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Weekly Science 23rd March

  • 23 Mar 2011, 11:20
  • Verity

Here's our summary of the useful and interesting papers, letters and commentaries that have been published over the past week in the scientific literature...

Policymakers need to think in terms of probabilities

Climate change is evidently affecting plants and animals, but according to a new scientific commentary, there's too much focus on defining the contribution of human-induced climate change to these biological responses.

According to the authors, Politicians in particular want to know how much climate change is responsible for changes in biological systems, but this can be difficult to determine as climate change acts at the same time as other effects (both natural and man-made).

They argue that untangling these competing effects is not the most useful direction for research to take, and suggest that research should focus on the interactions of climate change with other factors, and on conservation of compromised species. Lead author Camille Parmesan says (in an interview with Nature):

"Yes, global warming is happening. Yes it is caused by human activities. And yes we've clearly shown that species are impacted by global warming on a global scale … What we need to do now is focus on extensive field experiments and observations to understand  how multiple factors, such as exploitation or habitat fragmentation, interact with a changing climate to directly affect these species."

She also suggests that the policy makers need to take a less black-and-white approach:

"We need to train policy makers to think of probabilities and likelihoods and interactions. They don't like it - but this is the accurate way to describe the science."

Ecosystem richness affects biomass production

Another large-scale biological study: a team of researchers in Sweden have assimilated data from over 400 previous studies to assess how the number of plant species within an ecosystem affects the production of biomass in that ecosystem. More biomass production means greater removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by plants. The Swedes found that the more biodiversity in a plant ecosystem, the more biomass it produces - Keeping ecosystems healthy and diverse makes the most of their CO2 drawdown abilities.

Causes of the Russian heatwave

This week sees the publication of an article investigating the causes of the Russian heat-wave in 2010, and a previous heat-wave in 2003. The findings from this were covered extensively a few weeks back. In both cases, the extreme temperatures resulted from large and 'blocking' high-pressure weather systems, most likely resulting from natural climate variability.

Using high-resolution climate models, the researchers suggest that similar heat-waves will be unusual in the next few decades. However, they could become more common by the end of the century, as the planet warms. We talked about this previously in our blog about extreme weather events and climate change.

Public perception of climate change

People with first-hand experience of the impacts of climate change are more likely to be concerned about the issue, and be willing to take mitigating action. This was the result of a UK survey conducted in 2010, published in Nature Climate Change this week. Of those questioned, those who'd experienced flooding were less likely to view climate change as a distant issue, and more likely to feel that their actions could help to have an effect on climate change.

Climate model improvements

Climate scientists are always trying to update and improve their models, which often tend to treat clouds as suspended water, and ignore the effect of precipitating ice and snow. This week, a study has been published which attempts to quantify the effect of this assumption. The work finds that this assumption impacts on the radiative heating and atmospheric circulation in climate models.

Further work is needed to confirm the robustness of this finding and to include the effects of precipitation as water, not just snow and ice.

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