GOING GREEN MAKES COMMON CENTS

GOING GREEN MAKES COMMON CENTS

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by Jennifer Draper
Nov 14, 2014IMG_0911

“Green” often means cold hard cash – or eco-friendly options. But climate scientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University says that dealing with climate change reaps green for both meanings of the word. 

This fall, Alley and other leading climate scientists met to build a clearer understanding of earth’s climate history at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference.

Their efforts to identify natural climate variations in the past are shedding clues on the current patterns of climate change. And that can point the way to solutions with both environmental and economic benefits, Alley says. 

From Jeff Severinghaus’ research about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide to Nicholas Young’s analysis of glaciation on Baffin Island, scientists at the conference span the world and eons of time for their research. By collecting the fingerprints of ancient air pockets or long lost glaciers and constructing models from their findings, they piece together the climate puzzle. At the conference, Comer scientists presented their latest work—on glaciers, oceans and dust—to show what we know, how much more there is to learn, and why we should cash in on the solutions now.

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Video Credits: Produced by Jennifer Draper/MEDILL. Videography/MEDILL. Splash image/Courtesy of George Denton. Sunset photo/A. Foerstner. Global temperature map/NASA.

Photo at top: Sheep graze in front of the research camp site near the Lower Eg River in Mongolia where Comer climate scientist Aaron Putnam, a Columbia University geochemist, teamed up with biologist Olaf Jensen of Rutger’s University this summer to understand Mongolia’s past and current climate and clues they reveal for global climate models. (Jennifer Draper/Medill)

Photos at right: A rainbow appears above a ger at base camp in July near the Lower Eg River in Mongolia. This location was the first in several fieldwork sites. (Jennifer Draper/Medill)  Putnam points out a petroglyph in the rocks near the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. He and his research team collected samples of granite boulders to track the rise and retreat of ancient glaciers. That way, Putnam can pinpoint past climate changes to help predict what’s in store for us now. (Jennifer Draper/Medill)
 

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Rauner administration mum on energy agenda

(Argonne National Laboratory) Previous state legislation calls for Illinois to generate 25 percent of Illinois energy from renewables by 2025.
(Argonne National Laboratory)
Previous state legislation calls for Illinois to generate 25 percent of Illinois energy from renewables by 2025.

By Bryce Gray

Illinois energy priorities remain vague as Republican governor Bruce Rauner begins his term. Although Rauner occasionally hinted at his energy agenda while campaigning, he has not yet tipped his hand on statewide issues such as alternative fuels, carbon emissions or nuclear power since taking office.

“There’s more that we don’t know than we do know,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club’s Illinois Chapter. “Gov. Rauner did not speak much to energy issues during his campaign except as it relates to extraction,” said Darin, alluding to Rauner’s vocal campaign support for Illinois-based fracking and coal mining.

With state fracking regulations approved in November, energy companies can seek permits to drill.

While Darin characterized fracking and coal mining as areas of “great concern” for environmentalists, he does not expect Rauner’s energy policy to solely aid fossil fuel production within the state.

“He recognizes the state’s responsibility to come up with a plan to reduce carbon pollution,” said Darin. “Those are encouraging words. The test will be whether or not Gov. Rauner realizes the job creation potential and the economic investment that can be made by investing in clean energy for Illinois’ future.”

President Barack Obama identified climate change as a national security priority in his State of the Union address last week, and touted America’s growing renewable energy sector as a key to environmental and economic improvement.

“The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe,” Obama said. “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”

Meanwhile, the state’s energy outlook calls for balance in a report issued earlier this month by Rauner’s transition committee.

The transition report doesn’t outline intended carbon cuts, but calls for developing a 10-year energy plan that “balances traditional energy, renewable energy, and energy efficiency; improves investment in energy infrastructure; and supports innovation in the energy sector.”

Energy efficiency was a particular area of emphasis, with the committee citing it as “one of the most cost-effective energy strategies, since reducing energy usage costs far less than creating new generating capacity.”

The Environmental Law and Policy Center, based in Chicago, took an optimistic interpretation of the energy plan outlined by the transition committee report.

“The Rauner Administration’s transition plans encourage Illinois policy actions to accelerate renewable energy and advance energy efficiency that are positive solutions to climate change problems,” said Howard Learner, center executive director, in a statement. “This is a smart investment path to diversify Illinois’ energy supplies, achieve better reliability, create more jobs and reduce pollution for a cleaner Illinois energy future.”

The diversified energy portfolio Rauner is expected to pursue was reflected by the transition team’s subcommittee focusing on energy, co-chaired by executives from the not-for-profit Clean Energy Trust and Marathon Petroleum.

Under state legislation passed in 2007, the state has committed to a threshold of 25 percent renewable energy usage by 2025. That level presently stands at just 15 to 16 percent according to Gabriela Martin, renewable energy program officer for the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

“We’re about 10 years and 10 percentage points away,” said Martin. “We’ve got a ways to go.”

Various state Republican officials could not be reached for comment. Co-chairs of the transition team energy committee were also unable to comment for this story.

Fault lines: Earthquakes from collapsing glaciers add to sea level rise

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by Anna Bisaro
Oct 24, 2013

Icebergs the size of Manhattan’s Central Park break off of Greenland’s outlying glaciers and trigger earthquakes that can be detected thousands of miles away. About half of the mass lost from Greenland every year is due to these earthquakes.

Greenland icebergs Source/credit:   Gary Comer
Greenland icebergs
Source/credit:
Gary Comer

Seismologist Meredith Nettles of Columbia University monitors the force of the earthquakes and knows they are increasing in number.

While these earthquakes won’t knock any buildings down, they are tearing away at the ice mountains of the glaciers. And, with more recorded every year, that’s cause for alarm, Nettles said. The increasing number of quakes is adding to rising global sea levels, she told top climate scientists gathered at the annual Comber Abrupt Climate Change Conference this month in Wisconsin.

Nettles goes to Greenland year after year for stints of field research that show the increasing glacial calving in Greenland that causes glacial earthquakes.

The earthquakes themselves contribute to the collapse of the glaciers and sea level rise, according to Nettles.

“We had the same number of earthquakes that we have by now last year in early December,” she said. “So we’re more than a month ahead of schedule.”

“GLACIAL EARTHQUAKES”

Nettles said combining her study of earthquakes and climate change happened by accident. A seismologist by training, in 2003 Nettles started to notice seismic activity coming from Greenland, but the signals were not indicative of normal earthquakes.

“We didn’t’ know what they were when we first saw them,” Nettles said of the phenomena she termed glacial earthquakes. “Maybe we would have chosen a different name.”

research shows the number will be record-breaking this year. Click on graphic to enlarge. Source/credit:   Meredith Nettles
research shows the number will be record-breaking this year. Click on graphic to enlarge.
Source/credit:
Meredith Nettles

Traditional earthquakes occur with a massive release of energy as tectonic plates move past each other along a fault. This type of quake can happen in glaciers if walls of the ice move past each other along a fault, and Nettles said these quakes are aptly termed ice quakes.

Nettles described glacial earthquakes to be more like landslides except instead of large rocks falling, they are icebergs breaking off from the edge of an outlet glacier into the ocean. The seismic waves occur when the icebergs break off.

As glaciers move across a calving margin – the point at which the ice breaks– the pressure on the ice becomes too great and an iceberg breaks off. The earthquakes happen when the calving line of an iceberg is close to the grounding line. The grounding line is like a foundation for the glacier, the boundary between the rock underneath the glacier and the ocean. When the retreating glacier’s calving front is close to the grounding line, earthquakes result.

“Those calving lines have retreated closer and closer into Greenland,” Nettles said. “More and more of them are moving across grounding lines and starting to generate earthquakes.”

  Meredith Nettles presents research findings at Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin this month. Source/credit:    Anna Bisaro/MEDILL

Meredith Nettles presents research findings at Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin this month.
Source/credit:
Anna Bisaro/MEDILL

The icebergs that break off may be the size of a cubic kilometer, or the equivalent of the size of New York City’s Central Park, with the height of the Empire State Building.

“It’s so big that it’s really hard to visualize,” Nettles said.

Most of the icebergs that break off are about that size. A cubic kilometer equates to a giga-ton, or one billion tons of water.

Traditional earthquakes have been studied for more than 100 years and Nettles admits the limitations in making conclusions based on her research because glacial earthquakes have not been studied for very long.

“We have a basic idea of how it works, but we’re really far from having the understanding that we have of those [tectonic] earthquakes,” Nettles said.

Once Nettles and her team figured out where the seismic waves came from, their mission shifted to figuring out the effects of the quakes on the glaciers themselves, and then the greater implications for the planet.

SEA LEVELS RISING

The latest U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report estimates global sea levels will rise up to 3.3 feet by 2100 with high carbon fuel emission levels, more than 50 percent higher than the estimate in the previous report. That’s enough to swamp coastal regions and island countries. Sea levels could rise about 1 to 2 feet even with significant emisssions reductions, the report estimates. But the projections of sea level by the IPCC are actually very uncertain, according to Nettles. Part of the uncertainty comes from not knowing how many icebergs will break from the glaciers in Greenland, Nettles said. These icebergs make large contributions to sea level rise.

“Everything we have done in society now has really been optimized for a very particular climate and a very particular sea level,” Nettles said. “Even if you don’t live on the coasts, there will be an impact in your life from changing sea level.”

Nettles explained the importance acknowledged that a drop in sea level would present its own suite of problems as well.

“There’s a lot of ice there [Greenland]. Understanding how fast that ice can come out of the ice sheet and go into the ocean is important,” Nettles said. About half of the ice lost from Greenland is from these earthquakes. “In other ways these earthquakes are really nice. No one feels them, they don’t knock any buildings down.”

Calving of the Helheim Glacier in Greenland. Source/credit:   Comer Conference
Calving of the Helheim Glacier in Greenland.
Source/credit:
Comer Conference

SPEEDING GLACIERS

From 2003 to 2006 Nettles and her team collected data on these glacial earthquakes. By 2005, they started to notice a great increase in the number of quakes every year as well as an increase in the speed of the glaciers experiencing the quakes.

Because of the trends seen in the data, Nettles felt a great sense of urgency in finding out more about what was happening with these glacial earthquakes in Greenland and quickly applied for grants to be able to start more closely monitored research and fieldwork on the glaciers.

The five years of data collected from 2006 to 2010 has been analyzed and used to attempt to understand the affects of the glacial earthquakes on the glaciers themselves.

As the iceberg accelerates and breaks off, it triggers a reaction force on the glacier. The reaction force, in addition to causing seismic waves, also causes the glacier to accelerate in the opposite direction. That force is increasing too because ice loss from the glacier is the greatest contributor to short-term velocity, Nettles said.

To measure the change in velocity of the glaciers, Nettles uses GPS data.

Columbia University geochemist, Wallace Broecker, a climate change expert, asked Nettles during her presentation if the ice cores of the glaciers contribute to heat flow of the glaciers, thus affecting the movement. Nettles responded that she and other scientists believe ice cores do affect the heat flow, but how is beyond their level of understanding right now. The information will be integrated into the final model of the moving and quaking glaciers.

Quantifying the size of glacier that moves or the distance earthquakes is another story. From the seismic stations around the world, Nettles cannot tell if the entire glacier moves a couple meters or if a smaller mass moves a greater distance as a result of the quake.

It is clear that glaciers do speed up as a result of the earthquakes. While the speed that glacier moves as a result of the quake remains consistent there is no direct relationship between the size of the quake and how much faster the glacier will move as a result.

Right now Nettles and her team cannot predict how fast a glacier will move in response to a quake, no matter the size of it. At this point, they can only provide a range of how much faster the glacier will move given the size of the iceberg and glacier.

“It would be simple if you could say the bigger the ice loss the bigger the speed up,” she said. “It is not at all consistent.”

Nettles showed in her presentation how the biggest and smallest speed-ups that happened as a result of glacial earthquakes actually came from the two largest earthquakes, proving that there is no direct correlation between size and speed. Other factors like thickness of the glacier and melting rate.

In addition to the speed of the glacier as a result of the quake, climate scientist Klaus Lackner wanted to know the velocity of the seismic waves in the ice. You can measure velocity of seismic waves in rock, so why not ice, Lackner wondered.

Nettles said that because the ice is only a few kilometers thick – a fact they know from extensive prior research – scientists can only measure the velocity of very high frequency waves in ice.

QUAKES INCREASING

Since the 1990’s the number of glacial earthquakes in Greenland have been increasing in number according to Nettles, but it is important to keep that increasing number in perspective.

“You want to make sure you don’t have an apparent but artificial increase in the numbers that comes from being better able to detect the earthquakes,” Nettles said. Nettles said it is important to account for bias when looking at older data of the earthquakes that may come from the equipment simply not being as good as it is today.

“Presumably these kinds of earthquakes have been happening all along,” Nettles said. “But the increase in number that we see, in the sense that it is related to the retreat of the ice, and the retreat of the ice is linked to changes in the atmosphere and the oceans, whatever’s happening in the climate system affects what that ice is doing.”

Nettles said warmer ocean water and warmer temperature cause retreat of the glaciers. As the glacier melts it gets thinner and then calves faster, she said. The evidence that the number of glacial earthquakes is increasing due to climate change. But without data from further back than 1980, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that this phenomena may have occurred anyway.

TRACKING CARBON DIOXIDE AND CLIMATE — IT’S ALL IN THE FAMILY

Chris Bentley/MEDILL Second generation climate scientist Ralph Keeling warns that the spectacular rise in carbon dioxide levels caused by burning fossil fuels could be trivial compared to what's to come.
Chris Bentley/MEDILL
Second generation climate scientist Ralph Keeling warns that the spectacular rise in carbon dioxide levels caused by burning fossil fuels could be trivial compared to what’s to come.

Climate scientist Ralph Keeling was born alongside the modern environmental movement.

His father, geochemist Charles David Keeling, had just begun an ambitious project to measure carbon dioxide in the air at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. His initial results were the first to bring attention to rising levels of CO2 and, by 1960, he famously linked the greenhouse gas to fossil fuel consumption and provided seminal evidence for global warming.

By the time Ralph went into the family business, his father’s experiment had sparked an environmental movement by bringing global attention to the fact that human activity could substantially affect the composition of the atmosphere.

Today, the saw-toothed upswing of the Keeling Curve of  CO2  is practically synonymous with the public’s vision of climate change. The rise in the gas has been relentless, and so has the father-son team in measuring it — atmospheric concentrations had risen from 312 parts per million in 1956 to almost 380 when Ralph took over supervision of the project after his father died in 2005. Meanwhile, he had undertaken his own venture to measure atmospheric oxygen concentrations — the other side of Earth’s natural respiration.

Ralph Keeling put his work into perspective Monday as the keynote speaker at Northwestern University’s second annual climate change symposium. His address entitled “Rising CO2: A Never Ending Story?” paid homage to his father, who received his PhD in chemistry from Northwestern in 1954. Both Keelings conducted the bulk of their research for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

The other side of CO2
The other side of CO2

“What we’ve seen so far, while spectacular, is tiny compared to what we could see,” Ralph Keeling said about the unpredictable nature of future climate change. His measurements of oxygen — taken at nine stations around the world since 1989 — decline in a zig-zag that is almost a mirror image of the rise in CO2. Except that the changes are tiny compared to the total amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.

While the depletion of oxygen isn’t significant enough to be an environmental problem itself, Keeling said, the rates of change tell us about how land and the oceans remove CO2 from the atmosphere. The ocean acts like a sponge for excess carbon dioxide, neutralizing the acidic compound and burying it deep underwater, without releasing oxygen in exchange. On the other hand, plants and other organic stocks of carbon on land are oxygen sources.

“Land uptake is not a very secure method of storing CO2 — ocean uptake is more long-term,” Keeling said. He added that in emitting greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels, humans rely on these ocean sinks to carry out natural mitigation at no cost. “It behooves us to know what the natural sinks are doing,” he added, because if we don’t, “we are not in a position to gauge the effectiveness of the measures we take.”

Understanding exactly how and how much the ocean buffers the greenhouse gas effect is also important, he said, because changing the trajectory of CO2’s atmospheric concentration has profound effects on the sinks that absorb it.

For many marine organisms, those effects are already evident. In addition to a lower pH, ocean creatures have to endure an environment that is becoming increasingly carbon-rich and oxygen-poor. “Biology in the ocean is facing at least three separate challenges all tied to rising CO2 in the air,” Keeling said.

Ancient air pockets preserved in ice cores from the Arctic and Antarctic show that COlevels stablized below about 300 parts per million for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution. They are now at 390 ppm.

Climate needs cathedral builders, Keeling concluded. He borrowed a conceptual plot from social science research to make the point. He charted the immediacy of gratification against the number of people benefitting from an activity. While it is easy to please small numbers of people on short time scales, he said, it is gets increasingly difficult to motivate actions that require large numbers of people and won’t payoff for a very long time. Keeling pointed out that “cathedral building” is a formidable task that inspires high levels of motivation despite a seemingly far-off gain. “The payoff is in the afterlife, in some sense,” he said, “but people did build cathedrals.”

The university sponsored the symposium in collaboration with the department of Earth & Planetary Sciences; the Environmental Science, Engineering and Policy Program; the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture; and the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

TOP CLIMATE SCIENTISTS WELCOME THEIR NEXT GENERATION

Gordon Bromley PhD student Gordon Bromley of the University of Maine takes a sample of a rock for surface-exposure dating that will shed clues on the retreat of glaciers and climate change.
Gordon Bromley
PhD student Gordon Bromley of the University of Maine takes a sample of a rock for surface-exposure dating that will shed clues on the retreat of glaciers and climate change.

by Kristofor Husted
Oct 22, 2010

Conversations about rising oceans, shifting monsoons, glacial quakes and climate change past and present animated the group gathered round a bonfire in the middle of the rolling hills of Wisconsin.  

A three-piece string band softly plucked and strummed away in the late summer warmth. Pennsylvania State geoscientist Richard Alley joined them with his guitar.  Several other scientists hopped in with banjo, guitar, and accordion.

Gordon Bromley PhD student Gordon Bromley of the University of Maine drills a rock in Peru for samples to date glacial retreat and fill in clues on climate change.
Gordon Bromley
PhD student Gordon Bromley of the University of Maine drills a rock in Peru for samples to date glacial retreat and fill in clues on climate change.

Alley and other scientists core ice from glaciers and sediment from the ocean floor. They study fluctuations in temperatures and carbon concentrations in ancient air pockets, rock and fossilized shells to determine points when climate can shift.  

A picnic and the bonfire brought everyone beneath the stars after two days of shared research at the 2010 Comer  Conference on abrupt climate change.

One set of scientists looked a little different than the veterans, though: younger and with a propensity to lie in the grass instead of sitting at the picnic tables. These next generation scientists may not look like their maestro colleagues, but they earned their stripes at the conference.

Lands’ End founder Gary Comer began these conferences in 2004 to gather together scientists doing research he helped fund because of his passion to understand our planet’s changing climate.

It all started with his own eureka moment when sailing the Northwest Passage in 2001. There should have been more ice in the sea that summer – lots more. Where was it? His daughter Stephanie Comer accompanied him on the trip along with several other family and friends on board.

“This is wrong. What’s going on?” she recalls him saying.

Once Comer returned home, he searched for answers from geoscientist Wally Broecker of Columbia University.  Their eventual collaboration germinated a partnership between Comer and top climate change scientists across the country. Millions of dollars in funding allowed them to mentor  a new generation of climate change scientists through fellowships.

Adam Hudson PhD student Adam Hudson of the University of Arizona uses radiocarbon dating to reconstruct past lake levels in western Tibet.
Adam Hudson
PhD student Adam Hudson of the University of Arizona uses radiocarbon dating to reconstruct past lake levels in western Tibet.

Now, Comer funding provides seed money that allows promising young scientists to complete the initial research that attracts additional support.

When Comer died in 2006, Stephanie and her brother, Guy, took over their father’s cause.  They continue to work with Broecker, as well as Titan climate researchers George Denton of the University of Maine, Alley and numerous other scientists, to fund young researchers. This year, more than any other, a team of new faces gathered with them.

“It’s really wonderful to see so many new faces.  And they’re young and thrilled to be around people that are so well respected in the field,” said Stephanie Comer.

Broecker, Denton and Alley, who help coordinate the conference, echoed her feelings.

Broecker is excited about the work of young scientists such as Irene Schimmelpfennig, apostdoctoral research fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia. Schimmelpfennig keeps her coppery long locks firmly pulled away from her face and uses Earth isotopes generated by cosmic rays to date rocks and the periods across time when they may have been buried by glaciers.  

Basically, by taking a humble piece of rock and calculating the ratio between isotopes, such as carbon-14 and berrylium-10, she can estimate how long that rock has been exposed.  This is important when determining how long ago the glaciers retreated in an area and the climate conditions that caused them to lumber away.

“You’re putting together pieces of a puzzle” to get the chronology just right, Denton said. From that, scientists can develop a hypothesis on how all the pieces match up and produce climate change, critical pieces for models assessing likely climate change impacts today.

“This gives us a clue as to the way it all interacts that we don’t get when we just look at ten years of a climate record, or 100 years of a climate record,” Denton said.  “If we look at 100,000 years of a climate record in real detail we can see all the possibilities of climate change and how everything interacts around the world.”

Chris Bentley First time Comer Conference attendees (l to r) Irene Schimmelpfennig, Gordon Bromley, Adam Hudson report research findings to  veteran colleagues. But the end of the day meant time for comaraderie surrounded by scenic bluffs and hills.
Chris Bentley
First time Comer Conference attendees (l to r) Irene Schimmelpfennig, Gordon Bromley, Adam Hudson report research findings to veteran colleagues. But the end of the day meant time for comaraderie surrounded by scenic bluffs and hills.

Adam Hudson, a University of Arizona PhD candidate with surfer blonde hair, is also helping to reconstruct the past. Hudson studies the Ngangla Ring, a lake in the western part of the Tibetan Plateau.  Through radiocarbon dating, Hudson chronicles the past lake levels and precipitation patterns during different climate cycles. This information is also crucial in putting together the timeline of climate change events.

As a first timer to the conference, Hudson said he was most eager to meet Broecker.

“This may be one of the most exciting conferences I’ve ever been to. It’s only two days long and it cuts right to the chase.  Every talk was interesting and really cutting edge science.  You’ve got the best names in climate science here,” he said.

Across from Hudson sat University of Maine PhD student Gordon Bromley, a Brit.  Bromley’s research uses glacial geology to examine paleoclimate records in the tropics. He hopes to characterize the natural climate variability in the tropics and see which areas are most vulnerable to future climate change.

Recently, Bromley descended from field work on a Peruvian mountain, turned on his computer, and found an email waiting from Broecker asking him to please come to the Comer conference.  Thrilled with the invite, Bromley said he looked forward to hearing renowned scientists such as Broecker, Denton, Larry Edwards of the University of Minnesota and Ray Pierrehummbert of the University of Chicago.  

“You get very star struck here.  I’ve met people (here) that when I was doing my undergrad degree, I would read their papers,” Bromley said.

Bromley, along with several other attendees, said he believes he and others are part of a trend of burgeoning interest in climate science among young researchers.

“With the increase in funding going into the system for climate change (research), university faculty are able to carry more students and I was one of them,” he said.

The Comer Science and Education Foundation continues to help fund climate change research.  Schimmelpfennig, Hudson and Bromley were among those offered seed money to join the quest for answers.  This funding often leads to other grants they couldn’t receive without the seminal research.

“It’s really mentoring younger scientists.  I don’t know if that was explicitly put forth when my dad developed this.  Certainly he always wanted to encourage younger people to go out and become scientists.  It’s been really wonderful to see,” Stephanie Comer said.

As the night grew darker, the pastel amphitheater of sunset faded and the bonfire lit the cheerful faces engrossed in discussions that continue the conference presentations.The groups mixed –  a few people at a time – every few minutes into a swirl of different scientific backgrounds, working together to establish the chronology of past climate change events in order to provide a more predictable future on what a warming climate holds in store.

THE SCIENCE IS SOLID YET MORE QUESTION GLOBAL WARMING

 

by Marita Vera

Marita Vera/MEDILL Fewer people believe that global warming is real, according to the most recent survey of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Marita Vera/MEDILL
Fewer people believe that global warming is real, according to the most recent survey of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Nov 10, 2009

At the Climate Change Symposium hosted by Northwestern University Thursday, scientists showed how dramatically shrinking glaciers and rising carbon dioxide levels document a warming planet.

Keynote speaker Lonnie Thompson, a leading glaciologist and Ohio State University professor, said that many people have yet to witness an immediate change in their environments. “Temperatures have risen by 0.75 degrees Celsius in the last hundred years,” he said. That may not sound like much but it means that glaciers across the world are receding, with rising coastal waters and severe storms demonstrating the impact.

Yet a recent survey of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press shows that 57 percent of Americans, compared to 71 percent a year ago, think there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past decades.

THE FUNDAMENTAL PHYSICS OF CARBON DIOXIDE

NASA photo
NASA photo
Eric Skalac/MEDILL
Scientists at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference talk about the role of carbon dioxide in global warming. Geochemist Sidney Hemming of Columbia University kicks off the discussion of the fundamental physics you can use to make your own decision about climate change. The earth’s atmosphere, stunning from on high, is none-the-less collecting greenhouse gases that drive up global temperatures. The NASA photograph above was taken over the Hawaiian Islands from the  International Space Station. 

by Eric P. Skalac
Nov 09, 2010

Human-driven climate change remains a controversial topic, but some scientific facts about it are beyond controversy. At the recent Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference, three scientists stressed the importance of understanding one such fact: the proven greenhouse effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) collecting in the Earth’s atmosphere. The greenhouse effect means that CO2, emitted in large quantities by burning fossil fuels, traps heat and is raising temperature across the globe.

“I think one thing that escapes common attention, is that it is warming because there are more greenhouse gases, CO2 in particular, and that those essentially trap infrared radiation. they prevent heat from being radiated out,” said atmospheric physicist William Boos of Yale University.

Klaus Lackner, physicist and a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, is developing technology that would remove carbon from the atmosphere.

“The remarkable conclusion is that no matter how you look at it, sooner or later you will have to stabilize the CO2 in the atmosphere at some level. It practically means that we have to drop back in CO2 emissions to practically nothing,” he said.

Like Lackner, Columbia geochemist Sidney Hemming believes that rising levels of carbon dioxide are an obvious and serious problem.

“It’s physics. It’s not arguable that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas. It seems to me that there’s no question that CO2 is rising,” she said. Once you understand the physics of the gas, “then you pretty much have to accept that raising the constituent is going to raise the temperature,” she said.  

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.”

SMALL ORGANISMS PAINT BIG PICTURE

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by Lauren Biron
Dec 07, 2010

Humble diatoms, single-celled organisms that live in the water, help scientists piece together some of the mysteries of climate change.

Courtesy of Anitra Ingalls Diatoms, single-celled organisms, are key to oceanographer Anitra Ingalls' new dating technique to pin down climate changes through past ages.
Courtesy of Anitra Ingalls
Diatoms, single-celled organisms, are key to oceanographer Anitra Ingalls’ new dating technique to pin down climate changes through past ages.

Researcher Anitra Ingalls, of the University of Washington, uses diatoms in a new method for dating sediment cores and finding layered traces of past climate epochs.  She reported her findings at the Comer Conference, a gathering of top climate change scientists in Wisconsin this fall.

By analyzing the changing accumulation in levels of diatoms, scientists can trace the biological productivity throughout time and predict periods when the climate warmed. This gives clues to climate changes in the Southern Ocean where she is working.

With a more accurate history of the earth’s climate, scientists may be able to make better predictions about the future of climate change as global warming accelerates due to human use of fossil fuels.


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