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Professor Timothy Patterson's prepared testimony to the Senate committee - 15/12/11

Testimony of Professor R. Timothy Patterson before The Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources

December 15, 2011

Mr. Chairman and committee members, thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

My interest in the climate-change debate was triggered in 1998 when I was funded by Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and subsequently by major funding from the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences to determine if there were regular cycles in fish productivity on the Canadian West Coast.  Although climate was suspected to play a significant role in marine productivity, only since well into the 20th century have accurate fishing and temperature records been kept in this region. We needed indicators of fish productivity over thousands of years to see whether there were recurring cycles in populations and what phenomena may be driving the changes.

My research team collected and analyzed core samples from the bottom of deep coastal British Columbia fjords. We have been able to collect more than 5,000 years' worth of annually deposited mud layers from these basins, giving us one of the highest-quality climate records available anywhere today. In it we see confirmation that natural climate change can be dramatic. For example, in the middle of a 62-year slice of the record at about 4,400 years ago, there was a shift in climate in only a couple of seasons from warm, dry and sunny conditions to a regime that was mostly cold and rainy which persisted for several decades.

In the record we have discovered repeated cycles in marine productivity that correlate well with cycles in the brightness of the Sun. This is not unique. Hundreds of other studies show exactly the same thing: the sun, not variations in carbon dioxide, the gas most targeted by Canada’s national climate change campaigns, appears to be the most important driver of climate change.

Solar scientists predict that, by later in this decade, the sun will be starting into its weakest solar cycle of the past two centuries, likely leading to unusually cool conditions on Earth, which may persist for decades. Beginning to plan for adaptation to such a cool period should be a priority for governments. It is global cooling, not warming, that is the major climate threat to the world, especially in high latitude countries such as Canada.

Through another Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Strategic Project Grant I currently head up a research team that is studying climate variability in Northern Canada so as to advise government and industry about the long-term viability of the strategically important Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Ice Road. This seasonal ice road is critical to the economy of the region as it is the only overland route that services the diamond mines and exploration camps in the central Northwest Territories and southern Nunavut. Beginning 70 kilometers north of Yellowknife, this world-renowned "ice superhighway," made famous by the “Ice Trucker” televisions series, traverses 600 kilometers, with 88% of the route over frozen lakes.   During a short 70-day season more than $500 million dollars in equipment and supplies are carried to the camps.  The economic activity associated with operation of the ice road contributes over $1-billion to the economy of the Northwest Territories. For remote Northern Canadian communities, similar ice roads are critical supply links. 

In our research, we collect core samples through the ice. By coring and comparing lake sediment of the past 3,500 years, we are able to recognize cycles and trends impacting climate change and predict possible future trends in climate, ice cover and fire hazard.

It is a particularly challenging task in this region as the short thermometer records only extends back to about 1950 in the central Northwest Territories and includes records from only four widely spaced meteorological stations.

Preliminary results indicate that throughout the late Holocene there has been considerable climate variability with winter and summer signals often becoming decoupled.  A multi-decadal weather phenomena known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which is similar to the better known but shorter duration El Niño events, seems to have contributed to step-wise temperature changes as these phenomena vary between positive and negative phases.  There is also a correspondence between solar cycles and seasonal climate variability during negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation phases with solar cycle troughs corresponding to colder winters.   As we are about to head into a series of weak solar cycles and since the Pacific Decadal Oscillation has recently turned negative we project a period spanning several decades where conditions will be remain suitable for continued extensive use of the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road.

As I am sure you have concluded from our testimonies today, the field of climate science is vast and rapidly evolving. Many things we thought we knew about the climate system just a few years ago are now proving to be highly uncertain or quite mistaken. It's no exaggeration to say that in the period since the Kyoto Protocol was introduced, there has been a revolution in climate science. If back in the mid-1990s we had known what we know about climate change today, there would be no Kyoto Protocol because it would have been considered unnecessary.

In some fields the science is indeed "settled." But the science of global climate change is still in its infancy, with many thousands of papers published every year.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.