By Adam Cohen, Jan. 30, 2018 –

It’s as if there’s a new apocalyptic blockbuster in theaters, and Joerg Schaefer has a front-row seat.

Some of the world’s foremost climate scientists shared their latest field research reports at the annual Comer Climate Conference this past fall in southwestern Wisconsin. None was as jarring as Schaefer’s talk on his work in Greenland and the Himalayas. His data indicating the vastly increased potential for sea level rise and severe water shortages are harrowing.

The renowned Columbia University professor gave two presentations, each on a paper that he published late in 2016. The first described a groundbreaking mission to drill through 2 miles of ice in the center of Greenland. The cosmic ray burn that Schaefer and his team found on the bedrock beneath the glacier indicates that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Greenland was completely ice-free during certain interglacial periods over the past 2.6 million years. The isotopes that were present in the sample – traces of beryllium-10, aluminium-26, and chlorine-36, among others – deliver the telltale clues that appear when cosmic radiation bombards rock uncovered by ice.

Schaefer’s mood was heavy as we sat down to speak in the library of the Comer Family Foundation estate after he had presented his findings. Outside the window to his right, a concrete landing strip gave way to the rolling hills of the Midwest’s Driftless Area. On a shelf to his left sat a leather-bound copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species. But Schaefer seemed weighed down by the subject matter of the day, unable to appreciate the treasures around him. “What I showed you today is another piece of bad news,” he said.

The expedition’s results may mean that Greenland is much more susceptible to climate change than we had thought. As we continue to warm our planet, the Arctic island could deglaciate in a matter of decades. And if it does, it will mean almost 25 feet of sea level rise.

Joerg Schaefer at the Comer Climate Conference last fall. (Adam Cohen/MEDILL)

The second talk Schaefer gave was based on a foray not into the Arctic, but into the archives of the American intelligence community. In a paper he co-authored and published in September 2016, Schaefer compared modern NASA imaging with recently declassified spy satellite data dating back to the early 1970s in order to build a series of digital elevation maps that quantify glacial retreat in the Himalayas.

The study is unprecedented in scope, as it traces the movement of roughly 18,000 individual glaciers over three decades, from 1974 to 2006, and thus isn’t skewed by regional variation for factors such as elevation and precipitation. Additionally, the Cold War-era, school bus-sized satellites, launched into orbit by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office to keep tabs on the Soviet army, provide a clear picture of objects as small as 2-feet wide. That’s a resolution higher than current Google Earth imagery.

Unlike the Greenland results, the significance of the Himalayan satellite data is unequivocal. The glaciers of the Asian mountain range, which hold the largest quantity of ice outside of the polar regions, are shrinking by 1 percent each year, and that rate is accelerating. Even with a conservative estimate of 1.5 degrees Celsius (roughly 2.5 degrees Farenheit) of warming above preindustrial levels by the end of this century, more than one-third of Himalayan ice mass would be lost.

“But it will be much more, because the warming will be more,” said Schaefer, who has done field research in the Himalayas. “And if you warm the global temperature by 2 degrees, you’re warming more than that in the higher mountains of Asia, because the high altitudes warm more.”

The global community will have to deal with at least a foot of sea level rise as a result of this Himalayan thaw. But more than 1 billion South Asians who rely on glacial melt for agriculture, energy production, and potable water face far more dire consequences.

“Right away,” said Schaefer, “if you are there for the first time, it becomes clear that glaciers are not just some abstract tourist attraction, which they basically are in Switzerland, where I did my Ph.D. There, if you change the glaciers, it’s kind of inconvenient for some skiers. In the Himalayas, it’s a very dominant part of the environment, and as soon as the glacier changes, the entire habitat of the people living in downstream valleys changes.” The water supply is paramount. “At some point, you will be sitting with no water at all outside of the rainy season in the big Indian rivers like the Indus and the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. This will be an epic disaster if it happens.”

Richard Alley, the Penn State geosciences professor who has authored numerous assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that, even without taking diminishing water reservoirs into consideration, future heat stress will be enough to make life grim for the people of South Asia and the world’s other tropical regions.

“It is very clear that poor people in hot places get screwed by climate change,” said Alley. “When it gets unexpectedly hot, people die. And that’s not really close yet in Anchorage. But it may be closer in Ankara. And it may be way closer in some of the big cities of India. And it’s miserable long before it’s fatal.”

Toward the end of our interview, Schaefer shifted to a more optimistic call for action. He highlighted the work of Columbia’s Earth Institute, one of many American academic centers making strides in communicating the urgency of the situation by promoting collaboration between earth scientists, economists, political scientists, and other researchers. It is not too late, Schaefer insists, to take concrete action to save humanity from the most catastrophic climate outcomes.

“We are at a point where the message is so clear that we really can transfer something robust to policy makers,” said Schaefer. “We have to do the best we can. Predict and transform – bring this message to the decision makers, and prepare them for what might come.”

Photo at top: Aerial view of Himilayan glaciers in Bhutan. (Included in Joerg Schaefer’s presentation at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference)



By Adam Cohen, October 31, 2017 –

Richard Alley smiled widely, beer in hand, as he welcomed a group of student journalists to the annual Comer Climate Conference this fall. “I bet you all have a cell phone on you,” he said. “Don’t throw it on the ground!” The students exchanged sideways glances. “It might break,” Alley continued. “And that’s important. Things break easily.”

Things like the Earth.

Alley, professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, is a world leader among the contributors to discoveries about global warming and one of the scientific community’s master communicators. He has written five books, testified before various United States senate and house committees, and authored numerous assessment reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Alley has devoted his career to conveying the fragility of the complex systems that keep our planet in balance. He now feels it is time for “reframing the discussion” to convince people of the urgency surrounding climate change.

In January 2014, C-SPAN broadcast live as Alley testified before Congress. At one point, the panel got on the topic of prehistoric interglacials – eras in which the Earth warmed without human interference. “Why did it happen then if these same factors that you’re blaming it on didn’t exist then?” asked Republican representative Dana Rohrabacher of California.

“The ice ages are caused by features of Earth’s orbit,” Alley responded. As he spoke, he put one finger on the top of his head (the North Pole) and one hand in front of his nose (the equator), illustrating the back-and-forth nodding of the orbit that happens over 41,000-year cycles. “We know what that’s doing right now, and it’s not [happending] fast enough to explain what we’re seeing.”

Richard Alley, a master communicator, being interviewed at the Comer Climate Conference in October. (Morgan Levey/Medill News Service)

That 30-second sound bite is the topic of the 500-page Earth: An Operators’ Manual, which Alley published in 2011. “More and more,” he writes, “the processes that made Earth’s landscape in the past are not the processes that students observe today, because the dominant processes today are ‘us.'”

The majority of the American public has finally gotten the message, thanks to the insistence of scientists such as Alley. A July 2017 survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that 58 percent of Americans “believe climate change is mostly human caused,” while “only 30 percent say it is due mostly to natural changes in the environment.”

Though he will continue to try to popularize the science – his lesson in plate tectonics set to the tune of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire and posted on YouTube may be his biggest hit to date – Alley believes we should now devote more of our collective energy to convincing those who already understand the urgency of anthropogenic climate change to take action. Some have an ethical problem with “rich people in cold places burning fossil fuels and hurting poor people in hot places.” Others prioritize issues like national security and job creation, both of which would be positively impacted by good climate policy. Alley wants to consider each group separately and use targeted messaging to unite, rather than polarize. “Anything you can think of on this topic – all of them point the same direction,” he says.

Alley served as MC, as he does every year, at the conference held by the Comer Family Foundation in early October. He was a good friend of the late Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End. Now, as one of the foundation’s science advisors, he helps make recommendations on awarding climate field research grant money from the foundation.

Moving around the airplane hangar where conference sessions are held on the Comers’ sprawling southwestern Wisconsin estate in a blue checkered button-down and wool slippers, Alley led the forum with his characteristically unyielding ebullience. “Grab your coffee, grab your chair – we have exciting science to do!” he said between talks on beryllium-10 moraine dating. (Beryllium-10 collects in the quartiz of ice-free rocks struck by cosmic rays once the glaciers have tossed them aside as they lumber away, offering a time machine for pacing the retreat of glaciers.)

At the end of day two, it came time for Alley’s closing remarks. He choked up as he wished his fellow scientists a fruitful year of discovery. “I love these meetings,” he said, his voice trailing off. “You have a voice because you’ve done the science.”

Photo at Top: Richard Alley in the field. (Photo by Karen Alley for the PBS series “Earth the Operators’ Manual)
Related story: Richard Alley talks about how fixing climate will be good for the economy.
Note: Adam Cohen is a Comer Scholar, a Medill scholarship program supported by the Comer Family Foundation to promote graduate studies in environmental journalism.


 By Adam Cohen, August 4, 2017 – 

If you ask Chicagoans to draw a map of their city, the first line on the page will likely be a slightly angled north-south axis. Everything west of the line is urban territory. Everything east of it is fresh water.

Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes contain one-fifth of world’s surface fresh water – 6 quadrillion gallons of it. But is Chicago an aquatic paradise, immune to worldwide water shortages that are accelerating with global warming?

Scientists here say the answer is no. “There are estimates that industrial and economic development will be limited by water in the city of Chicago within the next 20 years,” says Aaron Packman, professor of Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University.

Though the Great Lakes are vast, water extraction from them is limited under the legally binding Great Lakes Compact. Most Chicago suburbs cannot obtain their drinking water from Lake Michigan. “Go a county or two to the west or south, where they must use groundwater [from aquifers]. Those sources are rapidly becoming depleted,” says Seth Snyder, a colleague of Packman’s at Northwestern and chief of water research at Argonne National Laboratory, a world-renowned science and engineering research center located on a sprawling campus 30 miles southwest of the city.

Packman and Snyder are two of the principal researchers at the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE), a partnership between Northwestern and Argonne. Although Argonne was founded in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project, NAISE is one of dozens of programs that now use the facilities to develop state-of-the-art technologies for sustainability, energy and other applications.

A resin wafer at Argonne testing new technologies for water treatment and conservation. (Adam Cohen/Medill)

One such breakthrough is a desalination and water treatment process called resin wafer electrodeionization (RW-EDI). RW-EDI is extremely energy-efficient as compared to traditional desalination methods. The porous resin wafers require very little voltage to power electric fields as part of a system that filters out impurities from water. The technology has been proven to function in a commercial setting – a scale roughly 100 times larger than the “mini-stacks” of wafers built at Argonne.

Resin wafer technology plays a vital role in NAISE’s plan for more efficient food, energy and water use on a systemic level. Recovering the 1 billion gallons of treated wastewater that the city dumps into the Chicago River every day “will more than triple available water,” says Snyder. The reclaimed water could be used for industry and agriculture.

“That’s a big part of the game,” continues Packman, highlighting the fact that industry and irrigation account for roughly 90 percent of national water consumption. “If you could take sources that are lower quality than the ones we would normally use for drinking water, and link them to users who don’t need the quality of water we would normally have for drinking water, this opens up whole new pathways for water use.”

A device built to hold a “mini-stack” of resin wafers, part of a system to remove impuities from water. (Adam Cohen/Medill)

Packman, Snyder and Yupo Lin, a chemical engineer who leads the resin wafer project at Argonne, are featured speakers at a Taipei symposium on August 5 and 6 tackling global resource management. Hosted by National Taiwan University (NTU) as part of their ongoing international collaboration effort, the conference will cover clean water technologies, the Urban Food-Energy-Water Nexus, and green infrastructure. The technologies being developed through the Northwestern-Argonne partnership have crucial implications for an island nation like Taiwan, which receives influxes of freshwater only through typhoon rains. “Water is hard for them,” says Lin, who holds over 20 patents related to his resin wafer work. “The keywords we’re looking for are ‘new water sources.’”

The Northwestern-Argonne team will also be learning from the success of their NTU partners and other scientists at the symposium who are developing models to measure the overall inputs and outputs of urban systems. “Imagine the amount of food, energy and water going into and out of the city of Chicago,” says Packman. “It’s very hard to track. We’ve been working on things like urban water systems data collection with distributed sensor networks. They’ve been able to do that in Taiwan. This gives us some basis to make some connections together to improve understanding of cities both in Taiwan and the U.S.”

While this work on the Food-Energy-Water Nexus could help solve problems for the global community, it should also be a boon to water-rich Great Lakes economies, which Synder feels should be a leader in attracting business with water reuse programs. “Just like you should install photovoltaics in Phoenix, water-intensive industries should be in the Chicago region,” he says. “We are working on enabling that vision.”

This intersection of efficiency and economic development led to the establishment of a non-profit called Current in 2016. Founded by World Business Chicago, Current is a public-private partnership that serves as an “innovation platform for the Chicago region’s water industry to leverage its strengths for global environmental and economic impact.” Current partners with the city and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) to implement the technologies being developed at Argonne. (MWRD is the independent local government agency that manages the region’s wastewater and storm water.)

This weekend’s conference is being hosted in honor of the 40th anniversary of NTU’s Graduate Institute of Environmental Engineering. Participants are also eager to fulfill the promise of increased international collaboration. “We were invited,” says Packman, “both to celebrate prior achievements and to explore new opportunities.”

Photo at Top: Lake Michigan at Chicago. (Medill Archive)

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