Climate Science in Review: A Look Back on 2019

The biggest news in climate change to come from Scripps this past year

As the holiday season and end of year approaches, Scripps Institution of Oceanography is reflecting back on some of the biggest news in climate change to come from Scripps scientists in 2019. The world is warming at a drastic pace; 2019 is forecasted to be the second-warmest year since records began in 1880. Our researchers are uncovering how climate change is going to affect the planet.

As part of UC San Diego’s mission to understand and protect the planet, researchers tackle the issue from multiple perspectives, examining natural disasters and other hazards, the effects of climate change on the poles, and ultimately its effect on people. If the topic comes up around the holiday table, here is the latest on the state of the climate from Scripps; science that unlocked more knowledge on how our planet is changing, as well as research that gives us hope for the future. 

Oceans and Global Systems:

Keeling Curve Hits 415 PPM

The Keeling Curve, a daily measurement of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere and one of the founding tools in modern climate change science, passed the symbolic threshold of 415 parts per million in May. This reading was the highest daily measurement since late Scripps scientist Charles David Keeling began tracking CO2 concentration more than six decades ago, and the rate of increase shows signs of accelerating. To learn more about how Scripps scientists measure carbon dioxide, and how they know the increases are caused by fossil fuels, watch this video:  

IPCC Report Says Marine Ecosystems Will Definitely be Affected

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that carbon emissions affecting the ocean and cryosphere will ultimately disrupt marine ecosystems that are vital to the survival of human communities and their economies. Going forward, people can expect more extreme repercussions that affect their everyday lives and the ocean services they depend on. Ocean deoxygenation – studied by Scripps professor Lisa Levin, who contributed to the report – and other changes in the ocean will impinge on fisheries and food security.

Loss of Arctic Sea Ice Could Speed Up Global Warming by 25 Years 

As part of our comprehensive climate change research, Scripps has an expansive effort to study the poles, specifically through the new Scripps Polar Center formed earlier this year.  Scripps researchers calculated that if all Arctic Ocean sea ice were to melt, it would make the same contribution to global warming as would adding one trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. It would consequently speed up the arrival of a global threshold of warming of 2ºC greater than the temperatures the world experienced before the Industrial Revolution. Researchers have warned that crossing that threshold will lead to widespread catastrophic changes to natural systems.

Marine Life:

Climate Change Likely to Increase Human Exposure to Toxic Mercury 

Scripps associate professor Amina Schartup found that warming oceans are leading to an increase in the harmful neurotoxicant methylmercury. Mercury levels in fish are influenced by diet and how much they swim. Warming temperatures could affect all of these. While the regulation of mercury emissions has successfully reduced methylmercury levels in fish, spiking temperatures are driving those levels back up, which could increase human exposure to mercury through seafood. 

Climate Change Could Blind Marine Invertebrates

Scripps postdoctoral scholar Lillian McCormick published the first study to demonstrate that vision in marine invertebrates such as octopuses and crabs is highly sensitive to the amount of oxygen in water. Studying four local California marine invertebrates, she found that vision was reduced by 60-100 percent under low-oxygen conditions. In the marine environment, oxygen levels change over daily, seasonal, and inter-annual time scales. However, climate change and pollution are altering these processes. 


Climate Change Is Fueling More Wildfires

A new study combs through the many factors that can promote wildfire, and concludes that in many cases warming climate is the decisive driver. The study finds in particular that the huge summer forest fires that have raked Northern California recently have a strong connection to arid ground conditions brought on by increasing heat. It suggests that wildfires could grow exponentially in the next 40 years, as temperatures continue to rise.

Peak Santa Ana Winds May Shift to Winter, Extending Fire Season

Santa Ana winds, seasonal gusts of dry desert air that can bring havoc to Southern California, might become less common especially in fall and spring as the conditions that drive them change, according to research by Scripps climate scientists Janin Guzman-Morales and Alexander Gershunov. Together with expected changes in precipitation patterns, this suggests a later wildfire season in the future and a possibility for longer-burning wildfires, the researchers said.

Innovation and Signs of Hope:

Cultivating Seaweed to Minimize Methane from Cow Burps

Scientists have found that a certain species of red algae seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis, produces a compound that could halt bovine production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than CO2. This is significant because more than half of all methane emissions in California come from livestock, primarily from the state’s 1.8 million dairy cows as they burp, exhale, fart, and produce manure. Scripps marine ecologist Jennifer Smith is now growing Asparagopsis in her lab, exploring the potential for cultivation on a larger scale.

Protecting Coastal Communities from Sea-Level Rise 

Initiated last winter, Scripps’s Center for Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation has partnered with the City of Imperial Beach to establish a flood prediction system. The low-lying coastal community is prone to inundation, and earlier this year the system alerted the city to a flooding event due to king tides and storm surge, allowing officials and the public to prepare. 

Marine Protected Areas are working!

A network of marine protected areas in California is showing signs of success in the form of more and larger fish and invertebrates. The 124 MPAs in California, about 16% of the state’s waters, were implemented in 2012. Healthy marine ecosystems make for a more resilient ocean in the face of climate change. 

3D Imaging of Coral Reefs is Showing Select Reefs Recovering

Researchers have used new imaging software to detect dramatic recovery after a bleaching event on the reefs surrounding remote Palmyra Atoll in the tropical Pacific. In 2015, Palmyra experienced its warmest water in recorded history, prompting a widespread bleaching event that affected over 90 percent of the corals surrounding the island. Researchers found that despite the widespread bleaching, most of the corals recovered, with less than 10 percent dying.

Climate Change Solutions Education is Expanding 

Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions – a multifaceted education project – was developed at UC San Diego and is offered at all ten University of California campuses, as well as select universities around the world. The education is centered around a curriculum designed to empower climate champions across the world to solve the climate change problem. A massive online open course featuring the curriculum is expected to launch next year.

Scripps Oceanography debuted a new climate change studies minor this fall quarter. It is designed to help students from any major develop knowledge of climate science, understand the human and social dimensions of climate impacts, and take advantage of opportunities to develop and implement solutions to climate change.

Looking for more information as well? Check out NASA’s climate change page, full of quick facts and answers to common questions. 


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