Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of stories about how climate changed and is changing our world -- spiritually, physically -- as a result. Find more climate change coverage here.
Trying to understand the causes and effects of climate change is the life work of Gabriele Hegerl, who grew up in Germany and is now a professor at Edinburgh University in Scotland. She spoke on stage at the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College last fall.
There are many sets of data regarding climate change and there are many research institutions that have access to and analyze that data. Hegerl said each institution has a different way of looking at sets of data, so there are varying interpretations.
“We can create sets of models to understand climate change,” Hegerl said. ‘We can take the data and average them over the years.”
She has compared multiple models of climate change and temperature records. She noted that they show similar but slightly different patterns, but that all show increasing temperatures.
“The data show that the temperatures over North America are clearly warmer because of the greenhouse gasses,” Hegerl said. “This is caused by an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused largely by burning fossil fuels.”
She said scientists are gaining more understanding of how the earth has developed and changed over the last millennium.
“We can understand many of the episodes that happened, and we find that volcanoes and C02 are bigger players than the sun. We can evaluate the hypothesis that the sun could be a huge factor in climate change, but when we do, it does not match the data.”
Hegerl said that even with the number of models available and the data that has been collected, the nature of the world is still difficult to understand.
“You can never reflect all its beauty and complexity and all the interactions that occur,” she said.
One concern for many people is the increase in fires, such as those in California in the past year. Hegerl said that not only are there more fires in recent years, but the area they have burned is greater, as well.
“The biggest concern we have is extreme events,” Hegerl said. "We know that cyclones or hurricanes are really hard to predict as to how they respond to climate change and global warming. If you have a warmer sea surface, there is more moisture available to cause heavy rain and flooding.”
Hegerl said this is a serious problem that requires a global solution, “otherwise the countries that push forward quicker might get economically punished, although they might also have an advantage by pioneering new technologies.”