By Janice Cantieri – Nov. 8, 2016, Election Day.

“If you want to name things that could really bring down civilization, nuclear bombs are one, but I think CO2 has all the seeds of that,” said pioneering climate scientist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University. “You’re going to see enormous problems with that, I mean political problems, every kind of problem you can imagine. And it’s the kind of thing that could bring the world down, make a war. It’s enormous.”

For scientists, climate change—largely overlooked in the 2016 election battles —remains one of the most important issues at stake on Election Day.

Pioneering climate scientist Wallace Broecker said a failure to reduce carbon emissions is likely to lead to increased conflict in the world as people struggle for water and other resources.(Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)

The election’s outcome could impact how quickly and to what degree the U.S. reduces emissions of CO2, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Constantly released in fossil fuel emissions, CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere and causes global warming. Strong world leaders, including the U.S. president, must take the issue seriously for any action on the issue to be effective, Broecker said in an interview at a climate conference earlier in fall.

“What we as citizens can do contributes, but it doesn’t get anywhere near solving the problem,” Broecker said. “It basically boils down to having a leader who wants to get it done and, you know, Trump is not going to want to even think about CO2.”

Swift action is needed to avoid some of the most severe consequences of global temperature rise, which include sea level rise, flooding, droughts and food shortages, Broecker said at the Comer Abrupt Climate Conference in Wisconsin this fall.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax,” and tweeted that it was a “concept created by and for the Chinese.”


UPDATE: This story was originally published before the presidential election results were in. In the weeks following the election, Donald Trump said he would keep an open mind about climate change. Trump and his daughter Ivanka met with former Vice President Al Gore on climate change. Gore is the author of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 book that warned about the dangers of human-forced climate change and the need to take immediate action to curb it.

While climate change has not been at the top of her political agenda, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton proposes building 500 million photovoltaic solar panels by 2020, a solar power increase of more than 700 percent from current levels. She plans on “making America the world’s clean energy superpower and creating millions of good-paying jobs, taking bold steps to slash carbon pollution at home and around the world,” according to her campaign website.

Hillary Clinton proposed installing 500 million photovoltaic solar panels by 2020. (Getty Images)

Clinton’s renewable energy platform would likely move forward on President Obama’s legacy. In his final term, Obama has taken a strong stance on reducing emissions and implementing renewable energy infrastructure with his Clean Power Plan.

The overwhelming majority of scientists—over 97 percent—have agreed on the evidence supporting human-induced climate change. Right now, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are above 400 parts per million (ppm), well above the 350 ppm recommended by many experts as a safe level to limit the warming caused by CO2. Gases trapped in ice cores show that carbon dioxide levels never rose above 300 ppm for approximately a million years prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Failure to act on the issue could lead to increased global conflict and violence, said Broecker, who is credited with coining the term “global warming” in 1975.

Last week, the landmark Paris Agreement set out by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change became international law. The agreement, signed by over 190 countries, established goals to reduce carbon emissions and limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), in an effort to avoid accelerating sea level rise, freshwater shortages, refugee crises and the spread of disease threatened by climate change.

On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to “cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs,” according to a campaign speech in North Dakota.

Donald Trump has proposed “canceling” the Paris Agreement on climate change. (Getty Images)

In September, 376 scientists, including Broecker and 30 Nobel laureates, signed an open letter discussing Tuesday’s election, the United States’ stance on climate change and the importance of upholding the Paris Agreement:

“We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt…that the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks: to our ability to thrive and build a better future, to national security, to human health and food production, and to the interconnected web of living systems,” the letter read. “It is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord.”

The letter did not endorse a presidential candidate, however.

Because of safeguards built into the Paris Agreement, the newly-elected president would have to wait three years before the U.S. could withdraw from the deal. But even if all countries followed through on commitments made in the Paris Agreement, warming is still likely to rise between 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius (5.6 to 6.3 degrees F) by 2100 unless further action is taken, according to a recent report published by the U.N. Environmental Programme.

Critics argue that a significant shift from fossil fuel consumption would hurt the economy and jobs. But veteran climate scientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University, alsoat the conference, said that moving towards clean energy would improve the economy, create new jobs and improve national security, he said.

Alley did not disclose who he was voting for but he is a strong proponent of reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to clean energy.

“If we take our knowledge [on energy and climate] and use it together for where we want to go and how we want to help people, using the knowledge improves the economy compared to pretending that this is a lie and ignoring it. And it improves the economy a good bit,” Alley said.

Veteran climate scientist Richard Alley said addressing climate change will open the way to more jobs, and innovation that is good for the economy and national security. (Kelly Calagna/MEDILL)

“Dealing with this wisely can give you more jobs” with new industries, he said. “It can give you a bigger economy, more money, greater national security, as well as a cleaner environment, and as well as helping future generations and people who are already suffering from the changes now in an ethical manner.”

He emphasized the fact that many leading military officials consider climate change a threat to national security. The military is one of the leaders in promoting alternative energy initiatives.

“Fossil fuels accumulated over a few hundred million years. We are burning them over a few hundred years. We are burning them a million times faster than nature made them, they will run out. There is not a choice between fossil fuels and a sustainable energy system. We either burn and then we learn or we learn while we burn,” he said. “The good news piece in solving this is that you’re not destroying the economy, you’re saving the economy, and you’re improving national security. The generals want us to fix this.”

At top: Icebergs are breaking off of the Greenland glaciers. (Gary Comer/Comer Family Foundation)



By Janice Cantieri –

“You can’t open a McDonald’s ketchup packet without the little notch. Try it, okay?” noted climatologist Richard Alley.

Without the little notches, plastic ketchup packets are almost impossible to open no matter how much you pull or tear. Cracks in the world’s ice sheets are like those little notches, Alley said. Once these cracks appear in ice sheets, the stress concentrates there and eventually can lead to large sections of ice falling off and melting quickly.

The 2016 Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference brings together some of the world’s top climate scientists to discuss their most recent research. (Photo courtesy of the Comer Family Foundation)

Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, used the analogy to describe how ice sheets can rapidly break apart due to preexisting “cracks” or “notches” in the ice produced when meltwater opens small crevices and then makes them big ones, he said. “When you make these cracks bigger, it makes [the ice sheet] break way faster,” Alley said in his presentation at this year’s Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference.

Alley and a gathering of some of the world’s top geologists, paleoclimatologists, engineers and climate modelers meet each fall in southwestern Wisconsin to discuss their most recent discoveries on the origins and consequences of abrupt climate change.

“We know what nature can do, so we know that climate change is a big deal, and we know that what humans are doing now is not natural,” Alley said. “Across almost anything that we look at, the first degree of warming had very small costs, but we’ve done that. The second degree of warming will have larger costs. We’re mostly committed to that. The third degree of warming will have even larger costs.”

Alley emphasized the fact that the Pentagon prioritizes climate change as a national security issue and that adapting to a sustainable energy system will be beneficial for the economy.

The key question the scientists addressed at this year’s conference was urgent – “not whether or not global warming and climate change are happening, but how fast,” said Philip Conkling, a sustainability consultant and author. “To understand that, we have to understand the dynamics of the past.”

Field research took many of the scientists around the world and deep into the history of Earth’s climate in order to better understand the sensitivities and “switches” that triggered abrupt changes thousands and even millions of years ago. Piecing together these discoveries provides a progression of natural events to compare to the changes occurring today at an accelerating rate as a result of human impacts.

Joerg Schaefer, a geochemist at Columbia University, presented the latest findings on the threat to the stability of the melting Greenland ice sheet, which holds an equivalent of about 7 meters of sea level rise (about 23 feet), enough to inundate many coastal cities.

“The Greenland Ice Sheet was most certainly gone during natural forcing [in the past] and of course this is also worrisome because what we are doing in the moment will almost certainly at one point, and maybe soon, deglaciate Greenland. So it’s really pressing that we understand these processes quickly,” Schaefer said.

The problem is that human use of fossil fuels is moving global climate much faster than nature does, several scientists said.

Richard Alley showed how rapid sea level increases can occur as a result of cracks in the Earth’s ice sheets. (Janice Cantieri/MEDILL).
NASA greenland
The Greenland Ice Sheet was deglaciated in the past due to natural processes, which is worrisome, Joerg Schaefer said, because current carbon emissions from human use of fossil fuels could likely force a modern deglaciation. (Image: NASA)

In order to avoid significant sea level rise, droughts, food shortages, disease, and international conflicts, the world must cut carbon dioxide emissions by more than a factor of 10, said pioneering climate scientist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University.

“Every ounce of CO2 we put in the atmosphere makes it a little bit worse. We see things happening already and obviously. As we warm the planet up more those things are going to get bigger and extend further,” he said. “We’ll start to see whether sea level will start to rise at a bad pace. It’s going to move ecology everywhere.”

Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remained below 300 parts per million (ppm) for at least 800,000 years prior to the Industrial Revolution, even during the warm spells between the ice ages. Carbon dioxide levels are now rising above 400 ppm as the greenhouse gas traps heat and is rapidly warming the planet.

Pioneering climate scientist Wallace Broecker says the world must reduce our carbon emissions by a factor of 10 to avoid some of the worst damages from warming. (Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)

“The biggest hope is to get rid of using fossil fuels, but, you know, I can’t see that happening in less than 50 years,” he said. And because of the role of the ocean in absorbing CO2, there is a high chance that the world is already committed to significant temperature rise, likely well above the 2 degrees Celsius cap set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, Broecker said.

While many researchers painted a bleak future for the planet if no action is taken now, some promising innovations could provide solutions, or at least prevent the scale  of the worst damages caused by warming. Physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner is developing a technology to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air. It could help “close the loop” of carbon emissions, he said at the conference.

A prototype of Lackner’s “artificial tree” has been successfully operating on the roof at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions for the past year. About 100 million of the units, each built to remove one metric ton (2,204 pounds) of CO2 a day, could offset the 36 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted by the people of earth each year, he said.

Meanwhile, the global research continues. A team of researchers and graduate students led by Aaron Putnam from the University of Maine presented findings from field work in the remote Potanin Glacier Valley of Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. During the six-week expedition, the team trekked through the mountains and collected boulder samples that map the retreat of the glaciers, revealing clues about why, when, and how quickly the last ice age ended.

Kevin Stark of the Medill News Service showed drone footage and photos from his experience as an embedded reporter with Putnam’s team in Mongolia, and his story was published in Pacific Standard Magazine in October.

The conference closed with warm memories of the late Gary Comer, who created the Comer Family Foundation to support initiatives in healthcare, education and the environment. Comer, the founder of the Land’s End retail company and a Chicago native, became concerned about warming global temperatures after completing a 2001 sailing expedition through the Northwest Passage. The Arctic passage connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and warming temperatures had melted many of the icebergs in this famed “shipwreck alley” of the passage, creating a clear pathway for his ship.

After returning, Comer sought out Broecker, credited with coining the term “global warming” in 1975. Together with Alley and glaciologist George Denton, of the University of Maine, they created a fellowship program to support research on the causes and consequences of abrupt climate change. Since 2003, more than. 300 papers have been published by Comer Fellows in peer-reviewed journals.

Philip Conkling closed the conference by reading a note he wrote for Gary Comer in 2005, after one of their final sailing expeditions together:

To be brave and cheerful – to be brave and cheerful is no easy thing. Staring in the face in the morning’s mirror, where the skin fits more loosely now. Like a favorite sweater, gone soft with age. Surely, the news cannot be all bad. The images the eyes dissolve are no longer cut with the sharpest knife, but we have already seen much of the world. And anyway, what we need now is vision, not sight. Inner vision too, and insight, if it’s not too much to ask. To be brave and cheerful is no easy thing. Be calm, and live with light in a slowly freezing sea. Should it be surprising that those who have given so much find it hard to drink from an overflowing cup? August 12, 2005.

Animation: Scripted by Janice Cantieri/Produced by Next Media Animation. Photo at top: NASA. Original caption: NASA’s IceBridge mission observes the effects of summer melt on Greenland Ice Sheet.


By Kelly Calagna –

Every autumn climate scientists from diverse disciplines gather at the Comer Climate Conference on a farm in rural Wisconsin. They focus on the latest research to predict the on-going pace of sea level rise, the retreat of the glaciers past and present and the profound threat to our planet as human communities force climate change.

Some influential scientists in attendance included Richard AlleyGeorge Denton, Klaus Lackner and Wallace Broecker, known as one of the grandfathers of climate change research.

Photo at top: Atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as the thermostat for Earth. Rising levels of this greenhouse gas, resulting primarily from fossil fuel use and emissions, are driving global warming. “The visualization highlights the advances scientists are making in understanding the processes that control how much emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere and how long it stays there — questions that ultimately will determine Earth’s future climate,” according to NASA. “Using observations from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, scientists have developed a new model of carbon behavior in our atmosphere from Sept. 1, 2014, to Aug. 31, 2015. Such models can be used to better understand and predict where carbon dioxide concentrations could be especially high or low. (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/K. Mersmann, M. Radcliff, producers)


By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/Video by Kelly Calagna –

“Don’t get old if you can help it,” climatologist George Denton joked at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin this fall. But he must have been proud. As one of the earliest and premiere veterans of climate change research, the University of Maine professor had three generations of students in the room.

Denton has devoted a better part of his life to studying and quantifying ice sheets across the globe. He does this by gleaning the geological history going back across more than 2.5 million years of ice ages. He studies smaller mountain glaciers to understand what causes abrupt ocean and atmospheric changes that lead to the warming spells, changes that our contemporary world may be triggering at an ever faster pace.

“We as humans have reached 7 billion and we are living in a world where the climate is changing rapidly. Understanding how ice age climate works will help us understand what is going on now,” said Denton.

One of the biggest questions for climate change now is to understand what caused the Ice Ages – and what caused rapid shifts out of them, he said. Equally important is that “during the Ice Age, humans spread around the planet as a result of climate shift,” said Denton. About 60,000 years ago, humans spread out from Africa to Europe and then to Australia and even Siberia, he noted. With hundreds of feet of water gripped in the glaciers, a land bridge opened between Siberia and Alaska and humans followed the great mammals such as the mammoths into the Americas at least 15,000 years ago.

With human activities altering climate along with natural forces, “It’s to our benefit to understand the whole system that we are fooling with. So I think the studies of Ice Age that happened in the past will provide us with a foundation as to how the climate system is working now,” remarked Denton

George Denton explores the important clues about abrupt climate changes revealed by the end of the ice ages. (Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)
George Denton explores the important clues about abrupt climate changes revealed by the end of the ice ages. (Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)

“The biggest question in modern geology is what causes ice ages. George Denton’s research in New Zealand focuses on mountain glacier fluctuations during the last ice age cycle” that ended some 18,000 years ago, said Alice Doughty, a former student of Denton’s who is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Earth Sciences of Dartmouth College. “Calculating the timing of glacier change is KEY to solving the question of cause and that this would help us predict future change,” she said.

“George Denton is well-known for several decades of research concerning the role of the Southern Hemisphere in climate change. This work, has led to fundamental insights into the cause of ice-age terminations and of abrupt climate change,” said Brenda Hall, another former student and now a research collaborator and associate professor at the Climate Change Institute of the University of Maine where Denton teaches.

Denton’s results from several expeditions to Southern Chile show a rather unusual observation that past climate change events occurred in both the hemispheres at the same time. Denton and his colleagues tested and supported the idea that atmospheric influences link both the hemispheres in controlling climate during the last ice age meltdown and “this has gotten the community closer to understanding how the climate system works,” said Peter Strand, a graduate student at the Climate Change Institute. In other words, they showed that climate change is global.

But Denton is involved in trying to resolve the many yet unsolved mysteries of the sprawling ice ages. “Ice ages are enormous events. They caused sea levels to go up and down 300-400 feet, caused huge ice masses to break off the northern tier of Canada and United States. They changed temperature around the world by six degree Celsius which is a lot and then the Ice Age went away for reasons we don’t understand,” said Denton, during an interview.

Denton has dozens of publications to his credit. He has been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – among his plethora of awards and honors.

The glaciers shrouded the entire Great Lakes region in since during the during the last great ice age some 20,000 years ago.

The Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names commemorated his contributions to research on glaciers in Antarctica by naming Denton Hills after him. His colleague, Robert Nichols named a small hanging glacier in Victoria Land in Antarctica the Denton Glacier in his honor as well.

Much of climate change research, as we know it today, began gaining momentum in the 1950s. Talking about his initial foray into climate research, Denton reminisced fondly about his days as a graduate student at Yale in the 1960s – a time when there were few grants and even fewer role models for research in the field. But Denton’s Ph.D. thesis advisor just set him out in the world to find his own thesis problem.

Denton began reconstructing ice sheets in the glaciers of the Saint Elias Mountains of the Southwestern Yukon territory and set his field of research rolling with this expedition.

Soon, his research led to several successful odysseys to glaciers in South America, New Zealand and elsewhere across the globe. When philanthropist Gary Comer became concerned about climate change, he began to work with Denton and brought him together with other pioneers in the climate change field such as Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University and Wally Broecker of Columbia University.

Comer, the founder of Lands’ End, sailed the Northwest Passage in his yacht “Turmoil” in 2001 and noticed that the notorious shipwreck alley of icebergs seemed ominously ice free. The “successful” completion of his expedition, stoked Comer’s interest in what was different about ocean water conditions and why they had changed drastically. He approached Broecker – one of the earliest scientists to coin the term “global warming.” And Broecker brought in Alley and Denton to investigate the causes of “abrupt” climate change. With Comer’s substantial funding for climate research and fellowships, the triumvirate brought together top climate scientists from across the country as mentors for a new generation of researchers who studied with them.

As a prominent scientist at the Climate Change Institute, Denton has successfully collaborated with many other researchers worldwide throughout his career. Denton emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary research in the field of climate change research. “Staff members in the institute, spread through a number of departments such as earth sciences, soil sciences, agriculture, biology, anthropology work on climate research,” said Denton, adding that climate change was important to all these fields and in particular to agriculture in Maine.

The Gulf of Maine is the fastest warming body of water on Earth and the fishing industry on this coast provides livelihoods to a lot of people. “So the University of Maine has decided, since climate change is very important to the state, they better try and understand it. They set up the Climate Change Institute, which is interdisciplinary,” Denton said.

Denton has passed on his scientific legacy to numerous climate change researchers of today. Many of his former students are professors who mentor their own research team of students and postdocs. And that brought the generations of students from the Denton era to this conference in Wisconsin.

“These students at the Comer Conference, are largely from the Earth Sciences School and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. Under the auspices of the Comer Foundation, they travel all over the world. They go to Mongolia, China, Western US, Europe, South America, New Zealand, and to the southernmost landmass on Earth. They are trying to piece together climate change all over the world,” said Denton.

Denton’s contribution to climate change is outstanding, his colleagues agree. “We are all embarked together on a great adventure. And that is to unravel the mystery of ice ages. That is one of the greatest mysteries of Earth sciences and we are lucky to be involved in that pursuit,” said Denton concluding his talk and not his work.

Photo at top: Glaciers shrouded the entire Great Lakes region during the last great ice age some 20,000 years ago. Thick walls of ice covered the areas shown in white (USGS image).



By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran –

Glaciers and forests show jagged retreats in Jill Pelto’s paintings while the sky above heats up. Pelto, a graduate student studying climate science at the University of Maine, uses her art to convey the impacts of climate change on world environments.

She overlays climate change research data with striking colors and vivid imagery to depict our living world amid rising temperatures. Her watercolor paintings convey multiple layers of information, all the while visualizing the problems of climate change. Jill calls her works “glaciogenic art.”

Jill combined both her passions for art and climate science during her undergraduate studies at the University of Maine where she graduated last year with a double major in studio art and earth science. Through the dual media of painting and data she strives to convey the impact of our unsustainable practices on climate and environment. A tiger clings to a disrupted, shrinking ecosystem in one painting. Using data that shows the decline in forest area from 1970-2010, Jill’s painting on habitat degradation depicts why tigers are an endangered species today due to human impact on their environments worldwide. Another painting shows the annual decrease in the size of glaciers worldwide, global sea level rise and global temperature increases, all incorporating climate change data.



By Danielle Prieur

It should come as no surprise to Chicagoans that 2015 was the hottest year on record. A snow-free, unseasonably warm holiday season surely gave Chicagoans a clue – 2015 is the hottest year on record.

What may come as a surprise to some is that Chicago and the Midwest aren’t alone – the hottest year on record hit the entire United States and rest of the globe. And 2015 follows a string of recent record-breaking warm years linked to global warming.

This uniform warming is “the big story” of weather data in 2015, said Gavin A. Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA, and Thomas R. Karl, director of NOAA’s National Climate Data Center, at a media conference call on Wednesday.


By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran –

Peter Strand busy drilling quartz samples from at the Altai Mountains, Mongolia. (Kevin Stark/MEDILL)

Cosmic rays, hurling across the galaxy near light-speed, generate a time machine on Earth for us to measure the retreat of the glaciers and the pace of climate change.

Ph.D. student Peter Strand, at the University of Maine, drilled samples of quartz from boulders in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains this summer to tap this time machine. Cosmic rays strike the atmosphere and release showers of subatomic particles such as neutrons that collide with the rocks, creating a variant of the element beryllium that builds up once the ice retreats from the rock and leaves it exposed to the air. Scientists call this variant a cosmogenic nuclide – beryllium-10 (10Be). The surfaces of rocks and boulders contain 10Be and, what’s fascinating is that the 10Be can be used as a measure of when the glacial retreat began, anywhere from a hundred to tens of millions of years ago!



By Janice Cantieri –

Klaus Lackner presented on his carbon capture devices at the 2016 Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin. Image Credit Kelly Calagna/MEDILL.

Physicist and engineer Klaus Lackner makes artificial trees – but not the kind that decorate living rooms and lobbies. His artificial trees can capture carbon dioxide directly out of the air—and they’re 1,000 times more efficient than nature’s trees in doing so.

Millions of the trees could eventually generate “negative carbon emissions,” meaning they could take more carbon dioxide out of the air than we put in from fossil fuel emissions. That is what we need to reverse the course of climate change, he said. People on Earth generate 36 billion metric tons of CO2 each year and CO2 is a greenhouse gas that holds heat in the atmosphere.

Because of the way CO2 accumulates, or “piles up” in the air, even if the world were to drastically cut carbon emissions today, it would take a very long time to return to a safe range, said Lackner, the director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University.

Lackner developed the artificial trees to offset the already-high global carbon dioxide levels. These trees don’t look like natural trees – they don’t have leaves or branches. But they function in a similar way by absorbing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Existing technology could recycle the captured carbon dioxide and use it to as a resource to make fuel, “closing the loop” of carbon emissions, he said.

“We can argue where to stop [carbon emissions], but that we will have to stop is unavoidable. The world cannot run ‘business-as-usual’ in energy, it has to figure out a better way. And at the same time, it’s not likely that it can do that overnight, so you do need to balance the carbon budget,” Lackner said.

Klaus Lackner’s working prototype has been running on the roof of the University of Arizona’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions over the past year. Photo courtesy of Klaus Lackner.

Lackner’s trees are made from a special resin – a unique plastic that sponges up CO2 from the air in a chemical reaction. When the resin is dry, it “has an exceedingly high affinity to carbon dioxide” –in other words, it absorbs the C02. And when the resin is submerged in water, it releases the carbon dioxide, Lackner said.

“People say, ‘Why not just grow normal trees, natural trees, rather than those artificial trees?’ But I argue that’s like pulling a plow over using a tractor. You certainly can do it with a horse, but it’s not as efficient,” Lackner said. “Our trees are specialists for carbon dioxide collection, and they’re about 1,000 times faster [than natural trees].”

The first outdoor prototype has been on the roof at Arizona State University for about a year, Lackner told climate scientists at this fall’s annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin.

“It’s running essentially automatically, with a little bit of graduate student supervision,” he said.

One hundred million of Lackner’s units, each built to remove one metric ton {2,204 pounds} of C02 a day, would be needed to match the amount of carbon dioxide the world currently emits each year, Lackner said. Adding more units would begin to lower the 400 parts-per-million (ppm) of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere, a level that is on the rise.

“If we had another 100 million [units], you could bring [carbon dioxide levels] down another 2 ppm, per year,” said Wallace Broecker, one of the world’s pioneering climate scientists. “If we just did that, we’d now have 200 million, one [million] matching what we’re producing, and another [million] taking some out. Then to go back to 350 ppm, it would take 50 years.”

Scientists consider 350 ppm of C02 a ceiling to keep climate change under control, according to many experts. Levels of the greenhouse gas started to rise above 300 ppm with the Industrial Revolution.

Lackner’s device demonstrates that carbon dioxide can be effectively captured from the atmosphere. But technology exists that could also turn that captured carbon dioxide back into liquid fuels, essentially reusing carbon emissions to generate new energy, Lackner said.

Photo courtesy of Klaus Lackner.
Photo courtesy of Klaus Lackner.

The concept is based on a process that was used in South Africa during the apartheid years. While under an embargo, South Africa “had no access to oil, and they showed that you can convert coal to liquid fuels, gasoline and diesel,” he said.

In this process, steam and coal are converted into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Carbon monoxide and hydrogen can then be reacted to form any type of fuel –  gasoline, diesel, methanol, dimethyl ether or alcohol, he said.

But instead of starting with coal, Lackner said, renewable electricity from wind or solar can be combined with captured carbon dioxide emissions and water to create carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

Carbon capture from the air would “close the loop” of the carbon emissions cycle, because it would allow the carbon dioxide burned through combustion to be reused as an input for the creation of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which then can be reacted as the building blocks for new liquid fuels. Image courtesy of Klaus Lackner.

“Then we are right at the same spot they are to make fuels again,” he said. “The technologies exist. They’re not all that well developed, because nobody ever had good reason to do it, but certainly they exist, it’s not something we don’t know how to do,” he said.

Energy from solar or wind could drive the conversion, creating a way to store renewable energy from solar or wind power as gasoline for use in months with less sunshine or wind, Lackner said. This would “make it possible for the renewable energy to truly penetrate into the system,” he said.

In order for that to happen, Lackner believes volunteers must first commit to capturing carbon dioxide waste. Then eventually, more people will see the benefits, get on board, and regulations could be established.

“The problem is, [carbon dioxide] doesn’t hurt right away, it doesn’t smell, it’s invisible, and so it’s hard to convince people. People don’t realize that they put out 20 pounds of carbon dioxide every time they burn a gallon of gasoline, because it’s invisible,” he said.

“I think we’re playing with something we don’t understand and the easy way out is to not let [excess carbon emissions] happen,” Lackner said.

Photo at top: An illustration of Klaus Lackner’s carbon capture devices, which might be needed to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to a safe level. Image courtesy of Klaus Lackner.



By Kelly Calagna –

Sea level rise – a direct impact of a warming climate and melting ice – threatens island nations and coastal communities across the world.

Photo at top and video by Kelly Calagna


By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

Lights across the U.S. at night as viewed by satellite. (

“Green city planning to create green roofs, green parks and deployment of green assets in places where we are worried about heat effects is necessary,” said Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute on Environment from the University of Minnesota. At stake is keeping climate change at controllable levels.

Jessica Hellmann called for more parks, roof gardens and green space to pull down temperatures in urban areas. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)
Jessica Hellmann called for more parks, roof gardens and green space to pull down temperatures in urban areas. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)

She stressed in no uncertain terms the need to uphold the international Paris climate agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees centigrade  (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). “We just wrote a paper recently about using weather models in the Chicago land area and what would happen if you could turn 25 percent to even 100 percent of all roofs and make them green. How much would it reduce downtown temperatures in the event of extreme temperature scenario?” said Hellmann, adding that their study revealed how temperature plummeted by several degrees Fahrenheit.

Hellmann and other climate experts addressed local, national and global impacts of the “Water-Energy-Climate Nexus” at Northwestern University’s recent Climate Change Symposium. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern anchored the symposium to water and energy resources, keys to climate change solutions.

A meeting of minds

ISEN Executive Director Michael Wasielewski said in an interview that this symposium brought together policy-makers and students as well as scientists and so it serves to benefit researchers both from Northwestern University and other institutions tremendously. Wasielewski said he hopes that the conference is a conversation starter that allows individual researchers to get together and make connections. “This will ultimately lead to new projects and new solutions to address these problems,” he remarked, highlighting the fact that technology curbing climate change may come from seemingly unrelated areas of science and engineering.

The event hosted multiple speakers from universities and agencies across the country. Diana Bauer, director of the Office of Energy Systems Analysis, at the Department of Energy (DOE) said water is essential for power generation and advocated accurate power/water models as critical to energy policy and decision-making. “The DOE has about 18 departments that focus on water and so we are focused on energy and it’s connection to water, “ said Bauer.

Mark Johnson, director of the Office of Advanced Manufacturing of the Department of Energy said,” What our department focuses on is that if the scientists develop new technologies such as applications for clean energy, how do we get them out of the labs to the marketplaces?” He spoke about DOE initiatives, to support partnerships between universities and industries, emphasizing the need for basic and applied sciences to collaborate and come up with energy efficiency solutions.

Lowering our carbon footprint

Energy efficiency and alternative energy are part of the quest by scientists worldwide to lower fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas responsible for warming our planet.  As a chemistry professor, Wasielewski and his research group explore producing renewable energy sources such as solar fuels. In particular, his research focuses on artificial photosynthesis that  uses solar energy directly to produce solar fuel.

“The way we do that is by targeting solar energy to catalytically split water to generate oxygen and hydrogen,” he said. Wasielewski’s team also experiments with the use of solar energy to catalytically reduce carbon dioxide to liquid fuels, which could be easily stored. “It is an instance of worldwide effort in that area because the idea of directly using solar energy to drive carbon dioxide reduction to liquid fuel that can be used for transportation is a long-term goal of many researchers,” he said.

Fracking and the risks of water contamination

The symposium featured talks on essential policies and reforms to target energy challenges. “Hydraulic fracturing is one energy field that requires more regulation,” said Joseph Ryan, a professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Joe Ryan’s research in Colorado shows the need to control toxic chemicals in fracking fluids that could contaminate groundwater. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)
Joe Ryan’s research in Colorado shows the need to control toxic chemicals in fracking fluids that could contaminate groundwater. (Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/MEDILL)

Ryan’s research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is studying the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water pollution locally in Colorado. He said he believes that regulators can use this information as a decision analysis tool since water pollution isn’t the only problem related to fracking as climate change threatens increased water shortages in parts of the U.S.

Ryan’s research team looked at water acquisition practices for oil and gas fracking in two Colorado counties – Weld and Garfield. He showed that at least in Weld County, not all of the hydraulic fracturing fluid injected to drill oil and release hydrocarbons, flowed back up and continued to stay underground.

But why would this be a problem? Ryan and his team analyzed the chemical compounds used in the fracturing fluid at high pressure to break up or “fracture” rock and extract oil. They focused on organic compounds in the fluid and found a large number of them –  a total of 659 including guar gum, methanol, ethylene glycol among others. Many are toxic and some are also mobile and persistent, a subset of the 659 compounds that do pose a risk if they are released, Ryan said.  “We should be worried about those” due to potential contamination of groundwater supplies, he said. The additional risk here is that a few of the compounds are not monitored. As a result, Ryan and his colleagues suggested two major recommendations to  Colorado regulators.

First, monitor these compounds that are not commonly measured and “could be regarded as smoking guns that could implicate some contamination episodes,” said Ryan. Second, remove the hazardous compounds and increase the efficiency of fracking. “Unfortunately the oil and gas companies have not put a lot of effort into making a ‘greener’ fluid since it’s expensive and they do a lot of experimentation on the field. There’s no work on how these compounds might affect things from a laboratory perspective,”  Ryan said.

From local to global

Acknowledging the limitations of his study, Ryan said that not all geological considerations are transferable. However, the work on improving air quality and the treatment of wastewater coming out of these oil and gas wells are widely applicable, said Ryan – adding that each state is better off forming their own regulations.

A controversial EPA report released in 2015 on the assessment of potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas concluded: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Scientific studies, such as the one from the University of Colorado, albeit alarming, are limited to a local scale affecting a smaller percentage of people. Should government regulatory agencies take action or dismiss local studies for not being  ‘widespread’ and ‘systemic’ enough? Is there a magic number of people impacted that should prompt us to take action? “This is something we as a society and regulators have to decide,” said Ryan.

As for instituting climate change regulations, Chicago Congressman Michael Quigley (D-5th), the keynote speaker at the symposium, enumerated some of the hurdles he faces. “I serve with [some] people who don’t believe in climate change and evolution,” he said, citing his lack of a necessary quorum at times to carry out policy reforms.

In the face of this opposition, Quigley lamented that despite being served by one of the most progressive presidents on environmental issues, not much has been accomplished in addressing the problems. “The frustrating part is that you are not even seeing climate change issues being addressed in the debates at all, since debates have become reality TV,” he commented.

As a ranking member of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) at the House of Representatives, he strongly advocates policies for regulating environmental issues, limiting the threat to our climate.

Quigley urged the scientists to synthesize their results and communicate to lay audience in an accessible manner so that it could be translated through our political system back through an active Congress.

”Change comes when the base core of the constituency say otherwise,” remarked Quigley, as part of his closing statements.

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