STALLED COPENHAGEN SUMMIT UNDERSCORES NEED FOR CLIMATE SCIENCE

Courtesy of Jorge Strelin   Scientists study the effects of climate change as it turns glaciers into lakes over the years in places such as Southern Pategonia.
Courtesy of Jorge Strelin
Scientists study the effects of climate change as it turns glaciers into lakes over the years in places such as Southern Pategonia.

by Diane Rusignola
Dec 08, 2009

With climate talks stalled in Copenhagen over emission cuts by developed nations and no agreement in sight, political leaders from around the world head into the last lap of the latest summit to tackle global warming.

But climate scientists keep searching out key clues to underpin what’s at stake and what to do about it. Just studying nature remains the front line for shaping answers to the problem.

Glaciers are often the time machines that climate scientists such as Columbia University’s Joerg Schaefer and his use to develop a global map dating from the last ice age through present day. The map is meant to depict how glaciers have moved over time in reaction to climate changes.

The information is critical because glaciers link to water supply.

“Glaciers are extremely sensitive to even the smallest climate signals,” said Schaefer, who started his career as a geochemist. “In the glacier and moraine record, you see signals you don’t see in any other record.”

Moraines are the ridges of debris left by retreating glaciers. Comparing those movements on inter-hemispheric and regional levels will help climate scientists and policy-makers understand how the hemispheres, climate shifts and glaciers are coupled, he said.

“We want to provide [scientists] with the information that is relevant to predict at what speed glaciers in certain areas will disappear and modify the water availability and the hydropower,” Schaefer said. “In many areas it’s a big problem already.”

Pennsylvania State University climate geologist Richard Alley, also a glacier expert, agrees that understanding the history of climate change around the world is one of the best ways scientists can learn about players such as atmospheric and oceanic circulation.

But people also contribute to the release of greenhouse gases through every day activities such as driving and using electricity and scientists relate the spike in CO2 levels to rising current temperatures and human activities. 
Glacier experts also study the forceful role winds play in climate change. When winds shift, oceans shift in response, causing deep waters from the south to come up at an increased rate and release additional carbon dioxide into the air, acclerating global warming.

This process warms the southern hemisphere while the North still stays in the cold. Scientists such as Schaefer are working to prove this concept through geological records.

“If that is true, this mechanism, then we have to see it in the glacial and the moraine record, because the South has to be different than the North,” Schaefer said. 

But temperatures are rising globally and carbon dioxide levels now are at 385 parts per million, the highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years.

Scientists know that because climate geoscientists such as Alley measure the CO2 in ancient air pockets captured in ice cores drilled from the glaciers.

While leaders at the Copenhagen summit worked to advance climate change responses, the field work of scientists such as Schaefer and Alley provides the underlying foundation on which to base the policies for real change. These experts remain realistic, but hopeful above all else.

“As long as we don’t have…artificial trees, and as long as there’s coal in the ground, we are going to be having this discussion,” Alley said. “[But] we are going to change the world in really fundamental ways.”

Glacier experts also study the forceful role winds play in climate change. When winds shift, oceans shift in response, causing deep waters from the south to come up at an increased rate and release additional carbon dioxide into the air, acclerating global warming.

 

Glacier experts also study the forceful role winds play in climate change. When winds shift, oceans shift in response, causing deep waters from the south to come up at an increased rate and release additional carbon dioxide into the air, acclerating global warming.

 

This process warms the southern hemisphere while the North still stays in the cold. Scientists such as Schaefer are working to prove this concept through geological records. “If that is true, this mechanism, then we have to see it in the glacial and the moraine record, because the South has to be different than the North,” Schaefer said.

But temperatures are rising globally and carbon dioxide levels now are at 385 parts per million, the highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists know that because climate geoscientists such as Alley measure the CO2 in ancient air pockets captured in ice cores drilled from the glaciers.

While leaders at the Copenhagen summit worked to advance climate change responses, the field work of scientists such as Schaefer and Alley provides the underlying foundation on which to base the policies for real change. These experts remain realistic, but hopeful above all else.

“As long as we don’t have…artificial trees, and as long as there’s coal in the ground, we are going to be having this discussion,” Alley said. “[But] we are going to change the world in really fundamental ways.”


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