Further Study Necessary Or

Current global environmental problems are remarkably complex, and, despite an increasingly intensive research effort, they are even now not completely understood. That situation must change, if solutions are to be found. Almost all individuals and organizations studying the problems have indicated that further study is necessary. In the past, that was often seen as a delaying tactic in that it was often easier to suggest further study than to make a positive attack on a problem. Attempts to solve the acid rain problem in North America were thwarted by these very tactics for many years.

Such arguments are no longer possible now that sufficient data are available, yet there remains a very real need for further study of many aspects of the earth/atmosphere system. The roles of the various atmospheric processes require particular attention since they are intimately involved in all of the major problems currently confronting the environment. Traditionally, the study of the atmosphere was based on the collection and analysis of observational data. That approach is time-consuming and costly; it is also of limited overall accuracy because of gaps in the meteorological network, particularly in high latitudes and over the oceans. Modern attempts at exploring the workings of the atmosphere are almost exclusively dependent upon computer models, which range in complexity from simple 1-D formats providing information on one element in the system to highly sophisticated models employing as many as 100 variables, and including consideration of the oceans as well as the atmosphere. Studies of such topics as nuclear winter, global warming and ozone depletion have benefited greatly from the use of computer modelling techniques. The models are becoming increasingly complex and comprehensive, but a high level of sophistication is no guarantee of perfection. Even state-of-the-art, 3-D general circulation models include some degree of simplification, and certain variables—cloudiness, for example—are very difficult to deal with whatever the level of model employed. In short, there is as yet no model capable of simulating exactly the conditions and processes in the real atmosphere. As a result, models using the same data often generate different results (see Figure 8.2). That should not be used as an excuse to do nothing, however. It might be tempting to wait for the perfect model, but that may prove

Figure 8.2 GCMs and climate change. Estimates of surface air temperature change over Australia and Indonesia during December, January and February following a doubling of CO

Figure 8.2 GCMs and climate change. Estimates of surface air temperature change over Australia and Indonesia during December, January and February following a doubling of CO

Source: From Henderson-Sellers (1991)

impossible to develop. Existing models do have flaws, but they can be used provided their limitations are understood, and despite their inherent problems there is probably no better way of studying environmental problems involving the atmosphere.

The major tasks facing scientists involved in the study of environmental problems is the reduction of the uncertainty which still clouds some of the issues, despite the ever-increasing complexity and sophistication of current research methods. Scientists can deal with some degree of uncertainty, because they have been trained to accept different levels of confidence in their results. In contrast, planners, politicians and policy-makers must have reliable estimates of the impact of environmental change, if they are to make the decisions necessary to minimize its negative effects and maximize its positive effects. As long as uncertainty exists, it is all too easy to delay action.

This has been a particular problem in the development of strategies for alleviating the effects of global warming. Decision-makers are unwilling to institute measures which will require socio-economic and political sacrifices until they are sure that global warming is a reality. Researchers, unwilling to discard normal scientific caution, cannot give that assurance. In an attempt to find out what would be required to resolve this dilemma, Henderson-Sellers (1990) conducted a survey which included a question about the minimum level of certainty required before action should be initiated to reduce or adapt to global warming. Respondents suggested that a 50 per cent confidence level would be sufficient. Although this is lower than most researchers would accept, it remains difficult to attain. It may take some time for the stand-off between decision-makers and scientists to be resolved, and as an interim measure some researchers have advocated the development of approaches which would alleviate the problem if global warming occurred as projected, yet would have no detrimental effects if it did not. A wide-spectrum solution involving increased energy efficiency is one possibility, for example. Coupled with enhanced multidisciplinary research which acknowledges the complexity of the problem and the wide range of expertise required to respond to it, this approach should at least slow the change until the answer to the uncertainty question can be determined.

Even as better models are developed, and confidence in their results improves, there will be surprises. Current models tend to concentrate on the impact of human interference on the earth/ atmosphere system, and generally ignore the possibility that natural variations in the system will instigate change. Most assume that the natural elements in the system will remain benign. Evidence from the earth's past suggests that such an assumption cannot be made. Events such as the eruption of Mount Pinatubo serve as timely reminders that natural events can augment or diminish environmental changes initiated by human activity. It is important, therefore, that even in an increasingly anthropocentric world every attempt be made to identify and understand natural variations in the earth/atmosphere system, both at present and in the past. Only then will it be possible to place human interference in its broader environmental context, and make realistic projections of its future impact.

The Basic Survival Guide

The Basic Survival Guide

Disasters: Why No ones Really 100 Safe. This is common knowledgethat disaster is everywhere. Its in the streets, its inside your campuses, and it can even be found inside your home. The question is not whether we are safe because no one is really THAT secure anymore but whether we can do something to lessen the odds of ever becoming a victim.

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