Climate experts coordinate efforts at MU conference

Saturday, June 9, 2012 | 4:15 p.m. CDT; updated 3:36 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 15, 2012

COLUMBIA — Panel experts in fields ranging from climate science to economics to public policy took seats at MU’s “Adapting to Climate Change: Gaining the Advantage” conference, discussing what issues need to be addressed for the Midwest in the face of climate change.

The events, spanning three days, included panels on strategies the university can take to publish climate change and environmental research in a way that is not only accessible but also useful to the public. The conference was hosted by MU Extension.

“We want to be able to reach people in a way that they can actually use the information and be prepared to deal with the changes they’re going to encounter,” George Laur, MU Extension publications coordinator, said.

The conference looked to address how researchers could coordinate their efforts and what role the university should play in distributing research to the community.

A field perspective

Missouri ranks second in the number of farms per state in the U.S., accounting for almost 5 percent of the nation’s total farms and posting $8.3 billion in revenue in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A conference panel on public outreach explored how researchers can help ensure the vitality of a region so heavily dependent on farming.

"We can serve as decision support to help (farmers) weigh options," said Peter Scharf, an MU professor of agronomy on the public outreach panel.

The most immediate issue the panel discussed was the increasing occurrenceof warmer weather.

“For spring seasons over the past 15 years, the trend has been much warmer,” said climatologist Pat Guinan in an interview. “The last frost has typically occurred  four to five days earlier.” 

An unseasonably warm winter signaled an early start to the 2012 spring planting season, which engaged farmers in a dangerous gamble. Luckily, temperatures remained above freezing.

"We dodged a major bullet in that regard," Scharf said. "You're likely to not see your last freeze until April."

He said farmers would have to acknowledge other implications of climate change, too, including the potential for more spring precipitation and heavier storms.

The panel discussed plans to distribute more MU Extension publications on climate change so farmers are better able to adapt to unprecedented weather patterns.

Serving the public

Conne Burnham is an evaluation development specialist with the MU Extension Fire and Rescue Training Institute. Part of her job includes conducting risk analysis and hazard management within Missouri communities. On Thursday, she spoke from the public outreach panel. 

"In emergency management, you look at trends and scientific data, but the other thing is that you just look at your community," Burnham said. "You ask, ‘What are the hazards they face?'"

Environmental risks vary by region in Missouri, from earthquakes in the Bootheel to soil erosion on agricultural land. Burnham said communities react differently to risk factors based on their visible effects.

Burnham is concerned with the changing risks associated with climate, not the climate debate itself.

“It’s not about arguing who’s right or wrong but looking at the effects that present themselves in the community,” Burnham said in her presentation.

The direct link between isolated weather events and climate is not clear, but if severe weather is trending upward, Missourians should prepare themselves for the possibility of more incidents like the tornado that devastated Joplin in 2011, Burnham said.

“The changes that are going on in the climate are things we need to look at from a mitigation perspective,” Burnham said. “If you can’t mitigate it, you look at preparedness.”

"Preparedness," as Burnham described it, involves developing infrastructure that addresses the actual risks communities face.

“With Joplin, for example, we had a huge rise in storm shelters,” she said.

Multifaceted approach proposed

A research panel at the conference opened up discussion about the need for a broader academic approach to climate change.

Tony Lupo, MU atmospheric science professor, said the predominant focus of the panel was not the climate debate itself but how climate researchers can better collaborate across their academic fields.

He noted that one fault line among members of the panel might be the question of humanity’s role in the acceleration of climate change.

"I think everybody (on the panel) has the same philosophy in that we want to help people adapt to the change that's happening, but the challenge is working across disciplines to make that happen effectively,” Lupo said.

He described a tension among researchers between independent success and collaborative effort.

"We've got thousands of doctorates on this campus alone,” Lupo said. “It's not experience that's the problem; it's coordination."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey:; 882-2632.

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