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Having the honor of delivering the first talk, I’ll discuss the current state of climate science broadly, hopefully providing workshop participants information that can be built upon and referred to in the sessions that follow and that can be used in their communities. Think of it as the view from 30,000 feet.

There are a set of three basic climate science questions that people often need answered before they put climate change on their lists of one more thing to pay attention to. They are:

  • Is the planet’s climate changing in significant ways?
  • If so, what is causing it to change (is it people or is it natural)?
  • Can we predict how the Earth’s climate will change over the course of the next 100 years?

I’ll describe how, over the past few decades, climate researchers have used observations, theory, and computer modeling together to advance our understanding of the climate system and to address these questions.

The answers climate science can offer to those questions today are… Yes, the planet’s climate is changing – the global atmosphere and ocean are warming, sea level is rising, glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting, and precipitation patterns are changing.

Additionally, the scientific evidence allows us to conclude that most of the warming of the past 50 years can be attributed to human activities (though natural variability continues, as well). And it is likely, given our knowledge of the way the planet’s climate system works and various projections of future human greenhouse gas emissions, that the climate will continue to change during the 21st century, and it will probably change at a faster rate than it did in the 20th century.

People who find the evidence for human-induced climate change as compelling as do the scientists who study this topic – compelling enough to place it on their personal radar screens – then tend to ask the following question:

  • So what does this mean for what I’m interested in where I live for the next 20 years or so?

And with that question the focus shifts from considerations of physical climate change taking place at very large spatial scales over a century to much smaller spatial scales and shorter time periods. And the person may not be interested in physical climate variables like temperature or precipitation, as much as on things that are influenced by climate – like agriculture or coastal erosion. That shift in focus raises a set of scientific and communication challenges. I’ll touch on a few of them, providing examples of topics for which there is a higher level of scientific certainty than others, and also discuss issues of how to simplify to make more accessible something as complex as climate science without oversimplifying it to the point of compromising the scientific integrity of the message.

Speaker Bio

Keith Dixon is a senior research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) located in Princeton, New Jersey. His expertise lies in the use of state-of-the-art computer models to simulate the Earth’s global climate - past, present, and future.

During his more than twenty years at GFDL, Keith’s research has focused on using complex computer models to study climate change and variability, often with an emphasis on the ocean’s role on decadal to centennial time scales. He has participated in national and international climate change assessment projects, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2005, in recognition of his IPCC-related contributions toward "establishing NOAA as a leading source of model-based scientific information about past and future climate", Keith received both an individual NOAA Research Employee of the Year Award and his second U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) Silver Medal as a member of GFDL’s IPCC modeling team. In 1993, Keith and two colleagues received the DoC Silver Medal for creating the GFDL Modular Ocean Model - a computer model used by researchers worldwide.

In addition to his research activities, Keith regularly participates in educational outreach activities, giving presentations on the science of climate change, collaborating with museums, and helping develop graphics, animations, and text that have appeared in numerous national and international media outlets. He has also delivered briefings on Capitol Hill. His work was recognized in late 2008, when Keith was named by NOAA’s Office of Oceanic & Atmospheric Research as the first winner of the Dr. Daniel L. Albritton Outstanding Science Communicator Award for achievement in communicating NOAA’s science and research to non-scientific audiences.

Before joining GFDL, Keith, a life-long resident of New Jersey, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in meteorology from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Early in his professional career he also worked as a radio broadcast meteorologist in the northeastern US and taught at Rutgers University.


1. Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming: Modest Support for “Cap and Trade” Policy (October 22, 2009). Survey by The Pew Research Center For the People & The Press (PDF)

2. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (2007). Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Solomon, S., Qin, D., Manning, M., Chen, Z., Marquis, M., Averyt, K. B., et al (eds). United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

3. Joint Science Academies’ Statement: Global Response to Climate Change (2005, June 7) (PDF)

4. Levitus, S., J. I. Antonov, T. P. Boyer, R. A. Locarnini, H. E. Garcia, and A. V. Mishonov (2009), Global Ocean Heat Content 1955–2008 in Light of Recently Revealed Instrumentation Problems, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L07608, doi:10.1029/2008GL037155.

5. NSIDC Press Room: 2009 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. (2009, October 6). National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

6. Savill, R. (2009, October 12). Sceptics welcome BBC report on 'global cooling'. The Daily Telegraph.

7. Global Surface Temperature Anomalies. NOAA Satellite and Information Service: National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) (

8. HadCRUT3: Global Surface Temperatures. (

9. Knutson, T. R., T. L. Delworth, K. W. Dixon, I. M. Held, J. Lu, V. Ramaswamy, M. D. Schwarzkopf, G. Stenchikov, and R. J. Stouffer (2006). Assessment of Twentieth-Century Regional Surface Temperature Trends Using the GFDL CM2 Coupled Models. Journal of Climate, 19(9), 1624-1651.

10. Delworth, T. L., V. Ramaswamy, and G. L. Stenchikov (2005). The Impact of Aerosols on Simulated Ocean Temperature and Heat Content in the 20th Century. Geophysical Research Letters, 32(24), L24709, doi:10.1029/2005GL024457

11. NOAA GFDL Climate Research Highlights Image Gallery: Patterns of Greenhouse Warming

12. NOAA GFDL Climate Research Highlights Image Gallery: Will the Wet Get Wetter and the Dry Drier?

Funding provided by the Climate Program Office, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration to the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute.
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