Three titans of climate change science – Wallace Broecker, Richard Alley and George Denton – warn that global warming is real and requires immediate action.
The three scientists came together once again this fall in Wisconsin at the annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference where dozens of researchers presented the latest findings on sea level rise, melting glaciers, modeling techniques that assess climate impacts and an invention to suck greenhouse gases from the air.
Broecker, Alley and Denton maintained a close friendship with Lands’ End founder and philanthropist Gary Comer, a trio of advisors as Comer accelerated climate change research with $50 million in funding for initiatives involving key scientists across the country.
Since his death in 2006, they continue to work with the Comer Science and Education Foundation to fund promising new research.
Interviewed at this year’s conference, Broecker, Alley and Denton discuss the disturbing future of climate change and what is already occurring in a series of videos. Here’s why it’s well worth listening to what they have to say.
Geophysicist Wallace Broecker predicts an “enormous mess” due to CO2 and climate change
Wallace Broecker is a pioneer of radiocarbon dating—one of climate science’s mt powerful tools in constructing timelines for climate events that took place over past epochs. The role of the oceans in climate change led him to analyze the ocean transport systems that move heat and salt around the earth. This is the great “Ocean Conveyor Belt.”
Broecker, a native of Oak Park, is a geophysicist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and recipient of a litany of international awards.
At the conference, Broecker said that climate scientists are able to estimate the amount temperature rise that will result from the carbon dioxide and other emissions from fossil fuels that we are pouring into the atmosphere.
“What actually happens can be more than expected or less than expected, but to say that nothing will happen is just not scientific,” said Broecker, interviewed at the conference.
There is a chance, of course, the nothing will happen. But Broecker believes that, “it would be foolhardy for the world to base the future on the hope that that’s going to be the case.”
Regardless of the size of the change, “the consequences of CO2, where not catastrophic, are going to make an enormous mess that the inhabitants of the planet in general are going to say was bad and regretful that we let happen,” Broecker said.
Geologist Richard Alley makes the climate change alert something to sing about
Richard Alley clearly enjoys explaining complicated climate science to people who don’t necessarily have a science background. He’s a geologist, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, and the kind of talented speaker whose video on YouTube has 10,000 views and counting.
See “Richard Alley Dances to Explain Ice Ages, CO2 and Global Warming” for yourself.
Alley’s conference presentation—“Ice Retreat: Not Much Good News to Report”—showed the continued shrinking of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which will mean rising oceans and the threat of coastal flooding. He displayed diverse estimates for rising ocean levels over the next decades, estimates that range from a few feet to catastrophic levels.
“If someone tells you with confidence that [the ocean level will rise] less than a meter this century, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Alley’s demeanor is electric, evident most in his frequent hand gestures. He flings his arms over his head and out to his side. He shifts positions as he speaks passionately about the action needed to adequately address abrupt climate change.
“If you live in air conditioning and in a heated home, and you drive your car out of the garage and into the garage, you may not see [a change], but someone’s growing your food,” Alley said at the conference. “And a lot of the places that people are growing that food are living closer to the edge than we are.”
Alley chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ panel on abrupt climate change, was a lead writer of the 2007 assessment report of the U. N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and authored the book The Two-Mile Time Machine. Time Machine details, in part, his involvement in the research of climate change using miles-long, cylindrical ice-cores drilled out of Greenland’s ice sheet.
Scientists measure the ancient air pockets trapped in these cores for carbon dioxide levels.Their comprehensive record shows that levels of the greenhouse gas never rose above about 300 parts per million in hundreds of thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. Concentrations have currently reached 390 parts p er million.
Alley plays guitar, converting parts of the climate science saga to song. He said he believes that recognizing we have an impact on the climate, based on the science, isn’t about politics. “Admitting that we’re changing the atmosphere does not tell you how to vote tomorrow.”
Geologist George Denton warns of U.S. water shortages that will worsen with climate change
“We’re using up freshwater resources,” said climate scientist George Denton, of the University of Maine. “The last time that there was a lot of rainfall in the western United States was 16,000 years ago. It filled the aquifers.”
And burgeoning urban sprawl in the Golden State is rapidly depleting them.
Water is already a vitally precious commodity in the West and, if wind patterns change drastically – as has happened in past periods of climate change – water could become a lot scarcer, Denton warns.
“The record is screaming at us that wind belts change with these climate changes. And with wind belt change comes change in the storm tracks. With change in the storm tracks comes change in what areas are wet, what areas are dry, and the boundaries between them,” he said at the conference.
Denton gave the example of the aquifer beneath the Great Plains, which is being depleted to grow our crops. It also was filled during the last ice age, and Denton said that, “the so-called fertile croplands of the middle part of the United States is developed because of use of this aquifer, for irrigation.”
“We should start to think these things through, clearly,” Denton said. “And somehow adjust our lifestyles to take into account what happens on the planet during these climate changes.”
Denton studies the geologic record of large ice sheets and smaller mountain glaciers, and has demonstrated the differences that can occur between climate progression in the northern and southern hemispheres.