• To identify and bring together the different global environmental change scientific communities working on past, contemporary and projected extreme climatic events, and permanently extreme environments, from social and natural science perspectives, and the relevant stakeholder communities from the official government sector, from supra-national or intergovernmental organizations and from the private sector that have to cope with climate extremes
  • To foster the formation of a cross-project community integrating the diverse aspects of climate extremes shaped by stakeholder engagement
  • To establish a new science plan focusing on the implications of an increasing frequency of extreme events and the likely changes in the extent and locations of permanently extreme environments in shaping societies, economies, land-use planning, and risk governance around the world related to the three Future Earth Themes

Scientific rationale:

Figure SPM.3 The effect of changes in temperature distribution on extremes. Different changes in temperature distributions between present and future climate and their effects on extreme values of the distributions: (a) effects of a simple shift of the entire distribution toward a warmer climate; (b) effects of an increase in temperature variability with no shift in the mean; (c) effects of an altered shape of the distribution, in this example a change in asymmetry toward the hotter part of the distribution.

Climatic extremes are likely to increase in the future and will affect ecosystem functions and services. The need to make informed estimates with respect to the response of the land biosphere to the global changes currently underway is a challenge that motivates much of the research in the Future-Earth context. Increasingly, a distinction is made between the possible impact of changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events (droughts, flood, heat and cold waves, insect outbreaks, etc.), and changes in the mean climate with possible shifts into climatic regimes where environmental conditions are more extreme (see the figure at the right, from IPCC, 2012: Summary for Policymakers. In: Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation [Field, C.B., V. Barros, T.F. Stocker, D. Qin, D.J. Dokken, K.L. Ebi, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, G.-K. Plattner, S.K. Allen, M. Tignor, and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3-21.).

In extreme environments, such changes can expose new resources for human exploitation with implications for productivity, and sustainability of fragile environments. Both, changes in climate extremes, and climate change leading to new extreme environments, pose distinct challenges for research and society, including for example challenges to the democratic character of governance in a state of emergency, or the role of knowledge, including indigenous knowledge, in dealing with or resolving the emergency.

Meeting these challenges also requires to improve our observation systems, the temporal depth of our data, our dynamic vegetation and generally our Earth system models, and our ability to manage the risks from changing patterns of environmental extremes. We need to know how extremes (events or permanently extreme environments) shape institutions, societal networks, rules and solidarity and which role modern communication and networking tools may play in this interaction.

Research questions

  • Which are the most important unprecedented climate extremes we may have to expect in the future?
  • Which are the most relevant climate metrics for extreme impacts on ecosystems and societies?
  • To which level of precision do we need to predict extreme impacts as useful support of decisions? At which time scale?
  • What do different examples of extremes tell us about the vulnerability of the coupled social-ecological system?
  • How do different societies cope with extreme environmental conditions and how do they govern the risks of extreme events?
  • What determines the ability of coupled socio-ecological systems to adapt to extreme events and environments?
  • What determines the resistance, resilience, and adaptation of ecological and societal systems to extremes?

During the E3S project we will further develop and shape those and new research questions with the stakeholders involved in the project.