by Eric P. Skalac
Oct 22, 2010
As glaciers and ice sheets melt at an ever-increasing rate, scientists accelerate their pace to piece together the climate change puzzle before the earth gets much warmer.
The big picture that those pieces create gets clearer every year on a farm in the green, rolling hills of Wisconsin, a place the massive glaciers of North America never flattened.
The Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference is held here each year at a corporate retreat developed by the late Gary Comer, a sailor, philanthropist, Chicagoan and founder of the Lands’ End clothing line.
Here, scientists pinpoint research underpinning their deep concerns about steadily filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels. A warming world means more floods and more droughts as turbulent weather redistributes water across the planet. Areas that are already very dry will become even drier with drought, and more floods will assault coastal areas and many river basins of the world.
Both the conference and the number of the nation’s key climate change experts attending it have grown significantly, with 72 scientists participating this year. These men and women take their research high into the mountains of Greenland, New Zealand and Peru, exploring the fingerprints left behind by the growth and retreat of glaciers thousands of years ago. They refine the methods of calculating the age of cosmic ray-bombarded rocks, the way ice is shrinking around the world and the rise in carbon dioxide.
“The earth is sitting here, the sun warms it up, and it tries to dump the heat back into space,” said Richard Alley, Pennsylvania State geologist and emcee of the conference. “Some of it doesn’t get through when CO2 is in the way. This is physics—it’s not politics. It’s not made up.”
In a conference room cocooned in an airplane hangar beneath a hillside, these scientists came together once again this fall to discuss the state of the planet, “the Earth’s story,” as Alley put it.
Not only climate change scientists but the chemists, biologists, geologists and an inventor all are working on facets of a greater problem. And they all gathered in this remote Wisconsin estate to share, to collaborate and to socialize.
The tone of the conference is unique – friendly, nearly familial at times. Stephanie Comer, the daughter of the late Gary Comer, and her brother Guy oversee their father’s continuing legacy of climate change philanthropy. Stephanie Comer said she believes that the tone of the gathering echoes the bond made between her father and the climate scientists who attended the earliest conferences held before her father died in 2006.
“I think part of it is my Dad’s friendship with Wally and George and Richard, and some of the other scientists,” Stephanie Comer said. “I think that really set the tone for this.”
She’s referring to Wallace “Wally” Broecker, George Denton and Alley—three leaders in the field of climate change.
Alley speaks about ancient air pockets in ice cores—a “time machine,” as he refers to them. The cores collected by many scientists show that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has reached about 30 percent higher levels now than at any other period preserved in the ice over hundreds of thousands of years. Rising carbon dioxide levels are a thermostat for the warming Earth.
Broecker, of Columbia University, discovered the “conveyor belt” of ocean currents that transport heat and salt through the planet’s oceans and maintain a temperate climate in areas of the U.S. and elsewhere. He also coined the term “global warming.”
Research by Denton, of the University of Maine, studies the movement of ancient ice sheets and mountain glaciers and demonstrates the differences between climate progression in the northern and southern hemispheres.
Gary Comer counted on the three men as advisers for research initiatives he funded after he witnessed climate change heading on a dangerous course.
Comer sailed in the northern territories of Canada, visiting Inuit villages, and on these trips he witnessed Inuit people discussing ways that their climate already had changed. In the summer of 2001, Comer sailed up the west coast of Greenland with family and friends in his yacht the Turmoil.
After studying ice reports with the captain, he and his crew realized that the fabled Northwest Passage sea route was just clear enough of ice to navigate. It wasn’t easy, but they completed the trip, unlike many earlier adventurers killed in the same quest.
Comer recognized that a navigable Northwest Passage was not a good sign for the Earth. And after returning to land, he tracked down the best climate scientists he could find.
Broecker’s name kept showing up in the research, and Comer worked with him to develop a mentorship program that connected post-doctoral researchers with veteran climate scientists through fellowships. By now, the Comer Science and Education Foundation he created has donated some $50 million toward climate change research and facilities.
The Comer Science and Education Foundation continues to carry on his work toward “understanding what he thought was an important issue,” Denton said.
His foundation also makes grants of seed money to young researchers who are “likely to advance our understanding of abrupt climate change, with special attention to opening new subfields rather than continuing existing ones,” Alley said. “The foundation consults with a panel of advisers, who are watching the field and looking for new options.”
This year’s conference offered 35 presentations of research over two days, covering new data and advancing techniques for various areas of climate science.
Meredith Nettles of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory discussed earthquakes that can be felt in the Dakotas and caused as large sections of ice shear off the front of glaciers in Greenland. Anitra Ingalls of the University of Washington explained techniques for using a new class of fossilized algae to compute ages of old ocean beds. Tom Lowell of the University of Cincinnati presented dating information for the expansion and retreat of the massive Laurentide ice sheet in Canada and the northern United States.
After two solid days of intense discussion, the conference emptied out onto the hillside for one last gathering and a picnic for this gathering of colleagues and friends. A bluegrass band arrived.
And the band grew as the darkness deepened. Aaron Putnam (graduate assistant at the University of Maine) played banjo, Ray Pierrehumbert (geophysicist at the University of Chicago) played accordion, Jeff Severinghaus (professor of geosciences at the University of California, San Diego) and Alley played acoustic guitar.
Students, staff, professors and cooks sang along to folk songs and an earnest interpretation of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Another session of the Comer Abrupt Climate Change conference was nearly at an end. As the picnic continued into the night and fireworks lit the hillside, everyone came together around the outdoor tables and a campfire to continue sharing stories, theories and friendship.