“Ask a Scientist”

Screenshot of the "Ask a Scientist" Session from the NNOCCI Virtual Conference 2020


We had a great turnout for our “Ask a Scientist” interactive break-out session at the latest NNOCCI Virtual Conference, but there were so many questions that we didn’t get to! For those of you who couldn’t join us, we’re also summarizing the conversations that participants had with our Science Fellows during the session. If you ever have a science-related question, remember you can always reach out to your friendly neighborhood scientist!



Is it true that the current observations exceed previous predictions in severity of the effects of climate change?

According to the latest IPCC report, we are following the more severe trajectory of our previous predictions on the acceleration of human-induced climate change. They have concluded that a change of 1.5°C is our current status, and that an increase of 0.2°C/decade is likely (high confidence). They recommend ambitious mitigation efforts and conclude that the feasibility of limiting future warming is not yet clear.

When was the last time CO2 levels were at the same level as today?

The last time CO2 levels were this high was during the “Pliocene Epoch, 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago when the Earth was several degrees warmer, sea levels were an estimated 50 feet higher than they are today, and forests grew as far north as the Arctic.” source

Which areas of the world experience accelerated climate change effects [temperature] and why?

Warming is more accelerated in the poleward direction. Part of this is due to ice-surface albedo, which simply means that as ice melts it uncovers darker land beneath, which absorbs more heat, which in turn accelerates warming. This acceleration can account for the recent news about West Antarctica melting, and is also a troubling symptom of upcoming sea level rise as our ice stores continue to rapidly melt. 

What are extreme events and why are they increasing in frequency with climate change?

Extreme events can include events like hurricanes, flooding, drought: they are short-term events that cannot be predicted with respect to their frequency over a long period of climate. With ongoing climate change, extreme events are expected to increase in frequency in some areas because climate variability is on the rise as our planet warms. This has to do with the tail ends of the frequency distribution of temperatures (see this blog for more information): as more of our temperatures fall within the extremes of the distribution, the climate becomes more unpredictable. With unpredictability comes sudden changes in local climate, which can often lead to unexpected extreme events. For example, flooding can occur if winters are warmer than usual and large-scale climate patterns result in more frequent El Niño years (more influx of water on the US West Coast). Scientists are still trying to understand the direct links between extreme events and climate change, especially with respect to hurricanes, but there is evidence that a correlation between the two phenomena is linked to increased frequency of extreme events in recent years. Check out this cool graphic!

What is adaptive restoration and how can it be used in a solution?

Adaptive restoration in ecology is a relatively recent topic that deals with what happens when we have organisms within ecosystems responding to climate change in different ways. In some interpretations, this can include humans! The general idea is that as species shift their ranges (or go extinct), other ecosystem players fill those roles, whether that be as a food source, a predator, or habitat structure. We as humans have the potential to facilitate this via managed relocation, but there are many concerns that this action can reduce biodiversity worldwide if not done properly. One way or another, adaptive restoration is a way to inject hope and agency into your climate solutions, as humans have the ability to responsibly manage our ecosystems through a better understanding of the ways that organisms interact, whether that be in current ecosystems or future scenarios.

What are solar cycles and do they have any influence on climate?

Solar cycles are magnetic activity events that occur every ~11 years, where the magnetic north and south poles on the Sun switch places. They have the ability to change the surface environment on the sun, which could have consequences for the amount of energy we may receive as a planet from this heat source. A common misconception is that solar cycles have the ability to send our Earth into a mini-ice age. Solar Cycle 25 is coming up, so you may be hearing this swampy thought process from your visitors right now. According to the International Solar Energy Society, Solar Cycle 25 will be very similar to Solar Cycle 24, meaning it will have little to no effect on the climate in the context of explaining rapid climate change. For a great graphical representation of non-human (and therefore swampy) impacts on our global climate that do not contribute to climate change, see here


What is a (hopeful) example of adaptation that we can point to without falling into the trap of “everything will adapt and be fine”?

Climate change is already forcing organisms to shift their species distributions or to adapt to new environmental challenges. For example, marine organisms are moving poleward or deeper to cope with warming ocean waters. Scientists are just beginning to understand which species might be able to adapt to climate change and how shifting species distributions will affect biological communities, including those that humans depend on.


A good example of adaptation to climate change are snowshoe hares in the Pacific Northwest. Snowshoe hares, like many other mammals that inhabit seasonal climates, maintain seasonal camouflage by molting their summer-brown coat to a winter-white coat. However, some hares do not molt and remain brown throughout the winter. White coats are advantageous in snow-covered habitats, but mismatches in coat color and snow cover due to climate change increase the risk of predation. Over time, snowshoe hares have evolved winter-brown coats that have been linked with the expression of a pigmentation gene called Agouti, and which has been advantageous  in environments with more sporadic seasonal snow cover.

What are some of the new stories in climate science right now?

While there are many new, exciting studies being published daily, we have to be careful  about communicating with “hot off the press” language since that can tap into “science is always changing/my observation is as good as yours” language. With that being said, our Science Fellows showcased some of their recent work for the session. For example, Dr. Melissa Ward told us about how blue carbon in seagrass beds makes a huge dent in carbon sequestration. Blue carbon is carbon stored in coastal vegetated habitats (salt marshes, seagrasses, mangroves). These habitats are very valuable from a carbon standpoint because they are wet (surprise), which means they have low oxygen. So when a tree or other organic carbon dies in a forest, it can degrade more easily (higher O2 in air). In a wet environment, carbon breaks down very slowly, so more of it is buried. Her PhD research helps us better understand the role of seagrass beds in climate change mitigation, as well as how local conditions in seagrass beds can buffer the effects of climate change for inhabitants like fish and marine invertebrates. You can learn more at her website here: https://melissa-ward.weebly.com or follow her on twitter @MelissaA_Ward. 

Does scientific evidence show we are moving the needle on climate action?

As we know well from our NNOCCI training, climate action is a social issue and requires community-level support. Research shows that collective action and social identity are most important for moving the needle on climate action. We also need to take into account the important contributions from our younger generations. If you would like to read some more literature, see these three peer-reviewed articles (1 2 3).


When you give your elevator pitch, do you use framing? Can you provide an example?

We do use framing! This is one of the most important immediate impacts of NNOCCI for young scientists in our network. Here’s my example (as a climate change ecophysiologist), but we all use it differently. Reach out to your friendly neighborhood scientist to hear about their framed elevator pitch!


Protecting our oceans is important for future generations as the climate changes, but our understanding of the interaction between environmental fluctuations and responses is evolving. For example, we know that human-induced increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil, and natural gas are adding to the “rampant” carbon dioxide on top of our “regular” carbon dioxide maintained by our ecosystems responsible for sustaining our atmosphere. This rampant carbon dioxide not only warms our planet, but increases the number of extreme events we typically see, disrupting the usual status quo of fluctuating temperatures throughout days, seasons, and even years. Animals that live in areas where temperatures are predictably fluctuating already have mechanisms in place for dealing with a range of temperatures: this is called physiological plasticity. But when there are more extreme events with the “rampant” carbon dioxide, this range of temperatures can be shifted with future climate. These animals might not be as well-adapted as they have been in the past to their environment. You can help scientists to better understand the impacts of “rampant” carbon dioxide on our ecosystems by participating in surveys of global range shifts via a community platform called iNaturalist, and advocate for your future climate with your representatives. Together we can make a change to better understand our impacts on the environment and mitigate any future impacts we may have.


Why is communication about plastic use reduction so common?


Plastic is something we can see, and therefore a more tangible subject than carbon dioxide (here’s a thought experiment on what would happen if we could see carbon). Our scientists and communicators think that folks are happier to talk about the evils of plastics because it is easier to solve and can open the conversation towards larger efforts in mitigating climate change. For example, coral reefs that receive a large amount of plastic waste have a higher prevalence of disease. This type of communication is still useful as long as you link back to the large-scale solution, and that how you treat waste is linked to climate change.


Where can we find NNOCCI values, metaphors, and other examples of successful framing (especially for local impacts) on Climate Interpreter?


The Climate Interpreter blog is the best place to find examples of successful framing for local phenomena or specific scientific studies. We are adding to it all the time - if there is a study that you’d like to see framed or a scientist you admire for their framing, let us know! There is also a resources folder available here with the basics and some older framing examples.

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