It’s Wednesday 20th April 2011 and I’m putting the finishing touches to a paper based upon data I collected by sitting in a field and watching some cattle. The scientific rigour of the piece is irrefutable, but will anyone care if Daisy spends 2% of her day in the river? Then it hits me. I have meteorological data; I can link my observations to the prevailing weather conditions. Lo and behold, I find a statistically significant relationship between stream utilisation by cattle and air temperature. It’s the golden chalice of academic research that’s sure to raise the profile of the paper; a (tenuous) link to climate change.
It’s been over a decade since Mann et al. (1999) published their controversial (although now broadly accepted) ‘hockey-stick’ paper, yet the buzz of climate change has refused to go away. More recent debates stemming from the Climategate incident involving scientists at the University of East Anglia and the Climatic Research Unit have stoked the flames of climate change scepticism. Even our national treasures have been attacked in their support of the theory that recent changes in global climate are anthropogenically driven.
Is this obsession with our changing climate just a storm in a tea-cup or are researchers taking it seriously? As an earth scientist I know two things on the subject. Firstly, the Earth’s climate has fluctuated massively over the course of its history; climate change happens. Secondly, fellow scientists that know much, much more about climate science than me say that the trends observed in the global air temperature anomaly are likely to be caused by the emission of greenhouse gases.
Then I look around my office and I wonder whether the research my colleagues are undertaking has anything to do with climate change. Kimberley Davies is investigating the role of Arctic thaw lakes in contributing methane to the carbon cycle. Chris Hackney is using future climate predictions from the IPCC to drive his landscape evolution models of the Isle of Wight. John Duncan is using remotely-sensed data to assess the effects of climate change upon agricultural productivity and crop yield in North India. Everywhere you look there are strong links to climate change; it’s clearly more than a buzz. Many academic papers and a substantial proportion of research in the geosciences are either investigating human-induced climate change or its effects.
And why is this the case? The reason is two-fold:
- Climate change affects the earth system. Precipitation and temperature are essential controls on both ecological and geomorphological processes. Changing these variables effects rates of change and impinges upon our understanding of form and process.
- Climate change affects people. Whether it’s rising sea-levels and the displacement of Pacific-islanders or concern over food output from already agriculturally-margin land in the sub-Sahara, everyone feels the consequences of climate change.
So what does my research have to do with climate change? In truth, very little. I naughtily used the hype to get the paper published.
And yet…my research has shown cattle use rivers more frequently when it’s warmer. Global cattle populations are expected to double to 3 billion by 2050. By the same time air temperatures in the UK may be 2°C higher on average, whilst average rainfall may have fallen by a fifth. Our chalk streams, with their high ecological, economic and cultural value, could be reduced to muddy confluences of misery and despair.
Exaggeration aside, it’s all linked up together. That’s what a system is. It’s important we don’t forget that.