Data is reality
Geology One Key to Climate Models
You could sum up Eric Barron’s response to the climate change/global warming issue in four words:
Less controversy. More science.
Expect to hear a lot about science, because Barron believes the only way forward in that debate is through good science.
In particular, he thinks AAPG can bring something important to the table for calibrating climate change.
“AAPG should lead on its strength,” he said, “which is geology.”
Leading the Way
Barron is sort of a Batman-like superhero of earth-system science.
By day, he’s dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas at Austin.
In full array, he’s an expert on climate systems and modeling who holds degrees in both geology and oceanography, with a deep understanding of how earth systems interact.
He served as chair of the National Research Council’s Climate Research Committee from 1990-96 and of the council’s Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate from 1999-2003.
In addition to his work with AAPG, he’s a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Barron has been editor of “Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology,” “Global and Planetary Change” and the e-journal “Earth Interactions,” and associate editor of the “Journal of Climate.”
A member of the board of governors of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Barron has served as scientist on the research vessels Glomar Challenger and Oceanus.
He received NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal and currently is a member of NASA’s Earth Sciences and Applications Advisory Committee.
And so on, with activities and honors in several other Earth Science areas. His focus for AAPG will be explaining current research and modeling in climate change.
A Sensitive Approach
Barron said his luncheon presentation won’t contain much controversy, but that’s more a matter of program than of purpose. His talk follows the convention’s Interactive Forum on Global Climate Change [SIDE BAR], which will feature a panel of experts on climate-related topics.
At the luncheon, Barron will examine how sensitive the climate system is to change factors and how well we can model climate today.
Geology is one key to examining the effectiveness of climate models, he said.
Climate “sensitivity” has to account for known changes in the Earth’s climate during the past, Barron noted.
“We can ask, ‘How sensitive does the climate system have to be to include the ice ages of the Pleistocene and the warmth of the Cretaceous?’” he said.
Geology preserves an essential record of changes that have taken place on the planet from ancient times to the present, including the effects of weather and climate.
“You’re basically saying that geological data is reality,” Barron said. “The geologic record demands that the climate has to be sensitive to changes.”
On the other hand, we can’t judge the effectiveness of climate models in predicting the future, because we don’t know what the future is yet.
However, we can use known data to find out how successfully climate models can predict changes known to have happened. Barron called that “modeling the past.”
Put simply, if your climate model predicts that heavy rain, snow and flooding should have taken place in an area known to have been hot and dry, your model has problems.
Geology provides the roadmap to past climatic conditions, so Barron believes in using known geologic data to access climate model effectiveness.
Based on that approach, how well do the models work right now?
“It’s a mixed story,” Barron said.
“If we were to look at storm stratification and we pick a time like the Permian, do the models give you the right storm tracks? Remarkably, they do,” he noted.
Models also can predict the right climatic conditions for high productivity in the oceans, reflected in high rates of sedimentation, he said.
But climate models don’t work as well when trying to predict other known realities, like the range of temperatures from the poles to the equator.
“It’s not a perfect story,” he said. “We have distinct issues when we try to simulate the character of the temperature distribution.”
Weather or Not
Unlike some other climate experts, Barron doesn’t talk like he was born on a college campus – although he was, on the campus of Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., in 1951.
He attended Florida State University and studied geology as an undergraduate, but his eye was always on oceanography and earth-system studies.
“I decided, as plate tectonics was emerging, to look into how that would affect climate and oceans,” he said.
In 1980, Barron received his doctorate in oceanography from the University of Miami. He served as a research fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.
The center had just acquired a Cray supercomputer, at that time the world’s most powerful and second-fastest computer, and an essential in handling the huge amounts of data required for climate research.
“I ended up becoming the sole geologist in an institution devoted to studying climate and doing climate modeling,” he recalled.
Barron moved to Penn State University in 1986 and eventually became dean of its College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 2002-06.
As a member of AAPG’s recently formed Global Climate Change Solutions Committee, he helps bring to light the science behind the climate debate.
“You have a group of people (on the committee) who are very interested in helping to educate the membership on this important concept,” he noted.
Fortunately, Barron said, the focus is on building a broader, public understanding and “it’s not a group that sits down and argues a lot.”
‘… A Ways to Go’
Committee Chair Priscilla Grew said plans and proposals already have been made for climate change sessions at the 2009 AAPG Annual Convention in Denver.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the sequestration issue,” she said. “The committee is dealing with scientific issues related to climate change, but we also want to address topics of interest to the membership.”
Among possible areas of examination, Barron said he would like to see a session on the realities of modeling climate and climate change.
“I think there’s a lot of mystery to climate models, and there doesn’t have to be,” he observed.
Barron seems to feel scientists have not done a good job in explaining their climate studies work, or in communicating the current state of knowledge about climate change.
“We spend a lot of time in public looking like we don’t know what’s happening,” he noted.
An assessment of climate science reveals both good work being completed and much work left to be done.
“It does tell you we have a ways to go. And in particular, we have a long way to go in understanding how serious the impact will be,” Barron said, and added:
“You can’t have this many people on the planet without having an impact.”