Addressing these concerns won’t happen overnight, however. Most models, unlike the CESM, can only be run at a modeling center by the handful of scientists who created them. Those people are busy running simulations for the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, due out in 2022. None of the models being used fully accounts for plants’ influence on climate, Swann said.
The historical view that climate science is mainly about physical phenomena still has influence. For more than a decade, climatologists have seen clouds as the biggest source of uncertainty in models. Clouds cool the planet by reflecting incoming sunlight, but they also warm the planet because they are made of water vapor, a greenhouse gas. Models differ wildly on how much clouds will contribute to cooling and warming in the future, and thus whether a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide will be problematic but manageable, or catastrophic.
Read: The best technology for fighting climate change? Trees.
But how much rain will fall in a given region, and when, and how much it will vary season to season and year to year will make all the difference in determining which places will remain livable and which places won’t. And Swann’s and Fung’s results open up at least the possibility that plants could have as much effect as cloud physics on nailing down the answers to such questions.
Moreover, Fung points out, the problems aren’t even independent: Forests produce clouds. Without an accurate picture of forests, cloud models will remain incomplete.
That’s why Swann is starting a new project: to try to quantify how much plants contribute to the uncertainty in climate-model results. With that number in hand, she may have an even more potent tool for convincing other researchers that ecology and atmospheric science are inseparable.
Another potential project involves looking at forest data for observational evidence of the teleconnections found in modeling studies. Swann admits, however, that she’s “a little bit on the more skeptical side” that such signals will emerge amid the many pushes and pulls that forests experience. She and David Breshears, an ecologist at the University of Arizona and one of her co-authors on the U.S. forest paper, are also exploring how future southwestern forest losses will affect the climate of the Midwest, the nation’s breadbasket and one of the most productive agricultural areas on Earth.
One thing is clear already: Swann’s influence is being felt. In just over a decade, ecoclimate teleconnections have gone from being virtually unknown to appearing as a frequent discussion topic at major scientific meetings such as the Ecological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union. No longer are such ideas dismissed as not being “of a purely scientific character.”
The developments in this new research area demonstrate that future climate scientists will need to master two fields that have, for more than a century, been largely separate, Fung said: atmospheric physics and biology.
“There are very few ‘multilingual’ scientists,” Fung said. “When Abby did her thing, it was the coming together of two disciplines.” She added, “That’s how progress is made.”