Climate scientist outlines confusion over claims

Jan Shepel

MADISON - There’s always a lot of confusion when people think about climate change, said Eric Snodgrass, one of the featured speakers at last week’s annual business conference hosted by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

A climate scientist, Snodgrass said that so much discussion of climate change is tied to politics, which is made even worse by the tie between climate discussions and the energy sector, a situation he calls “unfortunate.”

He also thinks it’s unfortunate that people believe the pronouncements of politicians regarding climate science when those people really don’t know much about it. He watched with interest Al Gore’s documentary film called “An Inconvenient Truth” and found nine “rather substantially large untruths” asserted in the film.

About 30 minutes in the film was devoted to how hurricane Katrina was caused by climate change, which he does not agree with. “It gets hard to discern what is happening.”

Eric Snodgrass

Snodgrass, who gave several presentations during the PDPW’s two-day conference last week in Madison, is director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is also co-founder of Global Weather and Climate Logistics, LLC which recently merged with Agrible Inc., a precision farm management and predictive analytics company where he serves as co-founder and senior atmospheric scientist.

Snodgrass, who has devoted his professional career in atmospheric study, said it can be very frustrating for him and others in his field to see a posting by a scientist regarding some climate research which is then challenged by a tweet from someone who has no training in the field -- and people give the two pieces of information the same weight.

“Is the climate changing? Absolutely. Is it supposed to change? Yes.” His point was that the climate seems to always be changing.

His state of Illinois is known for being super flat, Snodgrass said. “Twenty thousand years ago glaciers came through and dumped Canadian soil there. Then Kansas soil blew in until what we now know as Illinois had six to 12 feet of topsoil.

“Twenty thousand years ago the climate was only 3 degrees cooler than today. Our planet is very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature,” he said.

Today many people confuse weather and climate and often blame climate change for a weather event. “Don’t ever try to blame a weather event on climate change,” he said. “Weather is highly variable and it’s what happens today. Climate changes are very slow.”

Snodgrass said that our planet experiences things that we don’t even know are happening. We think of earth’s circuit around the sun as fairly smooth, he said, “but we wobble like mad around the sun. However, that change is happening over thousands of years and that can change our climate.”

Climate can be affected by solar activity. Sun spots, when they happen, are colder than the rest of the sun’s surface and that means that less energy is reaching earth.

Volcanoes, when they belch soot and ash, can actually have an effect on the earth’s climate. As those particles reach the stratosphere they have the effect of shading earth from some of the sun’s rays and can cause cooling for a couple of years.

Climate can also be affected by the earth’s color from space, he said. As rainforests are cleared and vast stretches of the earth’s surface become a different color that can change the amount of energy earth absorbs. However, that affect has been observed for 170 years and “we should have already peaked and be on our way down by now. We should be cooling off slowing now.”

Snodgrass explained to the farm audience how scientists get their data on climate and what it was like 13,000 years ago. Drilling cores from the polar ice sheets and then slicing that ice allows the release of an oxygen isotope that can be measured. As more scientists do this work, consensus has developed because everyone gets the same results.

“You don’t get published in the journal ‘Science’ if you are a liar.”

An inter-governmental panel on climate change with 3,000 scientists should also be some kind of assurance that the science is valid. “If there was a problem with the science there would be a whistleblower. If I were that whistleblower I’d be hailed as an Einstein or the guy that came up with plate tectonics,” he said. Since that whistleblower hasn’t appeared, he implied, the science should be regarded as valid.

Visiting his child’s class to talk about his work, Snodgrass asked the kids about the greenhouse effect – and all the youngsters associated it with something bad. He explained, to them and to his farm audience, that without the greenhouse effect “we don’t get to live here” on earth.

One day’s worth of sunlight contains the equivalent of 30 years worth of global energy consumption. The greenhouse gases – argon, carbon dioxide, methane ozone, to name a few – form a layer in the upper atmosphere that provides a “very thin little blanket” over the earth and allows life to exist here.

The concern these days is that if we change the concentration of those gases we may change the climate.

Snodgrass noted that when it was widely accepted that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were damaging the earth’s ozone layer – part of that thin blanket that protects the earth and makes life possible here – international leaders got together and ratified the Montreal Protocol. With that treaty in 1987, world leaders agreed to phase out substances that deplete the ozone.

As a result of that treaty, the ozone hole over Antarctica is slowly recovering. “That is the only time in human history when the whole world agreed something was bad and got together and did something about it,” he said.

Cities like Miami are making allowances for the ways that a warming climate may affect them, he said. The city is allocating $400 million to raise its roads.

Farmers can probably already see changes in their operations from the observed change in climate. One of the effects in the Midwest is an observed change in very heavy precipitation followed by longer dry periods.

In southern Wisconsin, using Madison data as a measurement, the frost-free season has been lengthening since the mid-1990s when it was 125 days, he said. On trend lines now it is approaching 148 days. “If you’re good at managing water, you can plant longer season beans.”

In Illinois, he said, “every field that wasn’t tiled is being tiled.” Better irrigation and drainage allows farmers to manage their crops’ water needs and take advantage of longer growing seasons.