FALL 2015

The Communication Dilemna: PhD Student Patrick Brown Discovers Just How Quickly Climate Change Results Can Be Misconstrued

by Kati Moore MEM’16

PhD student Patrick Brown understands the importance of communication. Any scientific research requires some level of distillation to be made understandable to the general public, and climate science is no different.

Last April, Brown published a paper in the journal Scientific Reports that looked at the statistical likelihood that the globe was on a more moderate versus extreme warming trajectory given that the global average temperature had been trending slightly downward over the previous 11 years. Brown and his coauthors found that it was more likely we had been on a more moderate path.

“It wasn’t actually a groundbreaking conclusion,” Brown says. But the media, “like a game of telephone,” he says, translated and re-translated his findings until they were touted as evidence against climate change.

“It was frustrating to see that,” Brown says. He responded via a personal blog post and through various media outlets. He also responded directly to dozens of emails asking for clarication, an opportunity he says he appreciated.

“You can’t always communicate everything you want in the paper or press release—sometimes it’s hard to be able to tell exactly what’s meant. It’s nice to be able to ask a direct question.”

Brown studies under Wenhong Li, assistant professor of climate in the Nicholas School’s Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences. Brown’s research includes comparing climate models and identifying ways to improve them.

The goal, he says, is not necessarily to lower the uncertainty associated with these models.

“There are certain limits on the predictive power of climate models,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better to just ask, how much uncertainty is there?”

Most uncertainty lies in the variation of global average temperatures from decade to decade. Unfortunately, this is the time scale that is most important to policymakers who want to know what the climate will be like 10 to 50 years from now.

Climate models tend to agree on the physics of year-to-year variability, Brown explains. They also agree that, as long as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, signicant warming will occur in the next hundred or so years. It’s the time in between that is harder to predict.

A good analogy for this, says Brown, is waves and tides. At a certain point in time, if we know the current state of the ocean, we can predict how the next few waves will affect the water line on the beach. This is like predicting the weather for tomorrow or the rest of the week.

We also know if the tide is going in or out, so we can predict where the average water line on the beach will be several hours from now. This is like modeling the average temperature a hundred years from now, given a certain increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Predicting where the water line will be in 10 minutes is much more difcult. The tide won’t have had a large effect yet, and we have almost no way to predict the state of individual waves that far out. This is like trying to predict the weather or even average temperature a few decades from now, Brown says.

The decade-to-decade timescale is when natural variations are large compared to anthropogenic inputs. Though greenhouse gas concentrations may be rising steadily over 100 or more years, you might not see much change in average global temperature from one decade to the next due to unpredictable changes in air and ocean cycles.

And once you factor in social and political changes that might affect greenhouse gas concentrations between now and then, such predictions become even more difcult.

Brown has been interested in weather and climate since elementary school, when he built his own weather stations to monitor local weather patterns and make forecasts for friends and family. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, he worked for a year at Weather Central, LLC, drawing local and national weather maps for newspapers.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in meteorology and climate science from San Jose State University, where he became interested in climate models. He applied to the Nicholas School for its interdisciplinary approach to climate science.

“As I became more interested in climate change, as opposed to weather, I realized how important the ocean surface is, how important the land surface is, how important the biosphere is, and how important long timescales that incorporate geology are. I wanted to be in a department that incorporated all those aspects.”

In his first year at the Nicholas School he met his now fiancée, Heidi Winner, MEM’13. They live in Durham and have one cat. Brown enjoys hiking and running, but his main hobby, he says, is his blog. This is where he posts videos and articles explaining his research and climate science in laymen’s terms.

“The internet is full of misinformation and information created by people that frankly don’t know what they’re talking about. In this small area I feel like I do know what I’m talking about, so I want to have something out there.”

You can read Brown’s blog at patricktbrown.org.

Kati Moore MEM’16 is a Nicholas School communications assistant.