in the US; Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton and York in the UK; Nanjing and Zhejiang in China; Utrecht, Oslo and Bergen in Europe.

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