North Carolina State Climatologist Ryan Boyles researches climate and weather trends for private clients and the government, though his office receives no state funding. He spoke to the Indy about the recent drought and the mother of all climate issues: global warming.
What are the long-term implications of the drought facing the Southeast?
We're pretty confident that we're going to have a drier winter, at least in most of North Carolina. We're looking at a 60 percent chance of lower rainfall. That may put us in an awkward position, come spring, when we normally expect all of our water resources to be full. We may be well below that, which primes us for possible problems next summer.
How much are human factors to blame, and how much of an effect can we have on preventing further damage?
We don't have any less water here now than we had 100 years ago, but our population is so much larger, so the demand for those resources is larger. We have some things that we can do to mitigate that—we build reservoirs and work on conservation techniques to try to make water usage more efficient. But it doesn't quite keep pace with the growth or the demand. There are so many more of us here that need that water.
Recently, your counterparts in Oregon and Virginia have faced criticism over their views on global warming—that humans do not significantly contribute to it, and that the overall effect is not significant. What is your view?
There is a tremendous amount of evidence out there that, globally, we are seeing warming. The relationship to human activity—it's not necessarily undeniable, but it's very strong. I would even say my colleagues in Virginia and Oregon have views that differ on some of the specifics, but agree that there is global warming. The discussion has often been what extent has humans' role been, and what are the different factors that play into that warming. Those are good discussions to have. I don't necessarily agree with some of the things [they] have said, but it's good for them to play devil's advocate.
They've gotten a lot of heat from the scientific community and from their governors for playing that role. The governor of Virginia, Timothy Kaine, has said that [Virginia state climatologist] Pat Michaels "speaks for himself" on the issue.
As scientists, we all speak for ourselves on these issues. In no way do my views represent the position of the State of North Carolina or even N.C. State. It's my views as a scientist.
Do you feel any obligation to speak about global warming, or not speak about global warming, in North Carolina?
We talk about it. It's not so much focused on what happens globally as what might happen here locally. We haven't seen the same warming in the Southeastern U.S. that we've seen in other parts of the world. Moreover, the models that are used to predict global climate change don't do a very good job in the Southeast.
Why don't they work well?
Global models are calibrated on what has happened over the past 50-100 years. For some reason, in the Southeast, they have suggested more warming than what has been observed. That causes our confidence in those models to decrease.
What are they mapping out for the future?
We're looking at 24 models in our studies—so there's a lot of different tools out there, and they sometimes vary widely. They can be all over the place.
Among the 24, do they all predict higher temperatures?
Most of them predict some kind of warming.
Despite problems with accuracy, does looking at all these models, which all show an upswing in temperature, concern you?
I'm concerned about the accuracy, and I don't find these to be useful tools. Instead I try to focus on the variability that has been observed in the historical record—figuring that, if nothing else, if we've seen it before, we can see it again.
What do you mean by "historical variability"?
What do the historical records show us—what is the severity of droughts we've in the past, what kind of hurricane activity have we seen, what are the temperature and precipitation patterns that have been observed in the past?
The U.S. did not sign the Kyoto Protocol. Can we be effective leaders in climate research and policy without committing to reduce greenhouse gases?
My guess is that at some point, if this continues to be a global issue linked to greenhouse gases, the United States is going to have to be involved. Indeed, this is one of those situations where we as citizens of the world have to make decisions [as such]. You can't have one group say, "We're not going to play," while another group takes all the burden.
Even here in North Carolina, we're affected by global warming. Even though we haven't seen the warming that other areas have seen, we do continue to see sea levels rise. That affects our coastline dramatically and certainly increases our risk to severe weather incidents and erosion.
Your office educates students about climate and weather. Do you plan to educate students about the effects of global warming?
Historically we haven't really done that. We've focused on more of the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis: drought, crops and other industries in the state that are climate sensitive. Because there isn't a whole lot of change that has been observed in the Southeast, it's tough to look at what kind of impact [global warming] will have on the future.
The trend is toward warming, though it might not be specifically charted here yet. Shouldn't global warming be discussed as public education?
I've given seminars in the past, giving an overview of the basics of global warming. Ultimately the question we get at the end of those presentations is, "What does that mean for me, in my back yard?"
Do you think if people hear about erosion and a rise in sea level, they might have a different take on global warming?
I understand, from a variety of different scientific sources, that that sea-level rising may accelerate, but the Outer Banks aren't going to be gone next year, so people don't feel a sense of urgency. We're already vulnerable to drought, tropical storms, nor'easters and the erosion that comes with them—just by addressing those existing vulnerabilities, we can do a lot toward mitigating the risk of future climate change.
Is that enough? Just because their beach house won't be under water next year, should people not be concerned?
They should be concerned not just for themselves, but for their children and grandchildren. For communities along the coast, it's a pretty grim [picture], but we as a society have always struggled with issues that aren't immediate.
That's where a lot of folks look to their elected officials to consider these types of things. The type of policy that affects local, state and national growth and development happens on the order of decades—that's where those types of policies need to be developed and take place.