GREEN

Three Questions Australian Climate Scientists Really Need To Answer

They're deceptively simple.

17/01/2017 3:30 PM AEDT | Updated 17/01/2017 3:30 PM AEDT
Getty Images
We've dipped our toes in climate research, now we need to jump in the deep end.

Almost all of us agree that man-made climate change is real, and we know it's going to make for more extreme weather events. The world's leaders got together to sign the Paris Agreement in light of the evidence, but there's still three burning questions Australian climate scientists need to answer.

ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science professor of climate modelling Christian Jakob is one of the authors of these three questions, and said they didn't take them lightly.

"Knowing that the globe is warming through human activity is like understanding that cancer is caused by runaway cell division," Jakob said.

I think the impression a lot of people get about climate science is that it's important but very boring.Christian Jakob

"It is just the start of the challenge."

He and his team's three questions, as published in journal Nature Climate Change are:

• Where does the carbon go?

• How does weather change with climate?

• How does climate influence the habitability of the Earth and its regions?

Sounds simple enough, right?

"These three questions are all far more complicated that they initially seem," Jakob told The Huffington Post Australia.

"We wanted to create the questions that represent the frontiers of climate science right now, but I think the impression a lot of people get about climate science is that it's important but very boring.

"These questions hopefully show young people in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] that there are cool, interesting, important challenges in climate science just like other fields that need to be solved and these answers could change the way people live."

Getty Images/Hero Images
It will probably be the next generation that answers these questions.

Let's take the first question.

1. Where does the carbon go?

Before we start, carbon is an integral part of global warming. In a nutshell, here's why:

Carbon is stored in rocks, trees, fossil fuels and more. When people started burning fossil fuels, it caused a huge increase in carbon release into the air. Some of it was absorbed by the ocean and the land but the rest went into the atmosphere where it captures heat and radiates it back to earth (read a more detailed description of the carbon cycle here).

Bloomberg via Getty Images
When fossil fuels are burned, some carbon goes into the atmosphere but some goes into the ocean, and land.

Jakob said we had the gist of the carbon cycle, but there were still factors we were boggled by.

"We know more than half of the carbon ends up in the ocean, but as the ocean gets warmer, how does that affect the rate of absorption? As more and more carbon is taken up by the ocean, will there be a change in how much it can take up?

"And on a local level, how do geographical factors, or humidity and rainfall affect where carbon goes?"

Also as governments embrace carbon trade programs, Jakob said it was ever more important to understand real-time where carbon goes, so it can be policed.

As for the second and third questions, Jakob said it was about thinking locally.

2. How does weather change with climate?

3. How does climate influence the habitability of the Earth and its regions?

"To put it in a particularly Australian way, we don't plan for a bushfire season based on what is happening with global average temperatures, we look at temperature and humidity in our area instead," he said.

Newspix via Getty Images
Australians don't fight a fire in Adelaide Hills based on global data, we need the local temperatures, wind and humidity.

"While global mean temperature provides the canvas, the details of future changes will emerge at regional levels. It's at these levels that we will feel and need to adapt to the impact of climate change, economically and socially."

Jakob said it was up to the young people coming through STEM right now to take on these questions and find answers.

"I do believe the answers will be found," he said.

"It really is an exciting time for climate science, and it's rare that there's some really basic research that needs to be done to make things like better computer models to help us understand the future."

"Basically now that the Paris agreement exists, some say climate science is no longer necessary. These questions are our way to say 'nah'. There's still a lot to be done, a lot problems unsolved and a lot of big decisions we can help make."

More On This Topic