University of South Carolina

Geography professorís IPCC workshop in the Alps

By Steven Powell,, 803-777-1923

Kirstin Dow’s summer travels this year have included a trip to Bled, Slovenia, but despite the undeniable beauty of the destination, the sojourn was much more than a sightseeing tour.

Kirstin Dow in officeA geographer in the College of Arts and Sciences, Dow is one of the authors involved in the preparation of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report. The assessments are widely read and provide a firm scientific foundation for discussing climate change. They detail research advances since the preceding publication and highlight scientific areas that require further work.

Since 2011, Dow has worked on a chapter in the report with a team of 10 writers spread across the globe. Some 350 to 400 authors convened in Bled in July to prepare the final version of their volume.

“Slovenia was beautiful. We were staying at the base of the Julian Alps, in the corner of Slovenia next to Italy and Austria,” Dow said. “It was a beautiful setting for this intense meeting – a perfect contrast.”

The intensity was underscored by the opening announcement at the meeting. “They started it off by saying, ‘you have 82 days left. This will be the final version, the one that is circulated – and final means final,’” Dow said.

A rigorous timeline is essential to keeping the IPCC publications on schedule. Since the international body was formed in 1988, it has produced four assessment reports that survey peer-reviewed research on climate change, released in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007.

The upcoming Fifth Assessment Report will be released in three volumes: in September 2013, a report covering physical sciences research on climate change; in March 2014, the volume containing Dow’s chapter, focusing on the effects of the changes and how adaptation – by ecosystems as well as society – can succeed and fail; and in April 2014, a report on efforts and plans to try to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Dow has been interested in environmental health and policy since she was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. As a student, she had an internship at an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in Minden, W.V.

“They had this site in a small, rural mining community where someone had been working with PCBs, and they had poured it on the ground on a floodplain,” Dow said. “When they found it, it was something like 30,000 parts per million of PCB-laden oil, and the exposure level should be just one part per million – and there were kid’s toys sitting on top of it.”

The EPA’s cleanup was far from satisfactory, Dow said, “and that got me really interested in questions of risk and vulnerability.” She went to graduate school to work with an expert in risks and hazards who was working on global environmental issues – which elicited her interest in climate.

“Climate change is real, and it’s time to seriously start thinking through the adaptation process,” she said.

Dow and her fellow chapter authors have done their part to keep their chapter’s progress on track. “We’ve tried to talk every two weeks for an hour on a conference call,” she said. The global nature of the group makes proper timing essential. “We have people in South Africa, London, Bangladesh, Stockholm, China. I’m fortunate that it’s usually 8 a.m. local time for the discussion.”

Despite the amount of work involved, Dow knows the IPCC effort is worth it. “It’s a great challenge, but it’s also an important commitment to the scientific community to volunteer,” she said. “At some point in your career, you’ve got to step up and help out the team. And for an academic, if the price of admission is a lot of work, but you’re going to meet really interesting people and learn so much – well, that’s more than enough compensation.”

Posted: 07/31/13 @ 5:00 AM | Updated: 07/30/13 @ 4:35 PM | Permalink