By Jillian Melero, Dec. 16, 2018 –

Tapping into wind and solar and other green energy technologies, the U.S. can produce 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, compared to 17 percent produced in 2017.

That’s the conclusion of a study conducted by the Department of Energy. And the transition is a necessary step to avoid increasing global warming beyond the 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of global temperature rise that would bring more extreme climate change. Approximately 1 degree C of global warming has occurred already with industrialization. bring

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its  report on the implications of a 1.5 C warming of the planet in October. In order to mitigate the impacts – including more extreme drought, flooding, sea level rise, severe storms, increased wildfires, and more – the panel recommended ending global dependence on coal-generated electricity by 2050 with a two-thirds reduction by 2030 in order to decrease carbon emissions and the production of other greenhouse gases.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), released in November by a collaboration of 13 U.S. government agencies – including NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense – supports this conclusion.

To achieve this goal, the U.S. will need to establish policy and invest in research and development to produce, store, and transmit energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectricity, or biofuels to meet its needs while reducing carbon emissions.

This development is already underway in the world’s fourth-largest economy – Germany.

Energiewende is the German energy transition policy, adopted by the government in 2010. The policy includes the complete shutdown of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022 and utilizing renewable energy sources (RES) wind, solar, and hydroelectricity for at least 60 percent of its energy production by 2050. Germany produced 33 percent of its electricity from renewable resources in 2017, reaching its 2020 goal three years early.

The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) took a group of 11 engineering students on a Global Engineering Trek (GET) with a focus on research and development in renewable energy technology and sustainability within the cities of Hamburg and Heidelberg Germany this September.

“Germany is a global leader in energy in sustainability and clean technology, from the top down, from Federal government but also from the bottom up, from grassroots,” said Mike McMahon, Senior Communications Manager for ISEN. “It’s a great ecosystem for clean technology and a sustainable mindset. The businesses think green, but also the people think green in the way they live and act. So, it’s in the public policies but it’s also in the businesses and in the daily life.”

Hamburg earned the title of “Europe’s Green Capital” for 2011 for its environmental efforts and focus on sustainability. The city is home to 190 renewable energy companies, producing, financing and researching wind, solar, biomass, and biogas derived energy. One of those companies, Planet Energy, constructs wind and solar power plants under the subsidiary Greenpeace Energy, a renewable energy provider with the activist profile of its parent company, Greenpeace.

While Germany generated 33 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2017, the majority – 37 percent, came from coal. Hard coal supplied 14.6 and lignite supplied an additional 22.5 percent.

Lignite, also known as brown coal, is one of the lowest grades of coal for energy production. It’s a soft coal, abundant and inexpensive to mine, but emissions-heavy. The low energy output means more of it is needed to produce the same amount of energy as some of its higher-grade counterparts. And the cost to transport it makes it impractical to use outside of the areas where it’s mined.

“We are strongly opposed to burning more lignite,” said Michael Friedrich, press officer for Greenpeace Energy. “There’s currently a fight in a region west of Germany, next to Cologne at the river Rhine, where they’re trying to stop a utility clear-cutting a forest right next to the lignite mine in order to start mining under the former forest,” Friedrich said.

The shutdown of the coal industry is one of Greenpeace’s goals. But the company’s environmental activism doesn’t detract from the realities of a changing economy. “The workers in the mines are asking themselves ‘What will our future look like?’ I think you have the same questions in the U.S. where Donald Trump is trying to bring coal back. And we have the same questions here with workers, ‘what are we going to do when the pit is closed?’” Friedrich said.

For that reason, Friedrich said it’s important for the utility company to develop relationships with the local community and work together to develop plans to create new jobs, generate income, generate taxes and help move the economy forward. “So, the coal can go, and they still have a future, but a clean future without emissions,” he said.

But nuclear energy may be a necessity to bridge the gap in achieving those clean energy goals. The formerly pro-nuclear Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to end Germany’s nuclear program after the Fukushima plant in Japan suffered three meltdowns in 2011. However, critics say that Germany’s shutdown of its nuclear plants without first having alternative energy sources in place has made it more reliant on coal and has driven up prices for electricity, according to a report from Politico Europe.

Some U.S. climate scientists including Jim Hansen, director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at Columbia University, have called for environmentalists to re-evaluate nuclear as a clean energy option to reduce carbon emissions. Hansen is the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

“The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking. Throwing tools such as nuclear out of the box constrains humanity’s options and makes climate mitigation more likely to fail. We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors,” Hansen stated in a Guardian article co-authored with fellow scientists Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley in 2015. Hansen made similar comments in 2016 at a panel on nuclear energy held at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Another issue in the transition to renewable energy is storing the surplus energy produced. Wind and solar are fickle supply sources. Some days supply more energy than others. For that reason, research initiatives are underway in the U.S. and abroad to develop high-powered batteries for more efficient ways to store the surplus energy from windy or sunny days for what may literally be a rainy day. But Greenpeace is exploring another alternative.

“If we have 100 percent renewable energy, which is mainly wind and solar power here in Germany, the question of course arises, ‘What happens when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining – are the lights going out?’ No, they are not, because it’s possible to store huge amounts of excess green energy in the gas grid,” Friedrich said.

He noted that Greenpeace is pioneering the use of “wind gas,” or hydrogen gas derived from wind-generated electricity through the process of electrolysis. Electrolysis uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a unit called an electrolyzer. The hydrogen gas can then be stored within the “hundreds of thousands of kilometers” of Germany’s existing gas grid.

“We are campaigning for this crucial element of the energiewende in Germany. In our future energy system, we need it as a basis for energy security so even if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining for longer periods, even for three weeks or so, it can easily be provided from the gas grid and be retransformed into electricity with flexible gas power plants,” Friedrich said.

Biogas and flexible gas grids are one potential solution to the storage problem. Another is solar batteries. Northwestern’s engineering students also visited one of the wind and solar farms of developer, juwi.

“The solar panels were really cool because you hear about this great technology, these solar panels, but the only problem is [there’s] no battery source, and that’s something that everyone is looking at right now that definitely piqued my interest,” said Godson Osele, who is studying biomedical engineering at Northwestern.

Headquartered in Wörrstadt, Germany, juwi has several international projects. In November, the company contracted with the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station – a key research station studying the Great Barrier Reef — to supply the station with high-efficiency solar panels, an integrated microgrid system and solar battery storage facilities. The system is expected to be operational mid-2019. it will supply more than 80 percent of the facility’s annual energy needs and will end the station’s reliance on diesel-generated power. In July, juwi completed a solar plant for a utility company in the southern Indian state of Karnataka and finalized contracts to build more plants for a South African utility.

While Germany has made strides producing electricity from renewable sources, most of its transportation still relies on gasoline and diesel fuel, bringing emissions reduction to a halt over the last few years.

According to Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA), Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority, 66.2 percent of newly registered automobiles were gasoline-fueled, 32.2 percent were diesel-fueled, and less than 1 percent each were hybrid or electric in 2016. In the U.S., 97.2 percent of new car sales were gasoline-fueled, 2 percent were hybrid, and less than one percent each were plug-in hybrid or electric in 2016 according to Edmunds.

One company working to make electric vehicles more accessible is Heidelberger Druckmaschinen.

The city of Heidelberg’s carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 1990, making it one of only 27 cities to start lowering emissions, according to the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40). The city passed an energy control and climate protection program in 1992 further reducing emissions. In 1997, it won the European Sustainable City Award and in 2002 it received the Green Electricity Gold Label for having 25 percent of its electricity used in public buildings come from renewables.

Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, founded in 1850, is a long-time manufacturer of printing presses and printing software. After enduring heavy layoffs and salary cuts throughout the printing industry, the company updated its business model and began manufacturing AC/DC converters for Porsche and Audi in 2012. In 2017 the company began development and construction of the Heidelberg wall box charging station for electric vehicles. The charging station is designed for individual as well as commercial use.

But electric vehicles aren’t the only clean energy alternative to gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicles.

Another stop on Northwestern’s Global Engineering Trek was The Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht(HZG) Center for Materials and Coastal Research. HZG employs more than 950 scientists, engineers, technicians, doctoral students, apprentices, and administrators. Among the many projects under development at HZG are high performance, lightweight materials for cars and aircraft to help reduce fuel consumption; and new methods of hydrogen fuel storage.

Some of HZG’s recent progress focuses on the field of solid-state hydrogen storage for use as a high efficiency, low pollution alternative to fossil fuels. Compared to liquid or gas storage, solid state can store larger volumes of hydrogen in a hybrid tank system, with fewer safety issues such as leaks.

“What I found most interesting was the hydrogen gas fueled car,” said Aarij Rehman, an Industrial Engineering student with Northwestern. “It seems like most non-traditional cars are electric powered. So, seeing a different form of a clean energy vehicle really surprised me. Although the vehicles were still in early development stages it was clear the team behind the project was making substantial progress.”

The first hydrogen-fuel cell train made news in Germany in September. The zero-emission train developed by French company Coradia iLint, can travel at a speed of approximately 70 miles per hour and utilizes a mobile hydrogen filling station located on a 40-foot-high steel container next to the tracks at a station in Bremervörde.

The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. Developing clean fuels, fuel storage, and integrating these improvements into public transportation can help countries to reduce emissions and stay below the 1.5-degree C global warming point.

The United States’ potential to take lessons from Germany, build on them, and offer some new ones in return means there is hope for a clean energy future. But there need to be policies in place to support it.

“Obviously, you want to bring things like that to America, which is a lot bigger than Germany, but I think it’s something we can bring to the United States on a much larger scale,” Osele said. [We] hopefully make the right steps to bring it to the level that Germany has, 36 percent of their energy sector is coming from renewable sources. That’s something that we can work toward [that] can be beneficial for the earth and for the economy as well.”

The NCA4 recommends achieving emissions reductions through a combination of technologies and policies including “increasing the energy efficiency of appliances, vehicles, buildings, electronics, and electricity generation; reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels by switching to lower-carbon fuels or capturing and storing carbon; and switching to renewable and non-carbon-emitting sources of energy, including solar, wind, wave, biomass, tidal, and geothermal.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees that in order for the U.S. to achieve a high renewable future at low costs, to create new jobs, and significantly reduce carbon emissions and water use, the country needs a long-term national renewable energy policy that should include “a national renewable electricity standard or well-designed “clean” energy standard, a price on carbon emissions, and a significant increase in research and development funding.”

Federal Energy Policy Summit to discuss state and national issues related to solar power and energy took place in Washington D.C. Dec.4 – Dec. 6.

Photo at top: The headquarters of Greenpeace energy in Hamburg, Germany utilize rooftop wind turbines. (Jillian Melero/Medill)

RelatedNorthwestern engineering students return to Germany for lessons on sustainability



by Jillian Melero, Dec. 19, 2018 –

Bronzeville, the South Side home of Chicago’s Black Renaissance and the birthplace of Black History Month, hopes to launch its next Golden Age with support from a smart microgrid being installed by utility ComEd. The microgrid will tap green energy to help power the community.

Once completed in 2019, the grid will have a load or active consumption capacity of 7 megawatts, installed over two phases with the energy generated from its own resources including solar panels.

That’s enough generating capacity for the grid to serve approximately 1,060 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Previous microgrids have served military bases or hospitals and the Illinois Institute of Technology operates on one as well. But the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster will be the first of its kind to serve a community within a metropolitan area, giving the community a more resilient power grid to help withstand outages.

Representatives from ComEd, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Siemens Digital Grid North America held a conference Dec. 4 to discuss the microgrid coming to Bronzeville.

“We have a microgrid in place at the university that was started in 2008. We completed the project in 2013 and it has saved the university about a million dollars annually,” Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Initiative at IIT said.“In case of an emergency, we will be able to island the campus. And run the entire university as an islanded operation. So, even if there is a major outage in the neighborhood, in the area, in the vicinity of the university, the university campus will remain in operation.”

Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Initiative at Illinois Tech lays out the the energy innovations at work in the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster at a Dec. 4 conference. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

A microgrid is a smaller power grid that can operate independently, drawing on its own power sources, in this case relying on solar power and solar batteries to serve customers within the area. It can still be connected to the larger electric grid where it can draw or supply energy as needed. The Bronzeville project will connect with an existing microgrid at IIT. Some benefits of microgrids, especially newer smart grids such as the one in Bronzeville, include fewer and shorter power outages, improved monitoring of power usage and, in this case, the use of renewable resources and production of clean energy.

For the next 10 years, Bronzeville will serve as a testing ground. In addition to undergoing a cost-benefit analysis, the microgrid cluster will be evaluated on more than 55 different metrics, including resilience, according to ComEd President and CEO Terence Donnelly.

ComEd President and CEO Terence Donnelly discusses the metrics involved in evaluating the cost and benefits of the Bronzeville microgrid. Chicago, IL. Dec. 4, 2018. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

“How do you measure resilience? It’s more than reliability. It’s more about hardening. It’s more about surviving storms, cyber-attacks, things like that. But we’ve worked with our stakeholders and the [Illinois Commerce Commission] to develop a model of resiliency that we’re looking to measure in Bronzeville,” Donnelly said.

Three aspects of resilience that Donnelly said will be examined are energy system resilience, measuring energy performance and resilience to threats; community resilience, measuring the impacts the project has on the community of Bronzeville; and critical infrastructure resilience, measuring the ability of systems like transportation and communication to withstand and recover from disruptions.

A storm in November with heavy snow and high winds caused power outages for more than 300,000 ComEd customers.

“We haven’t seen an event like that since 1998. And without investing in smart grid over the last five years, this could have been much higher, and we could have seen outages [impacting] 500,000 to 600,000,” Donnelly said.

Over the course of 2011, before ComEd began modernizing its power grid, a total of 14 storms caused 2.8 million power outages. The average time to restore power for each customer was 366 minutes. In 2017, it took an average of 116 minutes to restore power, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. That year, 14 storms shut down power to 901,000 customers.

Questions of Cost

ComEd did not confirm whether the new technology and enhanced energy supply will increase or decrease utility bills for its customers.

“While we haven’t broken out the microgrid’s cost for each of ComEd’s 4 million customers, we know that microgrids have some positive economic impacts, including reducing costs associated with power outages; supporting economic growth, especially in the digital sector; and enabling valuable services to the grid and consumers, such as demand response, real-time pricing, day-ahead pricing, voltage and capacity support,” ComEd Director of Communications Paul Elsberg wrote in an email.

Data from the Department of Energy (DOE) projects that the cost of energy will continue to increase but that future increases will be more gradual post smart grid installation.

The Bronzeville microgrid project received funding from two grants from the Department of Energy (DOE). The first grant for $1.2 million was awarded in September, 2014 to develop and test the microgrid controller, the nerve center that will control the integrated microgrids of Bronzeville and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The second grant of approximately $4 million was to study the integration of solar panels and batteries into the microgrid and requires a matching cost share of $4 million from ComEd and its university, laboratory, and technology partners, said ComEd Communications Director David O’Dowd.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved a $25 million investment by ComEd in the microgrid project in February. Along with the $4 million grant from DOE, the total estimated cost for the microgrid as filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) was $29 million.

The 2011 Electricity Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) laid the groundwork for ComEd to implement annual rate increases to subsidize the estimated $2.6 billion for modernization of the power grid as a whole.

The utility raised its rates by 2.3 percent in June and was scheduled to issue another 8 percent increase in October. However, after a settlement negotiated by the ICC reallocated the cost of transmitting power across high voltage lines, ComEd customers saw the price of energy decrease instead, Crain’s reported. The lower pricing is locked in through May 2019.

Bronzeville, Community of the Future

Bronzeville’s smart grid is one step in a series of smart city developments in the works for the South Side neighborhood. ComEd’s projects include a “Save and Share” app to track energy usage; an electric vehicle mobility program, the ComEd Dash, that serves a seniors’ home in the area; and an energy storage initiative installing batteries for power storage as well as electric vehicle (EV charging stations). The initiative will also include a partnership with Aris Renewable Energy to install street lights outfitted with solar panels and wind turbines and “smart kiosks”, interactive digital displays in high-traffic areas that provide emergency alerts, maps and directions, news and other public information.

“We have a robust partnership with the Bronzeville community advisory council, that’s extremely active,” Donnelly said. “we have many initiatives there, for example, outreach around stem education, an energy academy, an Ideathon. Working with students over four years to expose them to these technologies to learn how to benefit the community.”

Paula Robinson addresses visitors to Bronzeville’s microgrid showcase and job fair, sponsored by ComEd, and held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Courtesy ComEd)

In order to build, maintain, and develop new innovations for Bronzeville’s “Community of the Future,” ComEd and the Bronzeville community advisory group are developing education initiatives focused on STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs in area high schools.

Twelve Bronzeville high schools participated in the partnerships first “Ideathon” in December of last year. High school students attending school in Bronzeville were partnered with college mentors and engineers from ComEd as well as Silver Springs Network, a provider of smart grid products, headquartered in San Jose, California; Accenture, a management and consulting company that works in digital technology, headquartered in Dublin; AECOM, an American engineering firm with multinational projects headquartered in Los Angeles; and others to innovate new products.
The 12 high schools were invited to participate after some feedback from Bronzeville’s Community Development Partnership.

“Initially ComEd said, ‘Well, we’ve got X number of science and math schools that might be interested in this type of Ideathon,’ but the community was like, ‘No, we want all the schools to be involved,’” said Paula Robinson, President of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership. “There were 12 high schools, so all of the high schools were involved.”

Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly of King College Preparatory High School showcase their winning innovation at ComEd’s 2017 Ideathon. (Courtesy ComEd)

Robinson said it is the community partnership’s place to push for a seat at the table, the same as any other stakeholder such as ComEd parent company Exelon, or technology partners Siemens and Lockheed Martin.

“There’s kind of a collaborative self-interest that’s going on here, and that’s a lot to navigate,” Robinson said. “That’s probably where ComEd gets a lot of engagement as well as grief from my organization because we are in some new territory. We are looking at opportunities where the community, beyond advising, can also be what we call innovators. Where we’re co-creating and innovating in this new space as well.”

Teams that made it to the final round pitched ideas to a panel of judges in the “Spark Tank.” King College Prep juniors Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly won with their idea for a microprocessor designed to help prevent accidents when emergency vehicles travel through busy intersections.

The top three teams from King College Prep High School, Young Women’s Leadership Charter School and the De La Salle Institute received prizes of $2,000, $1,000, and $500, respectively.

In blue, the footprint of the Illinois Institute of Technology microgrid, completed in 2013. In red, the footprint of the Bronzeville microgrid, estimated for completion in 2019. The smart grid cluster will be the first of its kind, connecting a university, an urban community, and integrating solar power and battery storage.

The partnership hopes to boost Bronzeville’s economy infusing it with new green energy and smart technology jobs within the community, maintaining the microgrid, wind turbines, solar panels as well as developing new technologies. O’Dowd said the utility estimates that a 10 MW microgrid would create 50 jobs.

In September, ComEd hosted a microgrid showcase and job fair at the IIT campus to raise awareness about the microgrid project, how it might benefit the community, and to inform the community about job opportunities in the energy field and related industries. More than 50 employers participated and more than 200 people attended.

The microgrid area will run from 33rd Street to the North, 38th Street to the South, State Street to the West, and South Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Drive to the East. It will serve the Chicago Public Safety Headquarters, the De La Salle Institute, the Math & Science Academy, a library, a public works building, restaurants, health clinics, public transportation, educational centers and churches.

Photo at top: I-90, Bronzeville and the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago’s South Side.



By Jillian Melero, Dec. 16, 2018 –

The Greenland ice sheet is more than three times the size of Texas, 2 miles deep at its thickest point. And it’s melting.

Not only is it melting, but it’s melting at a rate not seen in 400 years, according to a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in April. The study involved taking short ice core samples and examining the surface layers of snow to find out how much melting had occurred.

In some places, it’s melting 250 percent faster – in others 575 percent faster than it has over the last 20 years compared to pre-industrial times, according to a study published in the international science journal Nature in early December.

If the Greenland ice sheet (GriS) melts away completely, it will raise sea levels by more than 20 feet, according to the National Snow- and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The Nature study, by researcher and lead author Luke Trusel, outlined the rapidly increasing melt rate of the GriS, as measured through similar ice core samples, and correlated that data using satellite observations and modeling. Trusel works at the Cryosphere &Climate Lab at Rowan University in New Jersey.

The study found that global temperature alone was not the only contributing factor to the rapid melt. Other factors that are symptoms of global warming, such as algae and soot traveling through the air and becoming trapped in the ice, have changed the color of the ice from white to a darker, more heat-absorbent shade, contributing to the rapid melting.

Geologists and researchers such as Trusel study the history of these ancient icy masses to try and gain key understanding of what has happened before and what is happening now so they can better predict what will happen in the coming years and how it impacts the places and ways that we live today.

The annual Comer Climate Conference gathers climate scientists, geologists and researchers from universities around the country to Wisconsin each fall. These experts spend two days reviewing the work they’ve done — studying the history of geological changes and climate impacts in the past to better understand the pressures these systems are under today, and how they might react in the future.

“We as a society are recognizing that one of the primary controls of the changes in water level of the ocean are the freshwater that is locked up in ice sheets – and the last great ice sheet came and went but that was responsible for something on the order of 85 meters of sea level change,” said Tom Lowell, professor of glacial and Quaternary geology (from approximately 2.6 million years ago to the present) at the University of Cincinnati. “[Sea level] went down and came back up in a rapid [pace] – it didn’t go in a symmetrical pattern. So the point is, how fast can sea level go up? And what are the sources of that?” he asked at the conference.

To find the answers to these questions, some researchers look into the history of the long gone ice sheets, such as the Laurentide, that once covered North America.

Tom Lowell presented his research on the reorganization of ice sheets and the massive sea level rise when ice sheets melt at the annual Comer Climate Conference in Southwestern Wisconsin this fall.  (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

The Laurentide Ice Sheet (LIS) stretched across Canada and much of the northern United States more than 20,000 years ago.  The motion and retreat of this massive glacier carved out the Great Lakes, as it slid across the continent, gouging out basins, that it would later fill as it melted.

The movement of the ice sheets or continental glaciers have formed the lands and waters that we live on today. And as these processes repeat or accelerate, they will also reshape the landscapes of our future.

Lowell presented his research on the Laurentide at the annual Comer Climate Conference in Wisconsin in October.

“I would argue that if you really want to understand how to kill off an ice sheet, you’d want to go to ice sheets that are no longer with us, and that is the basis for my long interest in the Laurentide ice sheet,” Lowell said.  “I would also argue that our understanding of the Laurentide, which is the largest one of those puppies, is less well understood than it seems.”

Some of the mystery around the Laurentide can be seen in the varying pattern of seams visible within the ice sheet.   At the end of the last glacial maximum (LGM) – when glaciers reached their furthest extent between 26,000 and 21,000 years ago – the Laurentide covered an area of more than 5 million square miles and was up to 2 miles thick in some places. When the Laurentide began to melt and recede, it’s estimated to have raised sea levels by approximately 85 meters, or more than 278 feet.

All that remains of the Laurentide today is a single ice cap the size of Delaware, the Barnes ice cap, in the Canadian Arctic.

Lowell’s presentation “Reorganizing Ice Sheets” examined the Laurentide and identified periods of separation and reformation of the ice sheet. Different sections of the ice slid in different directions at different times at different speeds before coming back together and solidifying again. But the causes of these drifts, the rate at which they occurred, and the reasons they took the directions they did are still unknown. But finding these answers can give us some insights as to how fast ice sheets can melt today as climate change accelerates global warming.

An image of the Western Lobes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Patterns in the ice show that different segments moved in different directions at different rates, at different times before solidifying again.

“The point that I really want to drive across here is Greenland, at its last glacial maximum was bigger than it is today, but Greenland will get lost in this [the Laurentide]. According to my modeling friends, the uncertainty of the Laurentide is the same sea level equivalent as Greenland,” Lowell said. “Think about that for a second. If you want to reconstruct former sea level rises, [what’s the uncertainty of the estimate of] this puppy we don’t know [points to the Laurentide] to the same volume as that guy [points to Greenland].”

Brenda Hall is a professor with the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. Her research focuses on the cause of ice ages, and of rapid climate change, as well as the stability of ice sheets to help predict where – and how fast – climate change can impact ice sheets today. Hall has research projects in the Antarctic, South America, and Greenland, and presented her research on the Antarctic ice sheet at the Comer Conference in October.

“I can divide the work I do between two main themes,” Hall said. “One being trying to understand abrupt climate change on a variety of different time scales, and then the other part of the work, which is really what I was presenting on today is how do we understand the stability of ice sheets that exist on Earth and their potential to cause changes in sea level.”

Brenda Hall, a professor with the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, presented her research on the history of the Antarctic ice sheet at the Comer Climate Conference in Southwestern Wisconsin this fall. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

The Antarctic ice sheet has two main components. The larger East Antarctic ice sheet is a land-based ice sheet. If it were to melt, it could raise sea levels by 50-55 meters or 164 – 180 feet, but it’s thought to be relatively stable, Hall explained.

In contrast, the smaller West Antarctic ice sheet isconsidered less stable. It’s on land that is largely below sea level, and because of that, it’s thought to be susceptible to rapid collapse. If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse, it would raise global sea levels by 4 meters, or more than 13 feet, inundating many islands and coastal cities. Because of its perceived instability, there is concern about this ice sheet, as well as portions of the East Antarctic ice sheet, Hall said.

“Glaciers that end in the ocean have a very different response to climate change, than glaciers that end on land. And we have suspicion that that is telling us something about the different mechanisms that are controlling the glaciers.” Hall said she will be returning to the Antarctic to continue her research within the next year. “This time we’re really taking a close look at behavior of marine-terminating glaciers versus the ones that are ending on land,” Hall said.

Ultimately, much of the research has led to more questions. Both Lowell and Hall said that one of the greatest misconceptions about their work is that things are “all figured out.” And sometimes these general misunderstandings can lead others to make to some risky conclusions.

“I think there sometimes is a misconception about changes in the past,” Hall said. “There are times in the past when it’s been warmer than today, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s sometimes a misconception that if there are warm times in the past, then somehow warming now isn’t bad.”

Hall’s concerned that this assumption can lead to complacency or to behaviors that could contribute to climate change and rapid ice sheet deterioration, such as what we’re now seeing in Greenland’s ice sheet. Melting ice sheets mean escalating sea level rise.

“There’s natural climate variability, but there’s also man-made climate variability which will be superimposed on whatever the natural climate cycle is. And, we don’t really understand the natural climate cycle, so we don’t even know if we’d have the potential to trigger something that we don’t know about,” Hall said.  “So, that’s the biggest misconception is in the public is, yes there’s natural climate variability, and yes there are times when it’s been warmer in the past, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for it to get warm now because of what we might be doing.”

Photo at top: (L-R) Scott Braddock, Brenda Hall, Paul Koch, Rachel Brown, Audra Norvaisa, Jon Nye formed a research team working in the McMurdo Sound Region of Antarctica. (photo from University of Maine School of Earth and Climate Science)



By Jillian Melero, Nov. 15, 2018 –

Climate change is rapidly taking the world as we know it into uncharted territory. What we do next and how quickly we do it can shape the degree to which  changes are catastrophic – with an escalation in wildfires, drought, flooding, food shortages, and severe storms – or advantageous – with investments in renewable energy and innovation. We are seeing some of both already.

The latest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, gives us a time-frame of 12 years to cut global emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels and stay below the tipping point of 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) global temperature rise. The report was based on the work of 133 scientists and other authors and more than 6,000 peer-reviewed research articles. The Paris Agreement, from which the Trump administration has withdrawn the U.S., set the 1.5-degree limit as an urgent limit in 2015 with the support of 194 countries.

“Everybody talks about the Paris Convention – we can’t heat the Earth more than 1.5 degrees. So what are you gonna do?” asked Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker in an interview during October’s annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin, “Is there a magic switch you pull? Boom! We stop raising CO2 and the Earth cools and it doesn’t warm anymore? Forget it!” Broecker said.

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