Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Climate Change and Sustainability: Connecting Atmospheric, Ocean and Climate Science with Public Literacy

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Climate Change and Sustainability: Connecting Atmospheric, Ocean and Climate Science with Public Literacy

Article excerpt


Climate has changed throughout Earth's history, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly. An example of a slow change is a movement of tectonic plates, while an example of an abrupt change is a volcanic eruption. Organisms have either adapted to the changes or have ceased to exist. From a human perspective, climate change can profoundly influence civilization. In particular, climate can play a key factor in whether societies thrive or perish. To make responsible decisions about adaptations to climate change including sustainability, the public must understand the operation of climate and causes and effects of its change. This understanding can result in building sustainable communities and societies that are resilient to both natural and human-caused climate changes

The trouble with gaining this understanding is two-fold involving a scientific and a public perspective. Let us address the scientific perspective first.

From a scientific perspective, the dynamics of coupled atmosphere, ocean and climate processes responsible for climate change are complex and are still being systematically investigated. Besides the complexity of coupled interactions between the atmosphere, ocean, ice and land, which can lead to climate change, there is the complexity of understanding the dynamic role of each of the above climate components. For example, the role of the ocean in climate change has become recognized as an increasingly important element of climate research since at least the 1980s (e.g., Batteen, 1984). What gives the oceans the potential for exerting a strong influence on climate and its variations is the large heat capacity, coupled with the global redistribution of heat and other properties by ocean currents acting over time scales much longer (i.e., years or decades compared to days or weeks) than atmospheric processes. An added complexity is that ocean eddies (e.g., Gulf Stream rings) could be important mechanisms for transporting heat. As a result, the role of ocean eddies in climate is also becoming an increasingly important element of climate research.

To allow the systematic exploration of the contribution by eddies to the ocean heat transport and also the effect of eddies on the ocean general circulation, eddy resolving ocean numerical models have been suggested as appropriate tools for the investigation of the ocean's role in climate since the late 1970s (e.g., Holland, 1978; Batteen, 1984). Due to computational limitations, however, eddy-resolving three-dimensional ocean models have usually been restricted to regional scales while global ocean models have usually been coarse, non-eddy-resolving models. Note that eddy-resolving, near-global models have become more common since the 1990s (e.g., Semtner and Chervin, 1992). Furthermore, the global ocean models may or may not include the polar regions such as the Arctic Ocean.

As a result, global ocean models either are not eddy-resolving or do not include the two polar regions. Due to the vast expanse of the ocean, there also remain limited direct field observations so that complex processes such as air-sea interaction remain poorly understood. Analysis and subsequent understanding of field observations play a big role contributing to significant improvements in climate models. As a result, the dynamics of ocean processes as well as coupled atmosphere, ocean and ice processes responsible for climate change remain challenging for models and continue to be systematically investigated with both numerical models and field observations.

Besides the scientific perspective on climate change, there is the public perspective. In particular, one needs to learn enough about climate change and processes driving its change to ensure human life remains sustainable. As a result atmospheric, ocean and climate literacy programs that can connect the science with the public are necessary to help close the gap between science and the general population. …

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