Podcast 1: UMass Climate System Research Center: Michael Rawlins


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Podcast Transcript:

Host, Amrita Acharya: 0:00
Welcome to climate change at home, a podcast series produced by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News. I am your host. I'm Amrita Acharya. And on this podcast we will examine the impacts of climate change and those active in the fight against it in the Pioneer Valley. Climate change at home is sponsored by Whelan Insurance, providing protection to Pioneer Valley families and businesses since 1961. Today, I am speaking with Professor Michael Rollins, the Associate Director of the Climate System Research Center, UMass Amherst. This center brings together faculty and students to study the climate system and global change issues, as well as dig into their causes and consequences. Michael, could you just first give me a little background on yourself? What is your educational background? What are you interested in for research? And what brought you to UMass?

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 0:59
Well, thanks for having me. So, my background is in physical climatology, with a focus most recently on terrestrial hydrology, in Arctic environments. So my research looks at permafrost thaw the impacts of thawing permafrost in the Arctic on the hydrology, on the carbon cycle, looking at River flows, how they're changing as the climate warms in the Arctic. By education, I have a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Delaware, in environmental science, with a concentration in the atmospheric environment, my master's degree in geography from the University of Delaware. And I have a doctorate in Environmental Sciences from the University of New Hampshire. And so I've been doing research for over 20 years now. So my research is focused on the Arctic, primarily the hydrological cycle. I also do understand how the atmosphere is changing and how precipitation patterns are changing in the Arctic. And I've also done since I've been here at UMass, I've been here at UMass for about 12 years now. And in the first few years, when I arrived, I did broaden my research out into studying climate change across the Northeast us, and also how the frozen season, the period of winter when we're below freezing, how that will change as we continue to warm.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 2:34
So tell me about this Climate Center that you're a part of.

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 2:40
So I'm the Associate Director of the climate system Research Center here at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And this, we call it the CSRC, or the acronym, the CSRC is housed within the department of Geosciences here. So the Climate System Research Center is focused primarily on understanding climate variability and climate change, fundamental basic research. And in order to understand basically how the climate system operates, the dynamics of the climate system, and how its variable in space and time, and how it may change in the future, how it is changing, and how it may change in the future, some very basic fundamental research in the climate system Research Center. Its collection of faculty members, who study the Arctic, as I do, also study global climate patterns, specific areas, some areas of the tropics, how the tropics are changing climate change. And using a number of tools, primarily, most of the faculty in the climate system Research Center, many of them are using observations, or measurements of the real world. What we call proxies, proxy measurements, which are natural archives. They record climate history. Other members of the climate system Research Center, as I do use numerical models. We have one member faculty member who uses numerical models to understand the large ice sheets, Greenland and Antarctica, and how they have changed in the past and how they are changing, mostly losing ice losing mass, and how that contributes to sea level rise.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 4:44
Can you tell me about some of the projects that are encapsulated within this mathematical art use mathematical modeling, but also some of the other colleagues that you have, what kinds of projects they're working on?

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 4:57
Well, starting from the numerical modeling that A few of us do. I'm a principal investigator of projects supported by the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and also NASA focused on understanding, as I mentioned before, how the Arctic is changing, specifically, the Western Arctic, Alaska and Western Canada. And under trying to understand how warming is impacting freshwater flows, river flows snowpacks, and also carbon in rivers, specifically dissolved organic carbon, so carbon that is dissolved in the solution in the water, and under try to try to understand how how much carbon is in the rivers flowing from the land to the Arctic Ocean, because that's a branch of the carbon cycle. And we really don't understand much about a president, how much carbon is being transferred from the land to the Ocean, Arctic Ocean via these rivers. So that's the numerical modeling that I do, focused on the western Arctic. And another of my colleagues here, as I mentioned, uses numerical models, has projects focused on understanding how Antarctica is losing ice, particularly along the edges of West Antarctica, and how that's contributing to sea level rise. And also, he has projects focused on as well as on understanding Greenland, these two large ice sheets. And so this is research that's really, very fundamentally important to our understanding of the contributors of sea level rise and how much sea level may rise in the coming decades, which is worrisome, particularly along coastlines of the world. Because the sea level rise we've seen over the last 100 years or so is, by some estimates pales in comparison to what we may see over the next 100 to 200 years, it's nonlinear, so to speak. So it's not a straight line, the sea level rise, we'll see in the future decades and future, next century or so will probably accelerate, we could see upwards of potentially maybe three feet of sea level rise, three feet of sea level rise would inundate many areas of let's say Boston, that are low lying. There are places along New York, the East Coast of the US where subways would flood. And what's most concerning is that you have the sea level rise, but also we have storm surges when we have things like a nor'easter or a hurricane comes through. So flooding along the coast is a function basically is is influenced by not only the baseline sea level, let's say mean sea level over a given month, but also the sea level rise, we'll see we'll see in the future. And then storm surges on top of that. So one could imagine a situation where the worst case scenario is we have a lot of sea level rise due to these degrading large ice sheets. And then we have stronger storms in the winter, or in the summer hurricanes, and you have larger storm surges, larger wave action on top of the sea level rise. So it's almost like an additive factor. So that's this, that's the numerical modeling that's contributed to the numerical modeling contributes to that. And then we also have these other projects that are focused on using these natural archives measurements to understand past climates, and also the current state of the climate. In other parts of the world.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 9:05
We're talking about coastal regions. Obviously, we're not that far from the coast, being in here in Western Mass. I'm just curious how some of that research can apply to us here in the valley.

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 9:17
How that impacts how sea level rise impacts us in Western Massachusetts, I would say primarily, it's likely to be things like insurance rates, to be honest, in my opinion, anyway, because obviously, we won't see sea level rise impacting us here. You know, it's it's a concern for coastal areas, and particularly low lying areas of vulnerable populations in Southeast Asia and other low lying islands that are just seeing it. We're seeing it. We're seeing that right now. But as far as impacting us here, I don't know I tend to think the worst case scenario Reo is insurance companies having some catastrophic event in the future and then them just deciding not to pay out on claims. And then many people here have vacation homes on the Cape, or some do anyway.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 10:18
But they have those tall dunes.

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 10:22
Yes, but the dunes I'm not sure the dunes are high enough to protect us from three, four or five feet of sea level rise, which we won't see in the next decade or two. But which is a concern moving forward, because, unfortunately, not to get too complicated here. But the ice sheets, these large ice sheets are not, won't be in equilibrium with the climate, even should we get our act together and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the temperatures stabilize by let's say mid century under optimistic scenarios. Even then, when the temperature levels off, the ice sheets will continue to lose mass because they aren't in equilibrium, they haven't lost enough to be stable at that higher temperature, or even at the temperature we're at right now. So basically, the ice sheets would continue. If temperatures were let's say, if temperatures were to level off next year and not continue any further upwards. Ice sheets will continue to lose mass for probably a century or two at least. Because they they will take some time to adjust to the temperatures. Warming that we've seen over the last 100 Year 100 to 200 years. So sea level rise is probably one of the biggest concerns that society faces. In addition to things like heat waves, and extreme storms, it's the sea level rise is going to be something that there's there. There must be adaptations there. There are going to be populations that are displaced from the coasts of vulnerable islands and low lying areas, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 12:21
We're looking at your research, you're building models, looking or some of the other researchers are looking into archives. What are some of the more solution based insights that you're kind of driving out from the research that you think can apply to not necessarily just policy but lifestyle and lifestyle changes might happen?

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 12:46
Well, the research in the climate system Research Center in understanding past climates, the current climate dynamics and future changes, has impacts for recreation, winter recreation, the shrinking of the climate. The shrinking of the snow season has impacts for all our ski resorts and we're seeing less snow in spring and in fall the shoulder seasons. Now, of course, going forward, we'll still see snow here in this area in the middle of winter when it's tends to be cold. And we might actually see more snow over coming decades, during let's say the end of January and early February because the atmosphere is holding more moisture. It can snow more. We're seeing heavy, heavier snow storms in recent decades during the coldest time of year. But on the edges, let's say in autumn, October, early November, and let's say into March, maybe early April. We used to see snow in this area back many decades ago. But now we're starting to see more rain. So there are these implications for recreation.
Also some of the research we're doing has implications for farming in this area. We're seeing these increases in extreme events. There have been some more recent events of farm field flooding in this area, particularly in wet years wet springs and we have snowmelt and we have a lot of rain after the snowmelt the farm fields tend to flood water tables are rising over recent decades. So there's been some evidence of more basement flooding and also septic system failures in this area. So understanding how the climate system functions, how its variable in space and time and how it's changing has important bearing and relevance for society. are everywhere. And in particular, Western Massachusetts here where we live, it's really important obviously, to understand the basics, the fundamental elements of the climate system, and how it's changing. So two tenants of climate change our mitigation and adaptation, we must mitigate our use of fossil fuels, reduce our emissions, that will lead to less carbon dioxide and methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which will lead to stabilization of the warming, and eventually a cooling, hopefully in the in the future in the near future. And then adaptation is adapting. And there's a lot of emphasis these days and somewhat, maybe too much emphasis on simply adapting to climate change, warming. It's passive, and it's also active. But it's, I think the what we must avoid is, as a society is putting too much emphasis on just adapting and accepting that we will continue we must that will, you must continue to burn fossil fuels, with very limited reductions because of economic concerns. And we we must put more emphasis and more funding more of our of our resources into adaptation. And I I think we need to do both, but we must not we cannot forego mitigation. There's only so much adaptation that we can do.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 17:00
What do you think is most crucial piece of information that you want to deliver?

Guest, Professor Michael Rollins: 17:06
I think it's, it's most important to understand that our understanding of the climate system has has improved leaps and bounds over the last few decades. And what we're seeing right now was predicted by scientists decades ago, we're seeing chant climate changes that James Hansen from NASA, back in the 1980s, testified to Congress, to climate models back in the 1980s and 1990s, predicted temperatures increases that have been realized, it's really striking to see how close our, let's say annual average temperatures have been over the last five to 10 years, how closely that matches the climate model predictions from decades ago. So I think it's most important understand that what we're seeing right now, as far as warming temperatures and increasing extreme precipitation events, and other climate changes, these were predicted decades ago. And so our understanding of how increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are impacting our climate system. It's not something that's that's a should be a surprise to anybody. So with that knowledge, I hope everybody would understand that. We have also, our understanding of how things have changed in the past few decades, then informs us to give us confidence of the changes we may see by mid century and end of century. And so I would say to the listeners, that we have a lot of confidence, we have a great understanding about our climate system and how the climate has changed, and what we can expect in the future. And with that information, then we can more forcefully and boldly act to mitigate our future uses of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases, and then as well to adapt to the changes that we'll see in the future in this area.

Host, Amrita Acharya: 19:35
If you'd like to learn more or get in contact with Michael, you can search on the internet climate Systems Research Center, UMass. There you'll find a website with information about projects, recent news and profiles on faculty and students to get in touch with on this season of climate change at home. I am speaking to individuals at Wildwood cemetery in Green Bay. Ariel, Massachusetts Youth Climate action now and the beaver Institute, among many others. Lastly, I'd like to thank our sponsor Whelan insurance, a local business operated exclusively on solar power. Well, an insurance has seven Eevee charging stations at its King Street office in Northampton, free for public use. Until next time, I am Emerita Acharya and I thank you so much for tuning in.

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