A couple of weeks ago we completed a rapid analysis of the Great Barrier Reef examining the role of climate change in the recent bleaching event there. The results were stark. We found a very clear human influence on the warm temperatures that led to the bleaching. We also showed that we can expect heat events like March 2016 to become the norm in the Coral Sea by the mid-2030s. You can find out more about our analysis here.
The dilemma we faced when we got these results was whether we should go public with them before we submit our paper for peer-review.
The peer-review process is incredibly important. Scientific studies need to be vetted to ensure that the methods scientists use and the results that are produced are robust and reproducible. However, one issue with the peer-review process is that it’s slow. Even in the fastest journals it takes at least a month between submitting a paper and it getting published.
We decided to publish our results before our analysis has been peer-reviewed for two main reasons:
- The methods we employed are well-established and have been used in multiple other studies, for example here and here.
- The results clearly show a strong climate change influence. This is something we felt the public needed to be aware of.
We took the additional step of publishing our methods online, so we were fully transparent with how we had got our results.
Chris Mooney wrote an excellent article explaining why we published our analysis and getting other scientists’ thoughts on the issue.
We will of course be submitting our analysis for peer-review in the near future. We’ll be including a range of methods to comprehensively assess how much of a role climate change played in the warm seas that led to the bleaching event.
In the long-term, several national meteorological agencies, including the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the UK Met Office, aim to perform event attribution studies, like our Reef analysis, operationally. Soon after an extreme weather event, like a heatwave or an intense rainstorm, these agencies would like to be able to say if climate change made the event more or less likely to occur. If scientists can’t make a definitive statement we often find the void filled with media speculation.
Working as part of the World Weather Attribution project coordinated by Climate Central we aim to perform rapid attribution analyses with a focus on extreme events in the developing world. Our aim is to develop the science so that clear and robust quantitative statements about the influence of climate change on extreme events can be made.
Perhaps, in the not too distant future, rapid attribution studies of extreme events will become commonplace. Like weather forecasts, which are published all the time based on long-established peer-reviewed methods, organisations like the Met Office will be able to say almost immediately whether climate change played a role in extreme weather events.