A Storm is a' Brewing

Image showing termini of the glaciers in the Bhutan-Himalaya. Glacial lakes have been rapidly forming on the surface of the debris-covered glaciers in this region during the last few decades. USGS researchers have found a strong correlation between increasing temperatures and glacial retreat in this region. (NASA)


The reverberating sound of cracking ice and trickling water pervades areas of even once-permanent ice-sheets in the Artic this time of year. With carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere passing up a proverbial ‘milestone’ of 400 parts per million, or ppm, as measured by local monitoring stations in the Artic, the time for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change impacts is today, if not yesterday. Before the industrial revolution, atmospheric CO2 levels were around 275ppm (The Guardian).

Lynne M Carter, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program, or SCIPP, at Louisiana State University, is passionate about climate change communications and the need for adaptation and resiliency planning in the face of all-too-real climate change impacts in Louisiana and beyond. Carter heads to Washington, DC this week for a meeting of the National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee, or NCADAC, to help synthesize and summarize the science and information pertaining to current and future impacts of climate for the 2013 NCA Report. The last such report was published in 2009.

“We need to do things differently than we’ve been doing them,” Carter said. The associate director of SCIPP often travels around Gulf Coast giving her ‘Planning to Protect’ talk to help residents think about a changing climate and how to be more ready for its impacts.

Carter is a PhD educated scientist and serves as an expert advisor on the ICLEI Climate Adaptation Experts Advisory Committee, but she finds her passion in speaking to people about climate change and adaptation, in everyday language. “My goal is to communicate to the public in a way that they can understand,” Carter said. “We are not going to change people’s attitudes on climate change… it’s going to take talking in practical terms. People need the ‘big picture’ of climate change – they need the right mental models.”

The follow are some of the key messages that Carter presents in her talks to community members:
1. Climate change is here. We are already observing changes.
2. The future will be different than the past and there will be consequences for the region.
3. Decisions made today can help us to be better prepared for tomorrow.

While many people that Carter speaks to attribute environmental changes to natural cycles vs. human-forced climatic changes, she constantly tells people to “look at the trend.” While short-term temperatures from one season to the next may vary significantly according to natural variation, long-term and underlying trends are quite clear. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased 31% since the industrial area in a trend that does not follow previous natural cycles, accompanied by steady increases in temperature and nearly unprecedented decreases in glacier and ice-sheet thickness worldwide.

Gulf Coast states including Louisiana have special concerns when it comes to climate change impacts. Sea level rise due to melting artic ice and warming, expanding waters is aggravated in regions such as the Louisiana coastline, where confining river levees starve wetlands of sediment.

Wetlands that could theoretically keep up with sea level rise if they were consistently nourished with sediment from the Mississippi river are gradually being starved and dried. The dependence of the local economy on the oil and gas industry doesn’t help. “The land here was built by the Mississippi river dropping sediment as it encountered salt water and marsh lands,” Carter said. “Oil pumping and squeezing… that is why the land is sinking.” Wetland loss and drilling for oil is causing land subsidence that is in turn causing rates of relative sea level rise in the region to be significant and dangerous to coastal cities and their inhabitants.

Image from the LSU Lakes, Baton Rouge.

“But we can do things differently and better,” Carter said. As she tells her presentation viewers, we can anticipate, plan ahead, and act … or we can react to inevitable damages and live with the consequences. As temperatures and sea levels rise, as precipitation increases and the likelihood of highly-damaging hurricanes mounts, Carter calls upon the Gulf Coast region to protect, accommodate, and retreat.

While building up levees can actually foster a false sense of security and increase wetland loss, coastal communities could adapt to climate change by accommodating rising waters through elevated roads and facilities, improved flood control, and wetland restoration, while making plans to evaluate and even retreat from the coastline as anthropogenic climate forcing continues to warm the planet.

As Carter says, adaptation is “just better planning.” But the consequences are significant. Without efforts to mitigate climate change through emissions reductions and increased efforts to foster energy efficiency and alternative energy sources, the Gulf Coast could be in a cyclone of trouble.

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Smokestacks in Baton Rouge.

LSU’s Lynne Carter

Lynne M. Carter is the program manager of SCIPP on the Louisiana State University campus. Dr. Carter is active in climate impacts and adaptation work. Among other things, she was a member of the writing team for the 2009 Climate Impacts on the United States document from the Climate Change Impacts Program (CCSP), was the regional liaison for the US National Assessment of Climate Variability and Change, as the director for a non-profit organization focused on building resilience and adapting to climate changes with communities, and continues to work in education and outreach around climate issues.

National Climate Assessment

The NCA will help evaluate the effectiveness of our mitigation and adaptation activities and identify economic opportunities that arise as the climate changes. It will also serve to integrate scientific information from multiple sources and highlight key findings and significant gaps in our knowledge.