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If you can't stand the heat - climate change with Professor Fung

Climate change models


Climate change models are constantly evolving, and on Tuesday last week we had the opportunity to attend a lecture on these models by a prominent international climate scientist Professor Inez Fung. Maths aside, the models (which measure the probability of change) are showing some interesting things, none of which are hopeful. On the upside though, the predictions are getting better and more accurate. In fact, Professor Fung pointed out that all the predictions for the East Coast of the US over the last year were spot on. Maybe next time government will step up and put some mitigating solutions in place to minimise the damage...

What are they saying?

One of the scariest things we learned on Tuesday was that the models are now showing that, due to our continual aggressive consumption of fossil fuels, the original prediction of a 5 degree celsius increase in global temperature by 2100 might be too conservative. The models are showing an even warmer planet at the rate we're going. There are also unknown factors like what might happen if the permafrosts and other methane-storing bodies under the ocean suddenly release their goods (which could happen as the atmosphere warms). Methane is a much more serious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and the effects are likely irreversible in human timescales.

These models are also indicating “abrupt transitions” - a little understood point that occurs after a highly chaotic period in the system. The entire system flips. What this means is unclear and Professor Fung says the questions about these transitions may only be found in about five years.

What does this have to do with food?

Reliable food production is highly dependent on a stable climate with predictable weather patterns. The one thing climate change is already showing us is that this predictability is no longer a sure thing. Very strange and unexpected weather incidences are becoming common - it’s snowing in the “wrong” places at the “wrong” times, seasons are shifting and extending etc. Farmers will be feeling the impacts of this already, in more ways than just precipitation - ecosystems are highly complex and less or more rain will impact plant, insect and animal biology in many ways.

Here’s what Professor Fung had to say to us about these things:

FoodWithAStory: What are climate change models predicting about food production on the planet?

Professor Fung: Intense rains will cause more runoff, and intense periods of no rain will cause more drought. This is not good for soil moisture, which is key to farming and the climate. So that’s very challenging. But what else we are finding on the ecological side is that the distribution of pests is changing. There are new and different pests appearing. For example the pine beetle infestation in British Colombia. They decimated the pine forests, and when they’d destroyed all the pines, they didn’t leave, they just started eating the bark off other trees! That was also unexpected.


FWAS: How can climate change models help?

PF: We need to know from people involved in agriculture - what experiments do you want us to run? At what level will you need to take action? What are the thresholds? Roz Naylor from Stanford University has been doing some interesting work on food models.


FWAS: What is the worst case scenario you can see for us?

 PF: Massive floods. Massive droughts. Wildfires.


FWAS: What is the best case scenario you can see for us?

PF: Maybe a little crazier than this year’s weather. Definitely a little warmer. I really don’t see there being any best case scenario...


FWAS: What is the most important thing that the public can do?

PF: Vote vote vote!! Policies need to change and the government and private sector need to work together. People need to think about the next generation - intergenerational environmental justice. 

About Professor Fung

Professor Fung has studied climate change for the last 20 years. She is a principal architect of large-scale mathematical modelling approaches and numerical models to represent the geographic and temporal variations of sources and sinks of CO2, dust and other trace substances around the globe. Fung’s recent work in climate modelling predicts the co-evolution of CO2 and climate and concludes that the diminishing capacities of the land and oceans to store carbon act to accelerate global warming.

Fung is a professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of California, jointly appointed in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. She is also the co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow in both the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society.

Core interest: Studying the interactions between climate change and biogeochemical cycles with a focus on the processes that maintain and alter the composition of the atmosphere, and hence the climate.

Professor Fung is an internationally known and well-respected figure in her field, and is one of ten women scientists featured in the series; Women Adventures in Science. Fung notes that the climate of the Earth is intimately tied to the composition of the atmosphere and the dynamics of the underlying surface.

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