U scientists on the 2021 IPCC climate report

Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth report on the current state of the climate. One main finding states that, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

University of Utah scientists from diverse fields weighed in on what the report’s findings mean for the future of research and our planet.

Zhaoxia Pu, professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences

The IPCC report states that “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones…and their attribution to human influence has strengthened.”

It also states that “If global warming increases, some compound extreme events with the low likelihood in past and current climate will become more frequent, and there will be a higher likelihood that events with increased intensities, durations and/or spatial extents unprecedented in the observational record will occur.”

The concerns about the extreme weather and climate events will lead to more active research in predicting weather and climate extremes, especially their frequency of occurrences, intensities, durations, spatial structure, and environmental consequences over local areas because most of these extremes happen regionally. Meanwhile, since extreme weather and climate have significant influences on ecosystem and agriculture, accurate weather and climate prediction will become vital for human decisions about preventing and planning for the events. Therefore, we will foresee increased interest in developing advanced computer weather and climate models, especially the coupled earth system models with treatment in the interactions between different climate system components, including atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, land surface, and the biosphere.

William Anderegg, associate professor, School of Biological Sciences

This report is an incredibly clear and compelling distillation of the science that human-caused climate change is unequivocal, and likely to get much worse unless we take rapid action on carbon emissions. It highlights that climate change is already having major impacts on the western U.S., particularly in terms of severe heat waves, extended drought, and wildfires. The fingerprints of climate change on these impacts—which we see around us, every year now—have grown much clearer in the past five years. For example, climate change is responsible for half or more of the area burned by wildfires in the western U.S., as well as all of that air pollution from fires that we’re breathing.

Summer Rupper, professor, Department of Geography

The IPCC report highlights the stark reality that global average temperature is warmer now than it has been in the past 125,000 years. This warmer, and warming, Earth has far-reaching effects on all of earth’s systems. As one example, the IPCC report summarizes observations of the significant decreases in mountain glacier volume and seasonal snowpack extent over recent decades. These snow and ice changes impact hundreds of millions of people living within and downstream of these systems. As warming continues, glaciers and snowpack will continue to decline, further decreasing the available snow- and ice-derived water resources, increasing flood hazards, reducing the reliability of hydroelectric power, impacting mountain tourism, among a myriad of other affects. The IPCC report helps re-energize efforts to improve our understanding of these critical water-resources, how they respond to climate change, and the impacts on people living around the world, from the Himalayas to the U.S. Intermountain West.

McKenzie Skiles, assistant professor, Department of Geography

The most recent IPCC report, and another recent special report on the Oceans and Cryosphere, summarizes that seasonal snow cover is in decline, with snow-covered extent in the northern hemisphere shrinking by ~8% for every 1o of warming. This is due to more precipitation falling as rain (at low elevations) and earlier melt (at all elevations). The decline in snow cover is primarily attributed to warming air temperatures, but it has also been recognized that darkening of snow due to deposition of dark aerosols related to human activity, such as soot and dust, is also contributing to earlier melt, and this is a growing area of research. A shrinking snowpack impacts mountain ecosystems, economies, and regional hydrology; like many areas downstream of mountain headwaters, the Western U.S. relies on the consistency and magnitude of seasonal snowmelt to meet water demands, and snow hydrologists are actively trying to improve forecasting methods that can capture the new variability introduced by climate change, including earlier runoff timing and reduced volume of seasonal runoff and groundwater recharge.

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Lisa Potterresearch/science communications specialist, University of Utah Communications
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