by Annie Sniderand Joe Piaskowy
Oct 02, 2009
Each night, from the hill just above the private runway, the climate scientists stared up at the Big Dipper, Orion and the Milky Way – waiting.
A flash of light. There it was! The International Space Station shot through the night sky at astonishing speed.
The moment of awe lasted exactly that – a moment – and then the calculations began. How fast would the station have to be going to pass from horizon to horizon in a matter of minutes? Factor in its altitude and the Earth’s orbit in the opposite direction.
After days packed with climate presentations and working group sessions at the Comer Conference in Wisconsin, the scientists were obviously having some fun.
On board the station, the astronauts reach into galactic history with their research as they search for clues to the future. When the space haven had slipped from view, the climatologists turned back to the dinner tent. There, they picked up their beers and returned to conversations about glacial dating, historical rainfall modeling, and what their own findings from the past might predict for Earth’s future.
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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body of international scientists, painted a grim picture of the near future in its 2007 report on global warming. Hotter heat waves, stronger tropical cyclones, more rain at high altitudes and droughts in the topics – the projected changes are ones that will have real and serious impacts on human civilization if something isn’t done. And just two years later, climate scientists have already realized that the IPCC predictions may be too conservative.
Late Lands’ End billionaire Gary Comer realized something was wrong on a yacht trip to the Arctic in 2001. He and his shipmates had decided to sail the legendary Northwest Passage and were shocked to find how easily they could navigate a route that had once destroyed so many ships in its icy grip.
“It took about three weeks and we really didn’t have that much trouble going through,” recounts Comer’s daughter, Stephanie, who was on board with her eight-month-old daughter. “He got back to the States and said, ‘What’s going on? Why was that so easy?’”
The question tugged at Comer. The entrepreneur, who never graduated from college, quickly delved into the science of past changes in Earth’s climate. One name kept coming up again and again in his research: Wally Broecker, a climatologist at Columbia University.
Broecker is best known for his “conveyor belt” explanation of how heat and salt move through the world’s oceans and keep climate temperate in places including parts of the United States and Europe.
Comer and Broecker shared not just a common concern about climate change, but also a common background: Comer grew up in Chicago and Broecker in nearby Oak Park.
When they finally met, they hit it off immediately. Believing that a better understanding of past abrupt climate changes is critical to averting one now, Comer began pouring money into on-going research led by Broecker and his colleagues across the country. He supported them with fellowships to enlist and mentor a new generation of climate scientists.
“We have a unique opportunity to create a research program that has some unity and goes after things that we think are important in both paleoclimate (research) and with what is happening in Greenland today,” Broecker says of Comer’s support.
Although Comer passed away in 2006, his passion for climate research has sparked in his children, Stephanie and Guy, who continue to run the foundation. Stephanie Comer hosted this fall’s annual conference on abrupt climate change.
Bill Schleicher, a representative for the Comer Science and Education Foundation, estimates the foundation has put some $50 million toward climate initiatives. These include the mentoring program that has paired 120 post-doctoral researchers with 30 leading scientists, a cutting-edge research facility at Columbia, and $5 million of seed funding to support research projects. The triumverate of advisors for the initiatives include Broecker and leading climate scientists Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University and George Denton of University of Maine.
For the last half dozen years, scientists supported by the Comer Foundation have gathered on the family’s remote Wisconsin estate to discuss their findings in formal presentations, in conversations in the commissary tent, and even in folk songs around the campfire at the annual picnic. A crowd favorite is always Alley’s song about Milankovic Theory, which hypothesizes that Ice Ages are spurred by natural changes in Earth’s orbital cycles. Today climatologists agree that the hypothesis is critical, but insufficient in itself, to explain current human-driven climate change.
“If you’re going to understand the climate, you’ve got to understand your history,” says Alley, a compact man who bursts with enthusiasm from behind large, wire-rimmed glasses. He argues that building accurate climate predictions for the next 100 years is a task as difficult as it is necessary.
This is because the models scientists construct to predict how climate will change under different scenarios must incorporate hundreds of interrelated factors that impact the Earth in sometimes obvious, sometimes not-so-obvious ways.
Consider how ice melts, for example, a key indicator of global warming. Picture two ice cubes and two glasses of water. The two ice cubes are from a single tray and appear exactly identical. You carefully measure one cup of water from the same pitcher into each of two glass, and they also look the same. But when you drop an ice cube in each, they melt in completely different ways. When you put a thermometer in the glasses, you find the water is different temperatures.
Maybe the ice cube that melted faster had tiny cracks in it that exposed more of its surface to the water. Maybe one glass of water was a little closer to the oven where you’re baking brownies. Maybe you dropped the ice cubes from different heights and that got the water in one glass swirling more than in the other. All of these variables would affect how the ice cube melts and how quickly and how much the glass of water warms.
Now picture that the ice cube is a 2-mile deep, continent-sized ice sheet, and that the glasses of water are the world’s oceans.
“We have a long way to go,” says Alley, “but we have come a long way, and the models are able to do many things right. No matter how you do it, dropping the cube into the glass of warm water will melt the cube, and warming the water melts the cube faster.”
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“New science can come from quantitative improvements in precision,” says Jeff Severinghaus, professor at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. He is referring to the fact that seemingly small advances in the understanding of historical science data can have a huge impact on their understanding of the big picture of climate.
The tools climatologists use to pin down these details are eclectic and seemingly bizarre. There are plankton shells from the ocean floor that indicate temperature patterns from thousands of years ago based on their mineral content. There are calcites from ancient lake basins that hold clues to when the rains came and went thousands of years ago. And there is Beryllium-10, a radioactive element formed when cosmic rays hurled across the galaxy hit rocks on earth and, in their decay, can help track the retreat of glaciers.
Most of a scientist’s time is spent collecting this data and vetting it – hours of conference time focused on analyzing new calibrations, discussing counting methods and explaining proxies for ancient events.
But when the drifts of data are pieced together, a good scientist will see a pattern. A daring scientist will form a hypothesis.
Broecker is just such a scientist – creative, curious and more than a little mischievous, which surely helped him when he proposed his conveyor belt. The theory, the foundation of important parts of modern climate science, describes a complex interaction of ocean currents that brings hot water from the tropics to the poles, where it cools and contracts, then sinks deep into the ocean, eventually looping back across the globe before returning as tropically warmed water again.
Now Comer scientists are building on this foundation and adding levels of understanding. Meredith Nettles is monitoring the movement and melting of Greenland glaciers by studying earthquakes caused when huge cliffs of ice break off the glaciers and falls into the sea. Jorge Schaefer is sharpening the Beryllium-10 tool that can more accurately date ancient specimens, while Larry Edwards is reducing errors in dating of cave formations that evidence past climate cycles, sometimes to within a 10-year window. And Peter Huybers, who was named a MacArthur fellow last week, is using physics, statistics and mathematics to create simplified, more accurate climate models to predict what is coming next.
The hot topic of this year’s Comer conference was geochemist Bob Anderson’s work indicating that winds may play a larger role in climate change than previously recognized and could accelerate global warming.
Anderson’s theory is that winds blowing from west to east move waters from the southern ocean north and, in the process, change the composition of the ocean around the Antarctic. He calls this “wind-driven upwelling.” The upwelling causes the carbon dioxide-rich water of the deep to rise to the surface, ultimately emitting additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Such CO2 helped end the last ice age, and it could be a critical player in how Earth’s climate changes now and in the future. And CO2 levels are now higher than they have been in previous warming cycles. Scientists know this because they have measured the CO2 trapped in pockets of ancient air.
“What we heard in the last few days (of the conference) here is just a blow-you-away, amazing improvement in our understanding of the planet,” Alley says. “What did ice ages look like? Where were the storm tracks going? Where is the rain? Where is the ice? We’re really making progress on this stuff.”
Among themselves, climate scientists may talk more about what they don’t know than what they do. But what they are willing to say with certainty is this: When climate changes, it often changes abruptly.
Past ice ages have built over periods of about 90,000 years, and warmed in about 10,000 years – not evenly, but in spurts and jumps. Villagers in the European Alps had front row seats for the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-19th century. In one instance, a rush of melted ice water washed away a Swiss village, taking out 500 homes and killing 50 people.
With greenhouse gases warming the planet and melting huge masses of ice, coastal areas face dramatic flooding. As a smart and concerned investor, Gary Comer also put money into developing tools to get us out of this cesspool of greenhouse gases.
Columbia University professor and an entrepreneur Klaus Lackner gave the last presentation at the conference. Before his death, Comer partnered with Lackner in a business to build a synthetic tree with “leaves” coated with a resin to capture carbon dioxide at higher-than-natural rates and then sequester it.
“It is time to do something about the CO2 levels in the atmosphere,” Lackner declares. If we continue on our current emissions path, he says, within 10 years we could lock into place the 2-degree temperature change that is generally perceived as the line past which catastrophic climate change will be unavoidable.
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Just as the Comer conference was beginning in Wisconsin, two German cargo ships were completing their journey from South Korea to Siberia through the legendary Northeast Passage. It was reported as the first known commercial shipping trip from Asia to Europe through the Arctic.
When the Comer scientists returned to their labs after the conference, they were greeted with this year’s measurements from the National Snow and Ice Center, putting 2009’s summer Arctic sea ice minimum as the third smallest on record. The only years on record with larger ice retreats are 2007 and 2008.
Climate scientists may be studying the past to predict the future, but even they are saying that the future is here.