Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The New Normal

Click for photo credit.
In what is becoming an annual end of the year tradition for On the Brink, I am highlighting some environmental news items that I think were overlooked over the course of the year.

Today, I highlight "The New Normal".  While much has been written about the "new normal" no one has really defined it.  In the environmental field, the phrase generally refers to the emerging early 21st century swings in weather as a result of global climate change.  But, what exactly is the new normal?  We all intuitively know that the weather is only part of it.  There are also variations in plant range, animal behavior, and overall ecology--to name a few indicators.

While I like the general pop culture feel of the phrase, I am a bit troubled by the lack of specificity behind it.  What I mean is this.  We all know what gravity is and we know we can measure it.  But, we also know what the new normal is, but we don't know exactly how to measure it. As a scientist, this leaves me troubled.  The data issues involved with measuring broad environmental change are nearly overwhelming.  With gravity, we measure one thing.  But how do we measure the new normal?  To do so requires complex data collection, analysis, and interpretation of everything from atmospheric chemistry to animal behavior.  In the last several years scientists saw patterns emerging that helped them interpret the impact of global climate change.  But in some cases, data collection is not widespread, uniform, or consistent and much of our knowledge comes from places where scientific information is readily available (North America and Europe).

Therefore our knowledge about the new normal is not well developed at this point.  We know the world is changing, but we don't know exactly how.  We have some models that allow us to make informed estimates, but (to use today's term) we are in a new normal and we are not sure if the models will be accurate.  By all accounts, estimates of global climate change impacts have been underestimated and indications are that the coming century will be a rather difficult one for our world.

In many ways, the new normal is not an overlooked story because the phrase was often used to discuss conditions that led to Hurricane Sandy.  However, I feel that the lack of definition or specificity about  the new normal makes it an overlooked environmental story.  We are in serious need of consistent global data collection about not only weather and climate, but also about ecosystems and other complex environmental systems in order for us to fully understand how the world is changing.

No comments: