Climate Change Speeding Up

By Roland Wall
Senior Director for Environmental Initiatives

Two recent scientific articles suggest that the effects of climate change may be progressing faster than anticipated.

A study published last week in Nature by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Massachusetts reveals “previously underappreciated mechanisms” that could speed the collapse of Antarctic ices shelves and raise sea levels by over three feet by the end of the century.

A second, arguably more alarming paper from a team led by climate change pioneer James Hansen, retired head of NASA’s Goddard Laboratory, outlines scenarios by which both Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets could be melting in shorter time frames with catastrophic results.

These peer-reviewed research reports are the latest in a series of scientific communications that urge faster action in reducing emissions and preparing for climate disruption.

View_of_the_Riiser-Larsen_Ice_Shelf_in_Antarctica (3)

At the Academy, we’re not specialists in climate science, but we are specialists in researching, analyzing, and communicating how climate, pollution, and other factors impact the ecosystems—the life support systems—of the world. Larger storms, higher temperatures, rising sea levels all change the way the world works. For us, the speed and severity of climate change are not just hypothetical questions.

Our work on projects like the Delaware River Watershed Initiative drives us to learn all we can about the impacts of climate disruption on the natural and human environments.

Especially here in the Delaware Basin, we know we could be at heightened risk from sea level rise, threatening not only Philadelphia, but dozens of other towns and thousands of square miles of forests and wetlands.This is due to a number of factors including ocean current patterns and the subsidence of our lands. In addition, due to its funnel shape, the tidal range of the Delaware River and Bay can be magnified.

To make the best use we can of new research, the Academy has to acknowledge and participate in the scientific process.

The two recent papers are now being scrutinized by the larger research community.  That’s how science works. Nothing is ever accepted at face value. The strength of the evidence is what matters. This will be judged by people who have spent their lives learning to master intricate subjects like climate modeling.

Ultimately, even when a concept has wide-scale acceptance, it’s always being tested. But for practical purposes, at some point the weight of evidence must be used to guide concrete actions. The recent papers aren’t sudden changes in trends; they align with information that has been gathered and analyzed for the last 30 years.

What the papers do indicate is that the current estimates of how quickly climate change impacts will become catastrophic may be too conservative. If that’s true, we don’t have the luxury of awaiting ever higher certainty.

The risk from not acting is orders of magnitude higher than the risk of taking steps to mitigate climate change and increase adaptation. In fact, no credible evidence in recent years has suggested that doing less about climate change would be better.

At the Academy, we’ll continue to assess new evidence. But in the near term, as we work to protect the water and watersheds of the world, we’re going to assume that climate change is happening, and that it might be happening faster than we thought.


To read a Letter to the Editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer by Carol Collier, the Academy’s senior adviser for watershed management and policy, calling for increased support for climate change efforts, visit


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