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On the spot: A look at erratic weather and climate change with John Zobitz

zobitz“Do we live in the tropics?”

In early fall, a Minneapolis Star Tribune article asked this question. While readers surely answered “no,” the story described the recent soggy summer in which Midwestern Regional Climate Center weather data showed the Twin Cities got twice as much rain as usual in August, contributing to the fourth-wettest summer since records began in 1895.

Associate Professor John Zobitz studies math and how it relates to climate. Scientists point to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as one of the culprits in global warming. Zobitz uses mathematical modeling to conduct environmental science research on several topics, including carbon uptake.

For years, Zobitz has helped media make sense of unusual weather across the country. He commented on record-setting snowfall in Buffalo, New York, following a November 2014 blast, as well as the return of wintry weather during an April 2013 whiteout in Augsburg’s own backyard. Here’s a glimpse into the world of climate science—an area where the forecast can have more to do with mathematical formulas than tomorrow’s high temp.

Q: How can mathematicians’ expertise help environmental scientists and climatologists?

A: Mathematicians test and evaluate hypotheses through mathematical and computational models. We model and benchmark future global temperatures based on current scenarios, hopefully providing an informed context for climate policy decisions.

Q: Hasn’t the Earth always warmed and cooled throughout history?

A: Yes, but what is alarming is both the amount and the rate of the increase. The global monthly temperature has been warmer than average for 360 consecutive months (that’s every month during the past 30 years). That persistent global pattern underscores a shift in global temperature beyond natural temperature cycles.

Q: Do unusually cold temperatures in an area dispute global warming?

A: No. An important thing to remember is that global temperature represents an average across a global network of monitoring stations. Climate change will affect each area differently: some areas might warm and some areas may cool, but the overall trend of global temperature is increasing.

Q: Do you think climate change is inevitable?

A: A key concept in calculus is the accumulation of smaller pieces to one larger whole. If we want to reduce climate change, small changes in our daily lives such as driving less and reducing waste, together, may accumulate to a large effect.

Q: What does it mean to our future, as human beings, if climate change continues as it has in the past 30 years?

A: We need to recognize that we live in a rapidly changing world where “normal weather” is the exception rather than the rule. Adapting—and innovating— in an environment of constant change will become key for success.

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