World Climate Research Program: Reef Extinction Probabilities

The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) likes to think ahead. Even its fast-track initiative on near-term climate prediction talks in terms of decades — as does much of the science of climate change. To iron out seasonal variation and say something sensible about future events needs time. But how much time do we have? And in the face of severe budget cuts, for how much longer can the WCRP continue its work?

There is a reason why melting glaciers became an overused motif during the years of peak political and media interest in climate science a decade or so ago. Most of the other predicted severe impacts — on species, sea level and human welfare — were locked away for the future. Now, picture editors looking for contemporary signs of a warming world have a new subject: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. For the second year running, the reef has been severely damaged by widespread bleaching, an event usually caused by high water temperatures. Aerial surveys last week confirmed the bad news, and conservationists and researchers are now working to judge the extent of the latest damage — which might not be known until the end of the year.

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Coral reefs are a long-trailed casualty of a warmer climate, and an early warning of what might follow. But the oceans are complicated places, and how, where and when more disruption — to other marine ecosystems, for instance — might emerge is difficult to predict.

That’s where the WCRP has proved its worth. In spite of its grandiose name, the programme is a small cog in the global climate-science wheel. But seed and glue money provided by the WCRP, funded mostly by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and national sponsors, have leveraged collaborative research to thoroughly transform scientific understanding of Earth’s climate system.

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