John T. Allen
The response of severe thunderstorms to a changing climate is a rapidly growing area of research. Severe thunderstorms are one of the largest contributors to global losses in excess of USD $10 billion per year in terms of property and agriculture, as well as dozens of fatalities. Phenomena associated with severe thunderstorms such as large hail (greater than 2 cm), damaging winds (greater than 90 kmh−1), and tornadoes pose a global threat, and have been documented on every continent except Antarctica. Limitations of observational records for assessing past trends have driven a variety of approaches to not only characterize the past occurrence but provide a baseline against which future projections can be interpreted. These proxy methods have included using environments or conditions favorable to the development of thunderstorms and directly simulating storm updrafts using dynamic downscaling. Both methodologies have demonstrated pronounced changes to the frequency of days producing severe thunderstorms. Major impacts of a strongly warmed climate include a general increase in the length of the season in both the fall and spring associated with increased thermal instability and increased frequency of severe days by the late 21st century. While earlier studies noted changes to vertical wind shear decreasing frequency, recent studies have illustrated that this change appears not to coincide with days which are unstable. Questions remain as to whether the likelihood of storm initiation decreases, whether all storms which now produce severe weather will maintain their physical structure in a warmer world, and how these changes to storm frequency and or intensity may manifest for each of the threats posed by tornadoes, hail, and damaging winds. Expansion of the existing understanding globally is identified as an area of needed future research, together with meaningful consideration of both the influence of climate variability and indirect implications of anthropogenic modification of the physical environment.
D. B. Tindall, Mark C.J. Stoddart, and Candis Callison
This article considers the relationship between news media and the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change. Media can be seen as sites where various actors contend with one another for visibility, for power, and for the opportunity to communicate, as well as where they promote their policy preferences. In the context of climate change, actors include politicians, social movement representatives, scientists, business leaders, and celebrities—to name a few.
The general public obtain much of their information about climate change and other environmental issues from the media, either directly or indirectly through sources like social media. Media have their own internal logic, and getting one’s message into the media is not straightforward. A variety of factors influence what gets into the media, including media practices, and research shows that media matter in influencing public opinion.
A variety of media practices affect reporting on climate change─one example is the journalistic norm of balance, which directs that actors on both sides of a controversy be given relatively equal attention by media outlets. In the context of global warming and climate change, in the United States, this norm has led to the distortion of the public’s understanding of these processes. Researchers have found that, in the scientific literature, there is a very strong consensus among scientists that human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is happening. Yet media in the United States often portray the issue as a heated debate between two equal sides.
Subscription to, and readership of, print newspapers have declined among the general public; nevertheless, particular newspapers continue to be important. Despite the decline of traditional media, politicians, academics, NGO leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to consume the media. Furthermore, articles from particular outlets have significant readership via new media access points, such as Facebook and Twitter.
An important concept in the communication literature is the notion of framing. “Frames” are the interpretive schemas individuals use to perceive, identify, and label events in the world. Social movements have been important actors in discourse about climate change policy and in mobilizing the public to pressure governments to act. Social movements play a particularly important role in framing issues and in influencing public opinion. In the United States, the climate change denial countermovement, which has strong links to conservative think tanks, has been particularly influential. This countermovement is much more influential in the United States than in other countries. The power of the movement has been a barrier to the federal government taking significant policy action on climate change in the United States and has had consequences for international agreements and processes.
The Barents Sea is a region of the Arctic Ocean named after one of its first known explorers (1594–1597), Willem Barentsz from the Netherlands, although there are accounts of earlier explorations: the Norwegian seafarer Ottar rounded the northern tip of Europe and explored the Barents and White Seas between 870 and 890
The scientific study of the Barents region and its climate has been spearheaded by a number of campaigns. There were four generations of the International Polar Year (
The climate of the Barents Sea is strongly influenced by the warm waters from the Norwegian current bringing heat from the subtropical North Atlantic. The region is 10°C–15°C warmer than the average temperature on the same latitude, and a large part of the Barents Sea is open water even in winter. It is roughly bounded by the Svalbard archipelago, northern Fennoscandia, the Kanin Peninsula, Kolguyev Island, Novaya Zemlya, and Franz Josef Land, and is a shallow ocean basin which constrains physical processes such as currents and convection. To the west, the Greenland Sea forms a buffer region with some of the strongest temperature gradients on earth between Iceland and Greenland. The combination of a strong temperature gradient and westerlies influences air pressure, wind patterns, and storm tracks. The strong temperature contrast between sea ice and open water in the northern part sets the stage for polar lows, as well as heat and moisture exchange between ocean and atmosphere. Glaciers on the Arctic islands generate icebergs, which may drift in the Barents Sea subject to wind and ocean currents.
The land encircling the Barents Sea includes regions with permafrost and tundra. Precipitation comes mainly from synoptic storms and weather fronts; it falls as snow in the winter and rain in the summer. The land area is snow-covered in winter, and rivers in the region drain the rainwater and meltwater into the Barents Sea. Pronounced natural variations in the seasonal weather statistics can be linked to variations in the polar jet stream and Rossby waves, which result in a clustering of storm activity, blocking high-pressure systems. The Barents region is subject to rapid climate change due to a “polar amplification,” and observations from Svalbard suggest that the past warming trend ranks among the strongest recorded on earth. The regional change is reinforced by a number of feedback effects, such as receding sea-ice cover and influx of mild moist air from the south.
Masahiro Sugiyama, Atsushi Ishii, Shinichiro Asayama, and Takanobu Kosugi
Climate engineering, a set of techniques proposed to intervene directly in the climate system to reduce risks from climate change, presents many novel governance challenges. Solar radiation management (SRM), particularly the use of stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), is one of the most discussed proposals. It has been attracting more and more interest, and its pertinence as a potential option for responding to the threats from climate change may be set to increase because of the long-term temperature goal (well below 2°C or 1.5°C) in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Initial research has demonstrated that SAI would cool the climate system and reduce climate risks in many ways, although it is mired in unknown environmental risks and various sociopolitical ramifications. The proposed techniques are in the early stage of research and development (R&D), providing a unique opportunity for upstream public engagement, long touted as a desirable pathway to more plural and inclusive governance of emergent technologies by opening up social choices in technology. Solar geoengineering governance faces various challenges. One of the most acute of these is how to situate public engagement in international governance discourse; the two topics have been studied separately. Another challenge relates to bridging the gap between the social choices at hand and assessment of the risks and benefits of SRM. Deeper integration of knowledge across disciplines and stakeholder and public inputs is a prerequisite for enabling responsible innovation for the future of our climate.
Timothy M. Shanahan
West Africa is among the most populated regions of the world, and it is predicted to continue to have one of the fastest growing populations in the first half of the 21st century. More than 35% of its GDP comes from agricultural production, and a large fraction of the population faces chronic hunger and malnutrition. Its dependence on rainfed agriculture is compounded by extreme variations in rainfall, including both droughts and floods, which appear to have become more frequent. As a result, it is considered a region highly vulnerable to future climate changes. At the same time, CMIP5 model projections for the next century show a large spread in precipitation estimates for West Africa, making it impossible to predict even the direction of future precipitation changes for this region. To improve predictions of future changes in the climate of West Africa, a better understanding of past changes, and their causes, is needed. Long climate and vegetation reconstructions, extending back to 5−8 Ma, demonstrate that changes in the climate of West Africa are paced by variations in the Earth’s orbit, and point to a direct influence of changes in low-latitude seasonal insolation on monsoon strength. However, the controls on West African precipitation reflect the influence of a complex set of forcing mechanisms, which can differ regionally in their importance, especially when insolation forcing is weak. During glacial intervals, when insolation changes are muted, millennial-scale dry events occur across North Africa in response to reorganizations of the Atlantic circulation associated with high-latitude climate changes. On centennial timescales, a similar response is evident, with cold conditions during the Little Ice Age associated with a weaker monsoon, and warm conditions during the Medieval Climate Anomaly associated with wetter conditions. Land surface properties play an important role in enhancing changes in the monsoon through positive feedback. In some cases, such as the mid-Holocene, the feedback led to abrupt changes in the monsoon, but the response is complex and spatially heterogeneous. Despite advances made in recent years, our understanding of West African monsoon variability remains limited by the dearth of continuous, high- resolution, and quantitative proxy reconstructions, particularly from terrestrial sites.
The East African Rift System (EARS) transecting the high-elevation East African plateau is one of the most outstanding rift systems on earth. Rifting was caused by a huge uprising mantle plume under East Africa. Two distinct rift branches are distinguished: an older, volcanically very active Eastern Branch and a younger, much less volcanic Western Branch. The Eastern Branch is generally characterized by high elevation, whereas the Western Branch comprises a number of deep rift lakes (e.g., Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malaŵi). These differences reflect different plate strengths, the latter of which are largely governed by differences in how the mantle plume interacted with the East African lithosphere. Much of the topography forming the East African plateau has been caused by the uprising mantle plume. The onset of topographic uplift in the EARS is poorly dated but preceded graben development, the latter of which commenced at ~24 Ma in the Ethiopian Rift, at ~12 Ma in Kenya, and at ~10 Ma in the Western Branch. Increased uplift of the East African plateau since ~15–10 Ma might be connected to climate change in East Africa and human evolution. East Africa experienced cooling starting at 15.5–12.5 Ma that heralded profound faunal changes at 8–5 Ma, when the hominin lineage split from the chimpanzee lineage. The Pliocene is characterized by warm and wet climate between 5.3 and 3.3 Ma transitioning into a period of cooler and more arid conditions after ~3 Ma. The climate in the EARS is controlled by westerly monsoonal flow over equatorial West Africa and easterly monsoonal flow over the Indian Ocean. The uplifting East African plateau intercepted those winds and contributed to the increased aridification of East Africa.
Kerry H. Cook
Accurate projections of climate change under increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels are needed to evaluate the environmental cost of anthropogenic emissions, and to guide mitigation efforts. These projections are nowhere more important than Africa, with its high dependence on rain-fed agriculture and, in many regions, limited resources for adaptation. Climate models provide our best method for climate prediction but there are uncertainties in projections, especially on regional space scale. In Africa, limitations of observational networks add to this uncertainty since a crucial step in improving model projections is comparisons with observations. Exceeding uncertainties associated with climate model simulation are uncertainties due to projections of future emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Humanity’s choices in emissions pathways will have profound effects on climate, especially after the mid-century.
The African Sahel is a transition zone characterized by strong meridional precipitation and temperature gradients. Over West Africa, the Sahel marks the northernmost extent of the West African monsoon system. The region’s climate is known to be sensitive to sea surface temperatures, both regional and global, as well as to land surface conditions. Increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases are already causing amplified warming over the Sahara Desert and, consequently, increased rainfall in parts of the Sahel. Climate model projections indicate that much of this increased rainfall will be delivered in the form of more intense storm systems.
The complicated and highly regional precipitation regimes of East Africa present a challenge for climate modeling. Within roughly 5º of latitude of the equator, rainfall is delivered in two seasons—the long rains in the spring, and the short rains in the fall. Regional climate model projections suggest that the long rains will weaken under greenhouse gas forcing, and the short rains season will extend farther into the winter months. Observations indicate that the long rains are already weakening.
Changes in seasonal rainfall over parts of subtropical southern Africa are observed, with repercussions and challenges for agriculture and water availability. Some elements of these observed changes are captured in model simulations of greenhouse gas-induced climate change, especially an early demise of the rainy season. The projected changes are quite regional, however, and more high-resolution study is needed. In addition, there has been very limited study of climate change in the Congo Basin and across northern Africa. Continued efforts to understand and predict climate using higher-resolution simulation must be sustained to better understand observed and projected changes in the physical processes that support African precipitation systems as well as the teleconnections that communicate remote forcings into the continent.
Stefano Tibaldi and Franco Molteni
The atmospheric circulation in the mid-latitudes of both hemispheres is usually dominated by westerly winds and by planetary-scale and shorter-scale synoptic waves, moving mostly from west to east. A remarkable and frequent exception to this “usual” behavior is atmospheric blocking. Blocking occurs when the usual zonal flow is hindered by the establishment of a large-amplitude, quasi-stationary, high-pressure meridional circulation structure which “blocks” the flow of the westerlies and the progression of the atmospheric waves and disturbances embedded in them. Such blocking structures can have lifetimes varying from a few days to several weeks in the most extreme cases. Their presence can strongly affect the weather of large portions of the mid-latitudes, leading to the establishment of anomalous meteorological conditions. These can take the form of strong precipitation episodes or persistent anticyclonic regimes, leading in turn to floods, extreme cold spells, heat waves, or short-lived droughts. Even air quality can be strongly influenced by the establishment of atmospheric blocking, with episodes of high concentrations of low-level ozone in summer and of particulate matter and other air pollutants in winter, particularly in highly populated urban areas.
Atmospheric blocking has the tendency to occur more often in winter and in certain longitudinal quadrants, notably the Euro-Atlantic and the Pacific sectors of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, blocking episodes are generally less frequent, and the longitudinal localization is less pronounced than in the Northern Hemisphere.
Blocking has aroused the interest of atmospheric scientists since the middle of the last century, with the pioneering observational works of Berggren, Bolin, Rossby, and Rex, and has become the subject of innumerable observational and theoretical studies. The purpose of such studies was originally to find a commonly accepted structural and phenomenological definition of atmospheric blocking. The investigations went on to study blocking climatology in terms of the geographical distribution of its frequency of occurrence and the associated seasonal and inter-annual variability. Well into the second half of the 20th century, a large number of theoretical dynamic works on blocking formation and maintenance started appearing in the literature. Such theoretical studies explored a wide range of possible dynamic mechanisms, including large-amplitude planetary-scale wave dynamics, including Rossby wave breaking, multiple equilibria circulation regimes, large-scale forcing of anticyclones by synoptic-scale eddies, finite-amplitude non-linear instability theory, and influence of sea surface temperature anomalies, to name but a few. However, to date no unique theoretical model of atmospheric blocking has been formulated that can account for all of its observational characteristics.
When numerical, global short- and medium-range weather predictions started being produced operationally, and with the establishment, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, it quickly became of relevance to assess the capability of numerical models to predict blocking with the correct space-time characteristics (e.g., location, time of onset, life span, and decay). Early studies showed that models had difficulties in correctly representing blocking as well as in connection with their large systematic (mean) errors.
Despite enormous improvements in the ability of numerical models to represent atmospheric dynamics, blocking remains a challenge for global weather prediction and climate simulation models. Such modeling deficiencies have negative consequences not only for our ability to represent the observed climate but also for the possibility of producing high-quality seasonal-to-decadal predictions. For such predictions, representing the correct space-time statistics of blocking occurrence is, especially for certain geographical areas, extremely important.
Pastoralists around the world are exposed to climate change and increasing climate variability. Various downscaled regional climate models in Africa support community reports of rising temperatures as well as changes in the seasonality of rainfall and drought. In addition to climate, pastoralists have faced a second exposure to unsupportive policy environments. Dating back to the colonial period, a lack of knowledge about pastoralism and a systemic marginalization of pastoral communities influenced the size and nature of government investments in pastoral lands. National governments prioritized farming communities and failed to pay adequate attention to drylands and pastoral communities. The limited government interventions that occurred were often inconsistent with contemporary realities of pastoralism and pastoral communities. These included attempts at sedentarization and modernization, and in other ways changing the priorities and practices of pastoral communities.
The survival of pastoral communities in Africa in the context of this double exposure has been a focus for scholars, development practitioners, as well as national governments in recent years. Scholars initially drew attention to pastoralists’ drought-coping strategies, and later examined the multiple ways in which pastoralists manage risk and exploit unpredictability. It has been learned that pastoralists are rational land managers whose experience with variable climate has equipped them with the skills needed for adaptation. Pastoralists follow several identifiable adaptation paths, including diversification and modification of their herds and herding strategies; adoption of livelihood activities that did not previously play a permanent role; and a conscious decision to train the next generation for nonpastoral livelihoods. Ongoing government interventions around climate change still prioritize cropping over herding. Sometimes, such nationally supported adaptation plans can undermine community-based adaptation practices, autonomously evolving within pastoral communities. Successful adaptation hinges on recognition of the value of autonomous adaptation and careful integration of such adaptation with national plans.
Philipp Pattberg and Oscar Widerberg
In 1992, when the international community agreed on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the science of climate change was under development, global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were by and large produced by developed countries, and the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere had just surpassed 350 ppm. Some 25 years later, climate change is scientifically uncontested, China has overtaken the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of CO2, and concentrations are now measured above 400 ppm. Against this background, states have successfully concluded a new global agreement under the UNFCCC, the 2015 Paris Agreement. Prior to the Paris Agreement, the climate regime focused on allocating emission reduction commitments among (a group of) countries. However, the new agreement has turned the climate regime on its feet by introducing an approach based on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Under this approach, states decide their ambition levels independently instead of engaging in negotiations about “who does what.” The result is a more flexible system that for the first time includes all countries in the quest to reduce GHG emissions to keep temperature increase below 2°C compared to preindustrial levels. Moreover, the international climate regime has transformed into a regime complex, denoting the broad activities of smaller groups of states as well as non-party actors, such as cities, regions, companies, and non-governmental organizations along with United Nations agencies.