LEADING SCIENTISTS ASSESS ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE AT THE COMER CONFERENCE

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change    Potential range of increases in global temperatures over the next century based on six possible scenarios.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Potential range of increases in global temperatures over the next century based on six possible scenarios.

by Ryan Mark
Dec 08, 2008

In the cool clean air of the changing season, at a remote estate in the forested hills of Wisconsin, some of the world’s foremost climate scientists gathered with an air of urgency.

They gathered for a two-day conference to discuss their latest research on abrupt climate change. At various points in our planet’s recent history, the climate has shifted very quickly and very dramatically. Leading scientists believe that the human thirst for fossil fuels could be driving us to another such tipping point. 

For these scientists, the solution lies in unlocking the past in order to predict how climate is likely to act in the future. 

Larry Edwards of the University of Minnesota can peer as far back as 700,000 years with natural chemical tracers of precipitation and warming locked in the stalagmites of caves in China and Brazil. Scott Stine of Hayward University is tracking the pace of drought in California. Meredith Nettles of Columbia University is measuring the force of “icequakes” generated when the Helheim Glacier in Greenland fractures as it melts, tumbling huge bergs of ice into the sea. Medill   Richard Alley, geosciences professor of Pennsylvania State University, served as emcee as leading climate scientists gathered for the Comer Conference. Alley has traced climate change  in what he calls a time machine of ice cores that trap ancient pockets of air.

In Wisconsin, the conversations among colleagues started each day over omelets in the dining tent and ended the final night over a picnic bonfire in a shaded glen. But the formal conference presentations made it clear that scientists have zeroed in on three questions that may hold the key to understanding – and averting – abrupt climate change. They questions focus on identifying  the triggers of climate change, learning how the northern and southern hemispheres differ in response and hunting down the  role CO2 plays in driving global warming. 

“We know that we are changing the composition of the atmosphere,” said Richard Alley, geosciences professor of Pennsylvania State University and the unofficial emcee for the conference.

He has traced climate change back tens of thousands of years and other colleagues have tracked data far deeper into the past in what Alley calls a time machine of glacial ice cores that have trapped ancient pockets of air. The pockets show that carbon dioxide levels, currently at about 380 parts per million in our air, never rose above 280 ppm in previous warming cycles going back hundreds of thousands of years on the Earth.

onathan Love, Medill  George Denton of the University of Maine has mapped the retreat of the glaciers of the last great ice age. At the  conference, he pinpointed some of the global mysteries about how climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere impact the climate in the Southern Hemisphere
onathan Love, Medill
George Denton of the University of Maine has mapped the retreat of the glaciers of the last great ice age. At the conference, he pinpointed some of the global mysteries about how climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere impact the climate in the Southern Hemisphere

“We know that the temperature is rising,” Alley said. “We know that this warming is related to the carbon dioxide. We know this from very simple physics.”

Alley launched the talks with a primer on where science stands now in terms of temperature models. We will most likely see a warming of up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the coming decades, Alley warned, pointing to a graph from the International Panel on Climate Change. The graph has a long tail because, although unlikely, catastrophic warming of more than 20 degrees might be possible. 

“If there’s a probability that you’re gonna get run over by a truck, you should probably have insurance against that,” Alley said, referring to the worst case scenarios. “That’s what we are doing in here [at this conference]. Because abrupt climate change is the truck of the climate system that might run over you.”

The outcomes depend on what actions we take and Alley indicated that taking action now makes sense from both business and ethical perspectives. 

“If you want to make people wealthy, coupling a climate model with to an economic model typically says that investing now pays off. If you want to be fair to other people – most of the damage from global warming happens to poor people in warm places, most of the global warming is being caused by wealthy people in cold places – then [the] ethicists I’ve talked to say you invest more now,” Alley said. 

The conference was hosted by the Comer Science and Education Foundation, the philanthropic organization created by Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End apparel and catalog business. Comer, who died in 2006, was struck by the enormity of the climate crisis when he sailed his yacht through the relatively ice-free Northwest Passage that skirts the upper coast of North America through the Arctic Ocean. He set up his foundation to fund research in the field of abrupt climate change and his adult children Stephanie and Guy Comer run it now.

Medill    University of Chicago geophysicist Ray Pierrehumbert performs for his colleagues at a picnic at the Comer Conference.
Medill
University of Chicago geophysicist Ray Pierrehumbert performs for his colleagues at a picnic at the Comer Conference.

Early on in his mission, Gary Comer approached Wallace Broecker, one of the pioneers of climate change science who is a geophysicist with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Comer’s support provided a state-of-the-art geochemistry facility at the observatory. But much of the funding insured a future generation of researchers with money for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships mentored by leading climate scientists such as Alley and George Denton, professor of geological sciences at the University of Maine. Denton is an expert on glaciers and traces they leave behind. Fellowships funneled through dozens of other mentors followed. 

The study of abrupt climate change is an ambitious undertaking — true understanding requires a sort of grand unifying theory of the Earth’s forces. It requires a multi-disciplinary approach of scientists such as Alley, who study ice cores, collaborating with people studying sediment samples from the bottoms of oceans and steep moraines left by the advance and retreat of glaciers. The layers of geology map the history of our climate.

The map indicates that, at various times in the past, the earth’s climate swung wildly from warm periods to ice ages, sometimes in the space of mere decades or less. Scientists at the Wisconsin conference said they worry these abrupt changes might loom in our near future as we add billions of tons of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere every year.

Over the past few years, climate scientists have made extraordinary progress gathering data. Yet, despite the progress that’s been made, many fundamental questions about how the climate functions still need to be researched and answered. 

Denton pinpointed some of the global mysteries evading our understanding of how the hemispheres interact. He presented the latest findings from his team as they date glacial moraines in South America and New Zealand. Scientists are unsure how climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere impact the climate in the Southern Hemisphere.

Most of the Earth’s landmass is in the northern half of the planet while most of the Earth’s ice is in the south locked in the enormous ice covered continent of Antarctica. Each hemisphere responds differently to changes in climate, and scientists are still learning how the two hemispheres interact.

Medill   Leading scientsts discussed their latest research at the remote Wisconsin estate of the late Gary Comer. Comer funded nearly $50 million in climate change research and research facilities.
Medill
Leading scientsts discussed their latest research at the remote Wisconsin estate of the late Gary Comer. Comer funded nearly $50 million in climate change research and research facilities.

On long time scales, it appears that the climate in both hemispheres is impacted by how much sunlight the Northern Hemisphere receives as the orbit and axis of the earth cyclically change over tens of thousands of years. “How the Southern Hemisphere responds to orbital change is a major problem, which I call the southern problem,” Denton said.

“Another problem has to do with the trigger of the northern abrupt climate changes,” Denton said. 

Broecker offers one explanation with a global ocean conveyor belt that he discovered, a circulatory system that brings warm tropical water to the North Atlantic where the heavier, cold water sinks and pushes its way back south. If that conveyor belt is slowed or stopped, a chain reaction could plunge the North Atlantic in near ice-age temperatures, bringing severe winters to places such as London and drought to fertile areas of the northern tropics, Asia and Africa.

Scientists including Denton are looking for hints of this process in Thunder Bay of Lake Superior where lake waters flooding into the Atlantic as ice age glaciers retreated may have unleashed another serious climactic cold snap called the Younger Dryas. This mini-ice age froze out a warming cycle some 13,000 years ago. “We’re looking for the geomorphic evidence in Thunder Bay” where something should be left of channels ripped open as the water burst through, Denton  said..

But he said that, while the conveyor system may play a part in an abrupt change in climate, the data suggests that there is still more to the equation.

“To my mind, this remains the great unsolved issue of abrupt climate change,” he noted.

Perhaps the most pressing question is how the buildup of carbon dioxide is related to the warming of the climate, Broecker said. Research has shown that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is very closely related to global temperatures. During warm periods of the Earth’s past, carbon dioxide levels were high. During cold periods, they dropped. 

“CO2 is so important in that it certainly is part of the reason the temperature changed,” Broecker said. “But it would be much more satisfying to know why CO2 changed.”

While the scientists at the conference agree that carbon dioxide released by human activity is causing the warming cycle of the atmosphere today, they are uncertain how the natural mechanism of CO2 buildup works and what it could mean for our current predicament.

Columbia geophysicist Klaus Lackner stood out with a solution. He talked about a new scrubber technology that can capture and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so that it can be stored away.

The innovation developed by Lackner and Global Research Technologies, a company based in Tucson, Ariz., is cxurrenlty a working prototype. Lackner said that a full-scale machine the size of a large shipping car will be able to suck a ton of carbon dioxide a day out of the atmosphere while consuming a modest amount of electricity and dirty water.

Broecker said he was skeptical of Lackner’s invention at first but he applauded it both at the conference and in his recent book “Fixing Climate” as a hopeful solution in a world where increasing use of coal and oil is likely to continue.

It only seemed fitting that such scientists gathered in a renovated airplane hanger at the estate nestled in a rolling countryside once covered by glaciers. They returned to their universities and field research after the conference on an unusually hot fall morning with the momentum of an astounding array of research to consider. 

 

Related Links

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GLACIAL QUAKES ADD TO EVIDENCE OF MELTING GLACIERS

Courtesy of M. Nettles  Inset photo shows a GPS station installed on Helheim Glacier in east Greenland. The red flags help make the station easier to find. A typical station will move several hundred meters between field visits. Researchers install an automatic weather station on the glacier to measure meteorological conditions during the experiment. That little speck in the vista of the heavily crevassed glacier shows scientists retrieving GPS equipment.
Courtesy of M. Nettles
Inset photo shows a GPS station installed on Helheim Glacier in east Greenland. The red flags help make the station easier to find. A typical station will move several hundred meters between field visits. Researchers install an automatic weather station on the glacier to measure meteorological conditions during the experiment. That little speck in the vista of the heavily crevassed glacier shows scientists retrieving GPS equipment.

by Noelle Radut
Dec 10, 2008

Climate scientist Meredith Nettles bumps off the Richter scale when it comes to new findings in glacial research.

She spends a week at a time living in remote east Greenland and working on icy Helheim Glacier for her pioneering research that links glacial earthquakes and climate change.

Nettles has tracked an almost six-fold increase in glacial quakes in 2005 as compared with 1993, and almost two times as many events in 2005 alone than in any year prior to 2000.

Nettles comes equipped with seismometers that measure the force of the “icequakes” as shelves of the glaciers calve, or break off, and tumble into the ocean.
“A major focus of our research is actually trying to understand what the earthquakes are,” she says. “What it is, specifically, in glaciers that is generating the big seismic waves that we see.”
Nettles, as assistant professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has focused her attention on Helheim Glacier for the past three years.

And in 2003, she and a team of scientists discovered a new class of earthquakes. This breed of quakes is closely associated with major, fast-moving outlet glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. The Greenland glaciers move at high speeds and emit icebergs into the ocean because of their heavily crevassed fronts.

Helheim Glacier is one of Greenland’s biggest and among the world’s fastest-flowing glaciers.

Nettles noted a “strong seasonal pattern” to the earthquakes in the late summer months of July, August and September, something that’s not part of the pattern for tectonic earthquakes on land. “It’s not a fracture on a fault in solid earth like a typical tectonic earthquake,“ she said of the glacial quakes. “They are like a large landslide into the ocean.”

Courtesy of M. Nettles  “They are like a large landslide into the ocean," Nettles said of the glacial quakes she researchers, predominately in East Greenland.
Courtesy of M. Nettles
“They are like a large landslide into the ocean,” Nettles said of the glacial quakes she researchers, predominately in East Greenland.

With the dramatic increase in glacial quakes in 2005, Nettles and her international team took action. In the summer of 2006, they set up GPS systems, planting them all across Helheim to track glacial tectonic activity.

They visited the site for three consecutive summers, including this past summer, to track the rate of glacial earthquakes and to understand the changes in the quakes that occur with the seasons and the role that global warming plays in all of this.

Courtesy of M. Nettles    A rift opens behind the calving front of Helheim Glacier in mid-August, 2008. The level of glacier ice serveral years earlier is marked by the reverse bathtub ring, or timeline, on the fjord wall in the background.
Courtesy of M. Nettles
A rift opens behind the calving front of Helheim Glacier in mid-August, 2008. The level of glacier ice serveral years earlier is marked by the reverse bathtub ring, or timeline, on the fjord wall in the background.

“What we’ve learned in the last year or so is that the calving at the front of the glacier is happening at the same time as the earthquakes,” she said. “So our best current understanding of what the earthquakes are, is that they are actually the result of the calving itself.“

Nettles and her international team are still tracking the changes, but there is evidence, she said, that “the widespread changes in outlet glacier behavior in Greenland appear to be the result of a warming climate.”

Nettles said that she and her colleagues hope to unravel the riddles of unanswered questions as they continue to study Helheim.

“Really one of the biggest questions is what is causing the kinds of dynamic changes we see in the outlet glaciers. We’ve learned a lot in the last year or two years, in particular, the importance of behavior at the calving front,” she said. “What initiates those calving events is very much an area of active research. And then the way in which changes in the outlet glaciers affect the ice sheet itself is a big, open question at this point.”

Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish research results of Helheim glacier that Nettles recently presented at a climate change conference this past summer.

Courtesy of M. Nettles   Installing a "master" GPS station on a nunatak at Helheim Glacier. This station provides a fixed reference for GPS analysis, as well as collecting data via radio signal from stations on the glacier and transferring it to the research team via satellite telemetry.
Courtesy of M. Nettles
Installing a “master” GPS station on a nunatak at Helheim Glacier. This station provides a fixed reference for GPS analysis, as well as collecting data via radio signal from stations on the glacier and transferring it to the research team via satellite telemetry.

For summer 2009 Nettles and her international team are planning another field season in Greenland at Helheim and Kangerdlugssuaq glaciers. Here they will continue to measure the flow of glaciers in relation to global warming. They will also test out their new and improved GPS systems for high-risk environments.

“It can get pretty windy,” Nettles said of the occasional camp-out next to the colossal glaciers, but admits, “It is a beautiful location, so not a bad life!”

CLIMATE SCIENTIST HONORED FOR DISCOVERIES LINKED TO GLOBAL WARMING

by Erica M. Peterson
Dec 03, 2008

Climate science pioneer Wallace. Broecker joins the discussion during a a retreat of scientists at the Comer Foundation conference this fall.

Climate scientist Wallace Broecker, the man credited with coining the phrase “global warming” in the 1970s, contributed to the pivotal concept of just how swiftly and abruptly the earth’s climate can change.

For his research, he received the prestigious Swiss-Italian Balzan Prize and one million Swiss francs at a ceremony in Rome on Nov. 21, one of four outstanding scientists, artists and humanitarians honored from across the world. They join the ranks of previous winners, including Mother Teresa and Pope John XXIII.

Jonathan Love/Medill    Climate science pioneer Wallace. Broecker joins the discussion during a a retreat of scientists at the Comer Foundation conference this fall.
Jonathan Love/Medill
Climate science pioneer Wallace. Broecker joins the discussion during a a retreat of scientists at the Comer Foundation conference this fall.

In September, the International Balzan Foundation telephoned Broecker, 77, to tell him he had won this year’s prize for his climate change research as a scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The winners also include Italian artist Maurizio Calvesi, American philosopher Thomas Nagel and Australian cancer researcher Ian Frazer.

Broecker didn’t expect to win the award. “I never knew much about this,” he said. “All I knew was that it had a hell of a lot of money associated with it.”

Then he found out the exact amount: $1 million Swiss francs, or about $885,000, bestowed on each of only four people each year for long-term achievements in their fields. The prize has been awarded since 1956 and goes to those working in the humanities, medicine and physical or natural sciences.

The prize honors Broecker, originally from Oak Park, Ill., “for his extraordinary contributions to the understanding of climate change through his discoveries concerning the role of the oceans and their interactions with the atmosphere, as well as the role of glacial changes,” the Balzan Foundation announced. “His contributions have been significant in understanding both gradual and abrupt climate change.”

For Broecker, the decision about how to use the money was a simple one. Over the past several years, he and the observatory benefited from substantial support from the Comer Science and Education Foundation, created by Lands’ End founder Gary Comer to fund abrupt climate change research.

Through an $18 million gift, Comer and his foundation built a state-of-the art-geochemistry building at the observatory campus in Palisades, N.Y. But Comer also reached out across the climate research community by giving leading scientists funds to hire and mentor graduate and postdoctoral fellows. Broecker helped identify many of these “mentors.”

Broecker and Comer even collaborated on four field trips, becoming close colleagues and friends. “Comer’s enthusiasm rejuvenated” him as he was contemplating retirements, Broecker notes in his latest book, “Fixing Climate.”

Now, some 90 percent of Broecker’s prize will go into a separate non-profit foundation he has created to carry on Comer’s legacy. His foundation will continue Comer’s model of providing fellowships that will bring talented young scientists into areas of climate change research.

The Balzan Foundation requires that only half of the prize money be used to sponsor research, especially by young scientists. “We will use it for young people, but we will try to use it in the best possible way,” Broecker said. Comer died in 2006 and his children Stephanie and Guy oversee the Comer Foundation and their father’s legacy of supporting climate change research.

“Gary’s been so good to me and to Lamont and to all of us that it was nice to have the opportunity to give something back to the source of so many good things,” Broecker said.

Broecker earned his PhD at Columbia and joined the faculty at Lamont in 1959, investigating ocean cycles and later unraveling mechanisms that pointed to abrupt climate change, making the momentous contribution that climate doesn’t always shift smoothly. “One of a scientist’s biggest thrills is to cheat nature out of one of its secrets,” Broecker said.

His work made him a pioneer in the fledgling field of climate research and he remains best-known for his discovery of the ocean conveyer belt.

The ocean conveyer belt is a naturally-occurring circulatory system of currents that keep the earth’s climate in balance by moving warm water from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic. There, heavier cold, salt water sinks and pushes back southward, channeling heat ultimately through all the earth’s oceans.

However, this thermohaline circulation – as the conveyor belt is called — could be altered. If too many glaciers melt, flooding fresh water into the Artic, the water would become diluted, less salty and unable to sink. It’s happened before. Cutting off the conveyor as the glaciers retreated from the last great ice age triggered another mini-ice age a mere 13,000 years ago, Broecker theorizes.

Though the discovery of a potential ice age trigger was among the pinnacles of his career, he notes that the likelihood of such an event happening now is very slim. There isn’t enough ice on earth at this time to dilute the Atlantic. Today, he is more focused on how to stop the planet’s rapid warming, accelerated by human use of fossil fuels. He sees global warming as the ultimate experiment in human impact on the planet.

“It’s an experiment that nobody would have permitted but we’re doing it and eventually, hopefully, we’ll stop doing it. But we’re not going to stop for a long time,” he said. “People are going to look back and say, ‘You made a mess.’”

LEFT OUT IN THE COLD WITH GLOBAL WARMING – FOR NOW

Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists With "business-as-usual" emissions the weather of Illinois is predicted to become significantly warmer and drier.
Courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists
With “business-as-usual” emissions the weather of Illinois is predicted to become significantly warmer and drier.

by Beth Ulion
Jan 28, 2009

While Chicagoans shiver through some of the coldest weather in years, climate scientists continue to report global temperature increases. Through their layers of scarves many are asking, what happened to the warming in global warming? 

“If you take the global average, it’s definitely getting warmer,” said David Archer, a climate scientist at the University of Chicago. Worldwide temperatures have increased about 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit. But “in Chicago I don’t think it has gotten much warmer over the past two decades.” 

Beth Ulion/MEDILL Temperatures hovering at 19 degrees offer a relatively balmy day in Chicago this winter.
Beth Ulion/MEDILL
Temperatures hovering at 19 degrees offer a relatively balmy day in Chicago this winter.

Reports showing a global temperature increase may seem implausible with the mercury barely visible. But there is a key difference between the past few weeks of cold and the ongoing worldwide trend. 

“There is weather and there is climate,” said Richard Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in paleoclimatology, a field that explores geologic evidence of past climate change. 

People are “cherry picking a hot year or a cold year to say, global warming or ice age!” Alley said. “You really need to average over years of statistics.” 

This winter of aching ears and frozen feet is not indicative of a reversal in the warming trend of climate change. In fact, emissions of greenhouse gases could cause drastic changes within 20 years. 

“By 2030, Illinois summers may resemble those of Oklahoma or Arkansas in terms of average temperature and rainfall,” according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists on climate change in the Great Lakes region. 

Projections show the state’s climate could feel more like Texas and Oklahoma by the end of the century. 

Illinois is facing potential temperature increases of 7 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit for winter and 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit for summer by 2095, the report states. 

Projections in the report show an increase in precipitation of 10 to 25 percent during winters and a decrease of 5 to 20 percent during summers, a looming problem for agriculture. 

A map of temperature changes worldwide since 1901 created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrates the large-scale warming trend. “Some places’ temp has gone up a lot in the last 20 or 30 years, other places it hasn’t really,” Archer said. 

“If you try to find Chicago on [the map], our pixel didn’t seem to have much change,” he said. 

The most extreme increases, between 2.5 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, are concentrated in the more sensitive, higher latitudes, according to the report. 

Temperatures in areas with extensive ice cover increase faster because initial heating sets into motion a cycle that leads to further warming, said Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. 

Northern regions such as Alaska are seeing the impact of global warming already. But Chicago could feel a lot more like Texas by 2030 with continued warming.
Northern regions such as Alaska are seeing the impact of global warming already. But Chicago could feel a lot more like Texas by 2030 with continued warming.

The Arctic is covered with bright ice and snow. This reflects heat from the sun back into space. But as temperatures rise, the ice melts and exposes dark areas of land and sea that absorb the heat, Serreze said. 

At the same time, the sea ice covering the inland Arctic Ocean acts as insulation. It keeps the warm sea and the cooler atmosphere separate. Without the cover of the sea ice, heat from the ocean can transfer to the atmosphere, further warming the area. 

While computer climate models predicted the warming of high latitudes, reality is ahead of the models. 

We are seeing larger ice melts than projected, Serreze said. “We are on the fast track of change.”

CLIMATE SCIENTIST WARNS OF UNDERESTIMATED GLOBAL WARMING FORECASTS

by Charles Berret
Apr 29, 2009

University of Chicago climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert says that humans have moved well beyond the natural swings of global warming in the environment. We have “shocked the system” and “thrown it way out of equilibrium,” he said during a recent presentation on his home turf of Evanston. Click the link for a slideshow with highlights of his talk.

A CO2-CLEANING MACHINE MAY CHANGE THE MEANS OF GOING GREEN

by Kahrin Deines
Dec 04, 2008

In an unassuming building on the outskirts of Tucson, a close-knit team of innovators have developed a prototype machine that might one day be hailed as the thing-a-ma-jig that helped beat back global warming.

It’s hard to miss the irony that the device, likened to an artificial tree, was born in the hot, dry desert landscape of Arizona.

Here, where little but cactus absorb CO2 from the sweltering air, a scientist and an entrepreneur came together to develop a machine that mimics aspects of photosynthesis.

“Just like a tree, it has leaf-like surfaces over which the air flows and then the CO2 is taken out of the air by getting in contact with these surfaces,” said Klaus Lackner of Columbia University in New York. The tall, debonair physicist is largely credited with inventing the new technology.

Lackner’s vision and the worry that rising carbon-dioxide levels could trigger an abrupt change in climate prompted the late Gary Comer, founder of the Lands’ End clothing company, to invest in his idea. With Comer’s seed money and advice from Columbia’s climate sciences pioneer Wallace Broecker, a company called Global Research Technologies opened shop in 2004 to turn Lackner’s dream of a synthetic tree into a reality.

All told, Comer’s foundation invested $6 million in the development of the technology, part of some $50 million that he dedicated to research that addresses climate change.

The synthetic tree can’t yet turn sunshine into fuel as plants do but it can beat plants at half their own game, according to Lackner, chairman of Global Research Technologies. “We can pack the leaves much more tightly because they don’t have to get sunshine,” he said. “And, consequently, we can absorb about 1,000 times as much CO2 as an equally sized tree could absorb.”

 

By sucking carbon dioxide out of the air at a rate that could potentially offset CO2 emissions from humans, the machine – officially called a “CO2 scrubber” – might change the carbon playing field. Critics, though, question whether it will ever be economically feasible to deploy a whole fleet of such scrubbers throughout the world, let alone dispose of the CO2 they gather below ground.

At first sight, Lackner’s machine doesn’t look much like a planetary scrubber or a tree.

It’s a big box with sheets of special plastic hanging in it. The sheets are able to draw the CO2 out of the air by ionizing the gas so it binds to the plastic like a magnet. Once the CO2 is collected, it’s removed by a blast of humidity, allowing the plastic resins to be reused. Without the removal process, the CO2 couldn’t be sequestered and the machine would be an energy guzzler.

A full-size version of the device, which Lackner envisions at about the same size as a 40-foot-long shipping container, could remove as much as one ton of carbon dioxide from the air in a day’s operation.

One ton, of course, wouldn’t make much of a dent in the approximate 30 billion tons of CO2 emissions that enter the atmosphere every year. But if enough of these scrubbers were built – and enough would number in the tens of millions by Lackner’s estimate – they might be able to tilt the carbon balance away from the brink of severe climate change.

A fleet – or forest – of the scrubbers could be deployed, placed in locations where there is either a demand for CO2, such as near greenhouses that use it to boost plant growth, or near places where it can be stored.

Tens of millions is a big number, though, and right now Global Research Technologies estimates it will cost them $250,000 to build just one scrubber unit. Lackner and Allen Wright, president of GRT, are currently looking for private investors willing to ante up the costs of building and deploying the first real scrubber unit, which they said could be finished in two years’ time.

Tens of millions of scrubbers, of course, would take more time and more money.

Lackner said the large figures just reflect the size of the problem. “The number of cars, the number of trucks – all of those are numbers on that scale, so it’s not impossible to get there,” he said. “Because we are dealing with a problem of a billion cars, we are also having to put up a solution that is on that same scale.”

Global Research Technologies completed a scaled-down prototype of the CO2 scrubber last year. And it’s working, according to Lackner, who said it can keep up with the emissions from one car.

Yet direct air-capture technologies for CO2 have been viewed skeptically in the past. The reason has to do with carbon dioxide concentrations in the air. Even with rising levels, the gas sits at a relatively dilute concentration of about only 380 parts per million. But it can make up 10 percent or more of the smog belched directly from a power plant’s smokestack

As a result, the U.S. Climate Change Technology Program, which coordinates research into technologies capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has focused on capture techniques designed for use at power plants. Energy-independence advocates as well have hailed carbon capture from power plants as a path to so-called clean coal.

Direct air-capture technologies, such as Lackner’s, on the other hand, have been sidestepped for now, with the Climate Change Technology Program defining them as a strategy for the long-term – 40 to 60 years from now.

“Clearly one of the challenges is just the enormous volume of air you have to handle [with direct air capture],” said Robert Socolow, the Princeton scientist who developed the “stabilization wedge,” a popular conceptual tool for thinking about how to halt climate change using existing technology. There’s eight-tenths of a gram of CO2, weighing about as much as a paper clip, in a cubic meter of air, he said.

Yet a gallon of gasoline generates approximately 20 pounds in CO2 emissions. So even though CO2 is still laced thinly throughout the atmosphere, its levels are far higher than in past climate warming cycles that have occurred over the last 650,000 years. Barring serious efforts to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, the concentration of CO2 is expected to surge higher still, accelerating the warming that already poses risks of coastal flooding and inland drought.

 

As a result, Socolow and others are starting to take direct air-capture technologies seriously and the American Physical Society, a society of physicists with more than 46,000 members, has just approved a $25,000 grant for him to organize a study on the various options being researched. The society’s grants are often supplemented by money from outside foundations.

The new study will look at capture techniques that could be used to suck CO2 from the air anywhere, which is how Lackner’s invention operates, as well as those tailored for use at a power plant. According to Socolow, it will be the first independent assessment of such technologies and will begin sometime this fall.

Lackner and the group at Global Research Technologies, located in a 10,000-square-foot building near Tucson’s airport, aren’t the only scientists exploring how to capture carbon dioxide directly from the air. In fact, a colleague of Lackner’s at Columbia, Peter Eisenberger, is testing CO2 absorbers that could inhale and exhale carbon dioxide in response to temperature swings.

And in Canada, David Keith, at the University of Calgary, has been working with technology similar to Lackner’s first prototype, with the goal of building a mega-CO2 scrubbing facility. Keith tested a version of his CO2 scrubbing tower last summer, as featured in the Discovery Channel’s new “Project Earth” television series.

Still other work is underway by Julio Friedmann at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, based in Livermore, Calif., where scientists are looking for a catalyst that could speed how quickly the CO2 binds to an absorber. “It’s a very interesting idea, it’s a new idea, and it’s a hard idea,” Socolow said of general capture concepts. “So, we will try to sort out whether this is something for the next decade or for the longer-term.”

All of the air-capture technologies, however, require a place to put the carbon dioxide once it’s collected. And, at the moment, no CO2 sequestration areas currently operate in the United States.

Although the U.S. Department of Energy is presently researching the viability of underground carbon sequestration, the effort is still in a preliminary phase.In fact, a September report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that slow-paced progress by the Energy Department and other agencies has “left critical gaps that impede our understanding” of the potential use of carbon capture and storage technologies.

At the international level, the Group of Eight industrialized countries committed at a July meeting to building 20 large-scale carbon capture and storage sites by 2010. But, in a report released in October, the Paris-based International Energy Agency stated that current investment levels are nowhere near what’s required to achieve the G8 goals.

 

Nevertheless, most research continues with an eye toward capturing the CO2 at a high-emissions source, such as a coal-burning plant.

“At a power plant, you have a large amount of CO2 so you can put it into a big pipe and move it” into storage, said Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment. “But if you have lots of small units all over the place [as Lackner proposes], think of the plumbing that will require.”

Proponents of direct air-capture point out, however, that vast emissions come from mobile sources, such as cars or planes.

 

“How do you de-carbonize a jumbo jet?” Friedman asked. “How do you de-carbonize a barge going across the ocean?” There are parts of the economy where it’s going to be hard to wring out the carbon, he said.

A CO2 scrubber, such as Lackner has developed, could deal with those emissions because it does not have to be connected to a specific emissions source to clean the atmosphere.

“The concept of air capture of carbon dioxide is applying a local solution to a global problem in a sense that the device can, and does, capture CO2 emissions at one location that could have been emitted virtually anywhere on the surface of the planet,” said Wright.

And, while the future may bring electric or hydrogen-powered cars, gasoline may still be the cheapest way to fuel planes or barges for decades to come.

 

In any case, Lackner insists the location or size of a CO2 scrubber doesn’t matter. “I move the prophet to the mountain, not the mountain to the prophet,” he said. “I put the unit near a place where I can sequester [carbon dioxide].”

Moreover, he said, they could initially pair the machine with a CO2 consumer – and this is why Lackner and the Global Research Technologies team think they can bring the scrubber to market even without a place to sequester the carbon dioxide at first.

Dry-ice users, soda-pop makers or oil-shale miners could all be prospective customers, according to Lackner. And Global Research Technologies could edge into these CO2 markets, he said, by offering lower prices since the scrubber could be located near CO2 consumers to bypass the energy costs of transport.

If the first scrubbers can turn a profit in these existing CO2 markets, Lackner and Global Research Technologies could build up economies of scale and fine tune the scrubber design in preparation for a larger launch that could really make a dent in carbon dioxide levels. 

The question remains, however, whether their price for CO2 – at first an estimated $100 a ton – could really be competitive with current purchase prices.

“These are all technologists,” Schrag said. “So when they talk about prices you have to be very careful.” Charging $100 per ton of CO2, he said, would be like charging $300 or $400 per ton of coal, when it currently trades at $30 or $40.

If the U.S. and other countries make emissions reductions mandatory through cap and trade regimes, however, CO2 trading prices could rise as companies are forced to buy up offsets to balance out their emissions. In such a setting, Global Research Technologies – and other companies that capture carbon dioxide – could sell offsets.

In any case, although the future trading price of CO2 remains unknown, the allure of what Lackner and other air-capture technology proponents say they can offer is irrefutable.

“I could collect 100 tons of CO2 and come to you and say: ‘Would you like a car that has no CO2 emissions over its lifetime?’” Lackner said. “Because the CO2 emissions of this car over its lifetime will be roughly 100 tons and I could have collected all of the CO2 the day the car was made.”

GLOBAL WARMING POSES HIGH RISK OF FAMINE IN ARID LANDS AND DROUGHT IN CALIFORNIA

Photo by Scott Stine  Tenaya Lake, elevation 8,150 feet, at Yosemite National Park. One of numerous Sierran lakes with Medieval-era tree stumps rooted at its floor.
Photo by Scott Stine
Tenaya Lake, elevation 8,150 feet, at Yosemite National Park. One of numerous Sierran lakes with Medieval-era tree stumps rooted at its floor.

by Chris Gray
Dec 04, 2008

If the past 2,000 years are any guide, California could dry out significantly, with or without global warming.  But global warming isn’t helping.

Photo by Scott Stine  The Patagonian drylands, looking west toward the Argentine Andes.
Photo by Scott Stine
The Patagonian drylands, looking west toward the Argentine Andes.

The 20th century stands out as a very wet period while climate change and urban sprawl in the state are all but certain to make the current century a dry one and threaten the state’s supply of water.

With global warming displacing the jet stream of high-altitude winds and the water it carries to the north, dry conditions that were the norm prior to the 20th century are all but certain to return and threaten the way of life in sunny  California.

All across the warming Earth, the climate of already arid lands will march toward desert, posing water shortage in the American Southwest. But, in some places such as Africa, agriculture could be devastated.

“It’s bad news,” said Jay Quade, a geoscience researcher at the University of Arizona who traveled to South America to study its past climate. “It means famine in many parts of the world.” He said tensions over the arid border of India and Pakistan likely would be exacerbated by a drier climate.

In California, lakes east of the Sierra Nevada have been lowered to provide water that supports the way of life in the famously sunny state. 

Photo by Scott Stine   Artifacts found on the  dry bed of Owens Lake in California. These date from times in the past when the bed was exposed and dry due to drought.
Photo by Scott Stine
Artifacts found on the dry bed of Owens Lake in California. These date from times in the past when the bed was exposed and dry due to drought.

Scott Stine, an environmental scientist from California State University, East Bay, has found stumps of trees rooted in the artificially exposed bed of Mono Lake. The trees grew hundreds of years ago when the lake was naturally low due to drought. 

The streams that feed this landlocked lake near the Nevada border have been diverted to the city of Los Angeles, and these diversions have drawn Mono Lake to low levels, exposing the stumps.

For thousands of years, the landlocked lakes of eastern California and western Nevada have risen and fallen in response to natural changes in water supply, but rainfall during the last century provided an abundance of runoff for the tributary streams that flow into these lakes.

“With or without global warming, there is no reason to think that this wet period will continue,” Stine said.

Quade found similar patterns in South America. A warmer world means a drier place for regions across the globe that are already arid, his research shows. Land use could change dramatically.

“Just small shifts in the rain belts could really shift what agriculture takes place,” Quade said.

All this would be bad news for California. The unusually wet conditions have provided a reliable source for drinking water for urban areas across the state, as well as agricultural irrigation in the Central Valley and Southern California, Stine said.

Mono Lake, one of several lakes showing evidence of a dry past, has dropped 45 feet since Los Angeles completed its aqueduct in the 1940s. By imposing drought, global warming could increase the drawdown.

“Nature had pulled Mono Lake down even lower than Los Angeles had taken it,” said Stine, a professor of geography and environmental sciences.

Stine said that traces of the isotope Carbon-14 in stump wood reveals that the lake stood at low levels for centuries during medieval times prior to 1350.

While glacial ice cores serve as windows into the past in the Arctic and Antarctic, pluvial lakes — landlocked lakes without an outlet to the sea — are the gauge into the prehistoric climate of the world’s deserts.

“Obviously, high stands of lakes indicate wet times, low stands of lakes indicate dry times,” Stine said.

High in the Andes of Bolivia and in the lifeless reaches of Chile’s Atacama Desert, Quade also found these landlocked long dried out lake beds, a good place to study past changes in climate.

Lake Titicaca, on the border of Bolivia and Peru, is the largest lake in South America, and a little less than half the size of Lake Ontario. But geomorphic records indicate a much larger lake, called Lake Tauca, once stretched far beyond Titicaca’s modern shores.

“You can look up the side of the hill and see a shoreline” from the past, Quade said.

Quade’s research dates Lake Tauca’s peak depths to between 14,000 and 16,000 years ago, about the time that large armadas of icebergs were released from huge but thinning ice sheets into the North Atlantic Ocean. The rush of freshwater and ice stopped normal circulation of the ocean currents and suddenly sparked an advance of another relatively short-lived ice age in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Quade hypothesizes that the cold North Atlantic Ocean shifted the wet, tropical climate of the equator 20 degrees to the south, greening South America’s deserts, such as  the Atacama, and raising the level of Lake Titicaca fivefold.

“The idea that Lake Titicaca was five times its present size is staggering today,” Quade said.

Both Quade and Stine recently presented their findings at the Comer Foundation’s abrupt climate change conference in Wisconsin. They joined other leading climate scientists to discuss their latest research from across the globe  supported by the foundation. 

One of the current scientific tasks in climatology has been to find out what would happen if a Heinrich Event, a sudden change in climate caused by the release of ice into the North Atlantic, reoccurred. The phenomenon is named for German researcher Harmut Heinrich, who first identified the cyclical nature of these upheavals.

“Catastrophic collapse of Greenland ice in the next 100 years would be great for Bolivia,” Quade said. “It would mean that it would rain like hell.”

Wallace Broecker, the Columbia University climatologist who first figured out the oceans’ circulation patterns, said at the conference that such a collapse would be unlikely, though. In a warming world, there is probably not enough ice left to cut off the ocean conveyor system that he identified. Previous collapses occurred in the midst of receding ice ages, triggering a secondary advance. 

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Miami proposed the theory that, as the world gets warmer, the earth’s deserts will get drier, because of shifts in weather patterns. Conversely, when the earth gets colder, its deserts get wetter.

Quade’s studies in the southern reaches of South America help bolster this potentially alarming trend. Laguna Cari Laufquen, in the arid Patagonia region of Argentina, went through its wettest period, not after the last Heinrich Event, but at the very coldest part of the last major ice age, 22,000 years ago.

Broecker and Stine have been collaborating with Quade’s work at Cari Laufquen in Argentina.

Since the height of the last ice age, the Argentine lake has shrunk to half its ancient levels — levels that would theoretically continue to drop as global temperatures rise.

Most of the American West has long been vulnerable to periodic drought.  But with the world now warming, both the severity and the length of droughts might well increase, according to Stine. 

“You would expect a warming planet to impose drier conditions on mid-latitude arid lands,” Stine said. But he worried the past may not be a reliable indicator of the West’s uncertain future. “We have turned our atmosphere into an artifact. With the atmosphere now composed of so many greenhouse gases, we don’t know what the future holds.”

COMER FOUNDATION FUNDING SUPPORTS CRITICAL CLIMATE CHANGE RESEARCH

Courtesy of the Comer Science and Education Foundation   Gary Comer on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in 2002.
Courtesy of the Comer Science and Education Foundation
Gary Comer on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in 2002.

by Erica M. Peterson
Dec 03, 2008

When Stephanie Comer sailed the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean in 2001 with her father, Lands’ End founder Gary Comer, and her 8-month-old daughter Siena, the experience changed their lives. 

Although several vessels have made it through the water route since it thwarted early explorers such as John Cabot, Henry Hudson and Jacques Cartier, the ice that summer should have made the route impassable. As

Photo by Philip Walsh, courtesy of the Comer Science and Education Foundation  Key climate change scientists joined Gary Comer (red jacket) on his yacht the Turmoil for a research trip to Greenland in 2005. From left, George Denton of the University of Maine, Richard Alley of Pennylvania State University, Philip Conkling of the Island Institute, Comer and Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Photo by Philip Walsh, courtesy of the Comer Science and Education Foundation
Key climate change scientists joined Gary Comer (red jacket) on his yacht the Turmoil for a research trip to Greenland in 2005. From left, George Denton of the University of Maine, Richard Alley of Pennylvania State University, Philip Conkling of the Island Institute, Comer and Wallace Broecker of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

he studied the map, Comer realized the western half of the passage was probably iced over, but he decided to attempt the voyage anyway. 

“If you want to get off now, go ahead!” he said to his family onboard, after a re-con flight down Peel Sound revealed low ice levels, Stephanie recalled. She stayed with her father and their yacht, the Turmoil. 

It took them 13 days to sail the 2,730 nautical miles (3,140 miles) from Pond Inlet to the Bering Straits, with hardly an iceberg in sight. In a 2004 speech for the Explorer’s Club, where he received the Lowell Thomas Award as a “champion of conservation,” Comer noted the surprising lack of ice along the passage. “It seemed like a miracle, the ice continued to break up and melt away before us—we steamed west on Lancaster Sound to Resolute and South down Peel Sound, over the bones of Erebus and Terror and the brave men of the Franklin Expedition, through the James Clark Ross Straights and West into the Beaufort Sea. Thirteen days later Turmoil was in the Pacific Ocean having transited the Northwest Passage,” he wrote. 

The relative absence of ice throughout the passage concerned Comer and eventually spawned his passionate interest in abrupt climate change. Before his death in 2006, he studied the technical papers of scientists across the globe, tracked down leaders in the field to fund their research and passed on his passion to Stephanie and her brother Guy. Today, they oversee her family’s climate change philanthropy. 

In a political atmosphere where global warming became a battleground of debate that hampered funding, the Comer Science and Education Foundation stepped up to try to make climate research the priority. “There’s really a deplorable lack of funding in this country, I think, for scientists and research, specifically in this area,” Stephanie said. “And the last eight years have been really rough.” 

Climate change in and of itself isn’t necessarily unusual. The planet has undergone cycles of warming and cooling for hundreds of thousands of years. In the first half of the 20th century, Serbian scientist Milutin Milanković tied cyclical climate change to the Earth’s orbit. The thing that worried Comer and scientists in the field, however, was the human link between greenhouse gases and global warming and the possibility of accelerating global warming to a tipping point of abrupt climate change. That would mean radical temperature swings that can happen over a period of as little as a few decades rather than millennia. 

Comer’s epiphany in the Arctic motivated him to put a portion of his Lands’ End profit— $1 billion when he sold the company to Sears in 2002—into abrupt climate change research. 

His strategy? Funnel his money directly to leading climate scientists through fellowships for graduate and postdoctoral students to study with these mentors and learn the field. Initially Comer’s goal was to donate $1 million. But, by now, Stephanie Comer estimates that the Comer Foundation has given close to $50 million to climate change research alone. Her father and her mother, Frances, also donated $84 million to the Comer Children’s Hospital and to pediatric medicine at the University of Chicago. 

For Stephanie and Guy, the goal remains to fund research addressing abrupt climate change, and they are doing so through grants to 21 scientists dedicated to the subject. 

The scientists gathered recently to share their research at the family’s Wisconsin estate, a place fondly called “the farm” and set in an idyllic patchwork of hills and forests. At the conference, scientists unequivocally linked the current global warming to human activities, using evidence they have gathered from ice cores, glaciers, drylands and caves. 

But they said they are still looking for answers to explain the triggers that ignite abrupt climate change; the reasons climate patterns in the northern hemisphere are different than those in the southern hemisphere, and the fundamental connection between global warming and CO2, a gas emitted by fossil fuels such as gasoline. 

“There are many unanswered questions and in order for us to plan what’s going to happen, you need to understand them,” Stephanie said. Though the research focuses on the big picture, she is also an advocate of the small changes individuals can make to further stall climate change. 

“There are sort of the big questions, and then I think we have to take it down to how in our daily lives can we continue emitting less carbon,” she said. 

The Comer Foundation and the league of dedicated climate change scientists working with it is Comer’s “unexpected legacy,” Stephanie said. Mike Kaplan, a geochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University told her that the foundation’s philanthropy has moved the field forward 15 to 20 years. 

For now, the Comer Foundation plans to continue to support the scientists, host an annual conference and rally additional support for climate change research. Eventually, Stephanie would like to see their research translate into actual policy. 

“Boy, I wish my dad were still here to see all this and to push it along because he was truly a visionary,” Stephanie said. “I think that in our small way my brother and I are really trying to continue and to push his vision forward.”


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