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Adapting to the changing climate

Over 97%¹ of climate scientists across the world agree that the Earth's climate is changing due to human activity, and through decades of data collection and modelling, researchers have built a robust understanding of the challenges that this poses to life as we know it.

The causes, such as increasing greenhouse gas emissions, land use change and atmospheric aerosols – and the likely impacts, including ice loss, rising sea levels, higher temperatures and an increased prevalence of extreme weather events – are well known and greatly publicised. However, fewer efforts have been conducted into planning exactly how we can adapt to climate change as it inevitably becomes more severe.

Dr Clare Goodess, senior researcher at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), has devoted a large portion of her career to this task. As one of the world's leading institutions focused on the study of both natural and human-led climate change, the CRU's contributions to the academic discourse have been enormous.

Dr Goodess has been heavily involved with CRU since 1982, carrying out research vital to assisting and spurring on both governments and international actors in the task of limiting the damage that climate change could inflict. Across the United Kingdom, Europe and the rest of the world, hundreds of millions of people could benefit from the research and academic guidance UEA has provided.

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Assisting UK decision makers

The work of CRU has been instrumental in allowing the UK government to understand how climate change will affect the country, and CRU was influential in developing a resource to inform this knowledge: the 2009 UK Climate Projections (UKCP09).

Drawing on research conducted during previous rounds of climate modelling, Dr Goodess helped to define which approaches could be taken in order to improve upon the existing projections. This work was used to justify and support the probability-based method used in UKCP09 to provide information about potential future changes in both average climate and extreme weather events. This approach was designed to assist assessments of how climate change could impact the UK and decision making under uncertain conditions.

Dr Goodess was also involved in the scientific committee which oversaw the development of UKCP09, and in the review of this work for Defra, utilising her expert knowledge.

Urban planning

Given the highly urbanised nature of the UK, urban planners need to be able to mitigate the effects of climate change on the populaces across the nation. CRU researchers began working on this during the creation of UKCP09, creating weather simulation software known as a weather generator (WGen) that could be applied to built-up areas around the country.

In 2011, Dr Goodess was involved in work on modelling the impacts of climate change on UK urban areas, alongside discerning the effects of urbanisation on local climate change. Using WGen alongside other models, Goodess and other researchers from CRU and elsewhere were able to evaluate the interaction between urban structures, urban heat islands and climate change.

This then was fed into a 2014 paper Dr Goodess was also involved in, which applied the findings to London, assessing the impact of heat islands on the health and comfort of people living and working in the metropolitan area.

Assisting in the creation of the London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, this work on urban climate informed the city's planners of the need to plan the urban area in a manner that doesn't exacerbate the urban heat island effect – the ability of a city to absorb and release extra heat during the day and at night, thereby making it warmer than the surrounding area. Millions of Londoners should benefit as a result.

Assessing the risks to Europe

While country-specific modelling is useful for adapting to climate change effects on a local scale, regional modelling is very important, given the wholly global nature of the climate.

The cost of climate change

In 2011, working as an expert advisor for the European Union's Projection of Economic Impacts of Climate Change in Sectors of the European Union Based on Bottom-up Analysis (PESETA) project, Dr Goodess contributed to work into creating high-resolution, regionally focused assessments of the physical and economic effects of climate change across the EU.

Innovatively combining high-resolution climate data, detailed impact modelling tools and a multi-sectoral, multiregional economic model, the project created an encompassing picture of the economic cost of climate change. What was produced was useful for a number of subsequent research groups, most notably those working on ECONADAPT – a project concerned with the economics of climate change adaptation.

Here, Dr Goodess has been one of only two climate scientists involved in the economist-led project, providing advice on which climate data and projections the researchers should use, and how they should use them. This will feed into European adaptation plans and policy in the near future, once again helping countless people.

Environmentally focused

Of course, modelling shouldn't be completely focused on the economy. Working for the ATOPICA project, an effort that aimed to reveal the effects of climate, land use and air pollution on pollen-induced diseases, Dr Goodess provided advice and guidance on how to bring together the many strands that comprised the work.

As well as assisting teams focused on plant distribution, pollen dispersion, air quality and pollen allergen symptoms – as well as the UEA team creating the overarching model that brought these together – Goodess also provided advice on which climate projections to use and how the teams could deal with uncertainties relating to the collation and combination of all of this data.

Modelling the effects of climate on plants isn't easy. Each variety of plant reacts to temperature, humidity, rainfall and a host of other environmental effects in many different ways, so it's very important to ensure that data inputted into these models is as unbiased as possible. If they're wrong, any adaptation measures based off the data may be useless, or even damaging, to the plants and regions to which they're applied.

In 2015, Dr Goodess and a team of researchers looked at a number of approaches to correct and reduce these biases, evaluating them in relation to crop yields. Using dynamical climate models, statistical approaches and the WGen – each adjusted in a number of ways – the team looked at how the approaches' historically-based estimates matched present day crop yields.

Unfortunately, the team discovered that the more that biases were reduced, the more uncertainty crept into the final outputs (projections of future crop yields) – an issue that researchers will need to focus on in the future.

Many models

Climate models are a key tool in understanding how to adapt to climate change, and a huge focus has been made to create and hone them. The ENSEMBLES project, led by the UK Met Office, was one of these: a 60-partner, pan-European consortium featuring global climate, regional climate, impact modelling and forecasting groups, among many others. The work on regional climate was led by Dr Goodess.

In 2012, Dr Goodess, in an advisory role alongside other ENSEMBLES researchers, began work on assessing an ensemble of regional models – an ensemble that combines together a multiplicity of models into a coherent whole.

The team worked on discovering where uncertainties would be thrown up during this combination, understanding where efforts could be focused in order to lower the level of uncertainty, improving the interpretation of the models, future models and greatly assisting in future adaptation efforts.

Understanding the global impact

Dr Goodess' work has also taken on a global angle, helping worldwide efforts to adapt to the Earth's changing climate.

Mediterranean modelling

In 2009, working as an expert reviewer and scientific advisor, she worked with European academics in order to model and assess the risks to the Mediterranean basin – southern Europe, Turkey, central eastern Europe and North Africa – under a 2°C warming scenario.

A huge number of effects were taken into account, including rainfall levels, the severity of droughts and the number of days that excessively high and low temperatures were to be experienced. These were then modelled against agricultural activities, energy use, natural ecosystems (the risk of forest fires, for instance) and tourism, with the findings being highly cited.

Understanding future weather

Weather generators have been a very useful tool in conducting work on adaptation at the local scale in many parts of the world. In 2015, using a substantially modified version of the UKCP09 WGen, Dr Goodess and a number of other UK researchers worked with colleagues in the Caribbean to create a selection of online resources that would help decision-makers understand how the region's climate might change in the future – the CARIWIG project.

Using the UK-developed WGen alongside modelling tools developed by researchers in Jamaica and Cuba, Goodess' team and a leading climate change centre based in Belize began co-ordinating and compiling case studies for CARIWIG.

In Belize, Goodess provided expert assistance in how to run WGen in order to evaluate the impact of climate change on the country's future flood risk, sweet potato production and exposure to dengue fever, before helping researchers in the region interpret and present the results discovered. In all, these efforts have given climate change planning tools to authorities in Belize, Jamaica, Cuba and a number of other Caribbean nations, which will then feed into future adaptation efforts.

Safeguarding global health

Climate change will affect the health of millions of people, and the World Health Organization (WHO) is at the forefront of these efforts. Dr Goodess and some of the CRU's highest-profile work to date has been in providing climate data and analysis to WHO in order for country-specific profiles to be produced by a larger team including health experts, a task that should soon help around fifty countries plan to adapt to climate shifts occurring over the coming century.

First released in the summer of 2015, the profiles display the academics' key findings regarding the risks faced and their severities – temperature rises, heat waves, floods, droughts, diseases, labour productivity, heat-related death, and air pollution. They then examine the steps that each country can take regarding adaptation, mitigation and policy implementation, before finally explaining the benefits that following these steps would bring.

It's a comprehensive approach that should help greatly in raising awareness throughout the world, both at the public and policy making levels – a massive improvement on the sparse and disconnected efforts of the past.

A globally concerted effort is required if the most extreme and damaging effects of climate change are to be avoided, but thanks to the efforts of Dr Goodess and her colleagues at the UEA CRU, a consensus is being worked towards. With the tools being developed, studies being undertaken and skills being honed, humanity may yet still adapt and prosper under a changing climate.

Sources 

¹ http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

http://econadapt.eu/

https://www.atopica.eu/

http://www.cariwig.org/en/

http://www.who.int/globalchange/resources/countries/en/

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Dr Clare Goodess

Senior Research Associate, School of Environmental Sciences

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