THE SCIENCE IS SOLID YET MORE QUESTION GLOBAL WARMING

 

by Marita Vera

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

Nov 10, 2009

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

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

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

STALLED COPENHAGEN SUMMIT UNDERSCORES NEED FOR CLIMATE SCIENCE

Courtesy of Jorge Strelin   Scientists study the effects of climate change as it turns glaciers into lakes over the years in places such as Southern Pategonia.
Courtesy of Jorge Strelin
Scientists study the effects of climate change as it turns glaciers into lakes over the years in places such as Southern Pategonia.

by Diane Rusignola
Dec 08, 2009

With climate talks stalled in Copenhagen over emission cuts by developed nations and no agreement in sight, political leaders from around the world head into the last lap of the latest summit to tackle global warming.

But climate scientists keep searching out key clues to underpin what’s at stake and what to do about it. Just studying nature remains the front line for shaping answers to the problem.

Glaciers are often the time machines that climate scientists such as Columbia University’s Joerg Schaefer and his use to develop a global map dating from the last ice age through present day. The map is meant to depict how glaciers have moved over time in reaction to climate changes.

The information is critical because glaciers link to water supply.

“Glaciers are extremely sensitive to even the smallest climate signals,” said Schaefer, who started his career as a geochemist. “In the glacier and moraine record, you see signals you don’t see in any other record.”

Moraines are the ridges of debris left by retreating glaciers. Comparing those movements on inter-hemispheric and regional levels will help climate scientists and policy-makers understand how the hemispheres, climate shifts and glaciers are coupled, he said.

“We want to provide [scientists] with the information that is relevant to predict at what speed glaciers in certain areas will disappear and modify the water availability and the hydropower,” Schaefer said. “In many areas it’s a big problem already.”

Pennsylvania State University climate geologist Richard Alley, also a glacier expert, agrees that understanding the history of climate change around the world is one of the best ways scientists can learn about players such as atmospheric and oceanic circulation.

But people also contribute to the release of greenhouse gases through every day activities such as driving and using electricity and scientists relate the spike in CO2 levels to rising current temperatures and human activities. 
Glacier experts also study the forceful role winds play in climate change. When winds shift, oceans shift in response, causing deep waters from the south to come up at an increased rate and release additional carbon dioxide into the air, acclerating global warming.

This process warms the southern hemisphere while the North still stays in the cold. Scientists such as Schaefer are working to prove this concept through geological records.

“If that is true, this mechanism, then we have to see it in the glacial and the moraine record, because the South has to be different than the North,” Schaefer said. 

But temperatures are rising globally and carbon dioxide levels now are at 385 parts per million, the highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years.

Scientists know that because climate geoscientists such as Alley measure the CO2 in ancient air pockets captured in ice cores drilled from the glaciers.

While leaders at the Copenhagen summit worked to advance climate change responses, the field work of scientists such as Schaefer and Alley provides the underlying foundation on which to base the policies for real change. These experts remain realistic, but hopeful above all else.

“As long as we don’t have…artificial trees, and as long as there’s coal in the ground, we are going to be having this discussion,” Alley said. “[But] we are going to change the world in really fundamental ways.”

Glacier experts also study the forceful role winds play in climate change. When winds shift, oceans shift in response, causing deep waters from the south to come up at an increased rate and release additional carbon dioxide into the air, acclerating global warming.

 

Glacier experts also study the forceful role winds play in climate change. When winds shift, oceans shift in response, causing deep waters from the south to come up at an increased rate and release additional carbon dioxide into the air, acclerating global warming.

 

This process warms the southern hemisphere while the North still stays in the cold. Scientists such as Schaefer are working to prove this concept through geological records. “If that is true, this mechanism, then we have to see it in the glacial and the moraine record, because the South has to be different than the North,” Schaefer said.

But temperatures are rising globally and carbon dioxide levels now are at 385 parts per million, the highest levels in hundreds of thousands of years. Scientists know that because climate geoscientists such as Alley measure the CO2 in ancient air pockets captured in ice cores drilled from the glaciers.

While leaders at the Copenhagen summit worked to advance climate change responses, the field work of scientists such as Schaefer and Alley provides the underlying foundation on which to base the policies for real change. These experts remain realistic, but hopeful above all else.

“As long as we don’t have…artificial trees, and as long as there’s coal in the ground, we are going to be having this discussion,” Alley said. “[But] we are going to change the world in really fundamental ways.”

SEISMIC MESSAGES OF GLOBAL WARMING

by Annie Snider
Oct 02, 2009

Seismologist Meredith Nettles’ office is just north of New York City, but her mind is more often on Greenland where she spends part of the year doing field research.

As glacial ice melted to its seasonal minimum this year, she watched, not just with satellites and GPS data, but also with seismic readings.

Nettles’ specialty is earthquakes caused by large chunks of ice breaking off glaciers and crashing into the sea. Climate scientists say these earthquakes offer information about glacial melting that could dramatically change earth’s climate.

Courtesy of Meredith Nettles. Ice breaking off the front of glaciers can cause earthquakes that register on the global seismic scale. Climate scientists have installed monitoring equipment on several Greenlandic glaciers, including Helheim Glacier, pictured here. The increasing number of earthquakes point to climate change.
Courtesy of Meredith Nettles.
Ice breaking off the front of glaciers can cause earthquakes that register on the global seismic scale. Climate scientists have installed monitoring equipment on several Greenlandic glaciers, including Helheim Glacier, pictured here. The increasing number of earthquakes point to climate change.

“The earthquakes essentially give us a way to monitor the health of glaciers in Greenland,” says Nettles, assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “They give us a very valuable tool for monitoring and understanding the ice sheet and its future.”

It’s a future of intense interest to climate scientists, who warn that the melting of the ice sheet would bring rising sea levels and coastal flooding. It could also impact the global ocean circulatory system that makes our climate habitable for human beings over much of the globe.

Scientists monitored a six-fold increase in earthquakes from Greenland between 1993 and 2005. Nettles says the simultaneous changes happening in many glaciers around Greenland are a good indication that these glacial retreats are linked to the larger scale process of climate change.

Nettles’ work with glacial earthquakes, or icequakes, began six years ago when she and colleagues discovered a new class of earthquakes occurring mostly in Greenland. Despite their intensity, the earthquakes had been hidden because they happen at a very slow speed. Whereas a magnitude five earthquake along a fault takes about two seconds to happen, the Arctic earthquakes occur over as much as 60 seconds.

Intrigued by the phenomenon, Nettles and a handful of other climate scientists headed to Greenland to install GPS equipment that would give them a closer look. It is dangerous and expensive work. Glacial ice in these areas moves at a speed of about 3 feet an hour, and the boxes must be installed at points generally only accessible by helicopter.

Over the years, Nettles’ team has perfected the process for installing the equipment, which involves drilling a 9-foot hole in the ice and connecting a box of monitoring equipment. When her team placed 14 GPS monitors on Helheim Glacier this summer, they could install one in less than 10 minutes.

Courtesy of Meredith Nettles The giant ice field dwarfs a research camp at Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier.
Courtesy of Meredith Nettles
The giant ice field dwarfs a research camp at Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier.

This monitoring equipment isthe secret to how the scientists discovered that the earthquakes were being caused by enormous blocks of ice breaking off the front of glaciers and falling into the water far below in the process called “calving.” They also found that the flow of the glacier immediately increases after a large-scale calving event.

Nettles says understanding how this happens could provide critical information about major global changes in climate.

“If we understand how fast we can put more ice from the ice sheet into the world’s oceans, it has an important effect on ocean circulation, sea-level rise, and many other inter-related aspects of the climate-ocean system,” she says.

According to Nettles, the scientific community is now starting to see a “clear link” between glacial retreats marked by earthquakes and two key elements of climate change: ocean temperature and ocean circulation.

“We see a link, basically, through the ability of that warmer water to erode sea ice and floating ice mélange in front of the glaciers that otherwise helps restrict calving,” Nettles says. That ice in front of the glacier had been providing resistance, slowing the forward movement of the glacier that causes more ice to break off into the ocean.

“Greenland is a very sensitive responder to changes in climate,” Nettles says. Although scientists aren’t currently finding similar changes in Antarctica, she says the process there would be the same and “could have very significant implications because Antarctica is so big and contains such a large mass of ice.”

As global leaders work toward a political framework for preventing further climate change and adapting to the changes already in the pipeline, far-away Greenland will be front-of-mind.

RISING OCEANS POSE RISING THREAT TO COASTLINES

Photo courtesy of Richard Alley  Ice monuments such as this one, off Scoresby Sound, Greenland, are disappearing - and scientists still aren't sure exactly what will happen to the rest of the planet when they do.
Photo courtesy of Richard Alley
Ice monuments such as this one, off Scoresby Sound, Greenland, are disappearing – and scientists still aren’t sure exactly what will happen to the rest of the planet when they do.

by Kristen Minogue
Oct 07, 2009
Rising sea levels act as one of the greatest and most feared indicators of global warming, as melting ice crashing into the ocean threatens coastlines with flooding.

And researchers warn that oceans are rising much more rapidly than they thought as world leaders wrack their brains for ways to stay below the 2-to-3 degree warming threshold that human society can tolerate.

“Probably the big failure in terms of climate change projections so far is sea level is going up faster than we suspected,” said Richard Alley, professor of geology at Penn State.

The International Panel on Climate Change did attempt to estimate how high it would rise by the end of the century in their most recent 2007 assessment. Their model-based range goes from just above half a foot to just under two feet. But the numbers are too low, possibly 13 feet too low, and scientists know it.

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MEDILL
Richard Alley talks about what makes melting ice sheets so hard to predict and how much it will cost the world’s economy to stop the trend of rising sea levels before it’s too late.

The problems lay with the models and factoring in melting ice sheets of glaciers. Scientists still don’t understand many of the fundamentals of how ice sheets behave. This makes predicting how they fast will melt difficult, said Alley. So the scientists drafting the IPCC predictions tacked a catch-all qualifier onto their estimates: “Excluding future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow.”

“When the IPCC was faced with sea level rise, they did what we in America call punting,” Alley said. “They said, ‘Well, I don’t know what to do.’ So they kicked it away.”

Since 2007, scientists have given what Alley calls “back-of-the-envelope” estimates that take ice flow into account. The projections for sea level rise by the end of the century range from less than half a foot to 15 feet, although most fall between 2 to 6 feet.This means the Everglades in Florida would flood completely and the Manhattan subway system would flood more often as severe hurricanes along the coast become more frequent.

On its most basic level, the relationship between ice sheets and sea level is fairly predictable. When the planet cools and ice sheets grow, sea level falls. When the planet warms and ice sheets shrink, sea level rises. Faster melt, faster flow (or both) makes them shrink further. When that happens, sea level rises even more.

MEDILL
Richard Alley talks about what makes melting ice sheets so hard to predict and how much it will cost the world’s economy to stop the trend of rising sea levels before it’s too late.

But when it comes to understanding how ice sheets flow, scientists run into several barriers.

The first is relatively intuitive. Ice sheets are approximately 2 miles thick. Much of how they flow depends on the surface beneath, and how rough, smooth, dry or wet it is. But as Alley points out, peering beneath 2 miles of ice is no easy task.

Alley also said the satellites scientists use for many of their observations have passed their design life. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to NASA scientist Claire Parkinson. While they would like to have up-to-date technology, constantly changing instruments can pose a problem for climate scientists who often need to take long-term measurements with standardized results.

“For those of us who are in the climate field, the long consistent record just kind of overwhelms in importance the issue of maybe getting a somewhat better instrument up,” Parkinson said.

Meanwhile, Alley said the scientific community itself has shown a rather lackluster commitment to studying ice sheets.

“The major modeling groups, when they had to build their ocean-atmosphere models, they went out and bought geophysical fluid dynamicists, and they built models,” he said. “When they’re trying to do ice sheets, they go out and they buy a post-doc.”

When those groups come back from the ice sheets, they continue to bring back new discoveries about how they work. Theoretically this benefits science. But it also further confirms what scientists already suspect: They know much less about ice sheets than they would like.

They do know one thing, however. Meltwater – either above or beneath the ice – tends to speed up the process. Surface water on the ice can seep through the crevices, slicken the bed beneath the glacier and make it flow and breakup more quickly. Or when ice shelves, giant slabs of ice stretching out into the ocean, collapse due to warming, the ice on the land falls apart even faster. This can result in a drastically destructive calving event in which enormous slabs of ice crash into the sea.

And it turns out ice sheets are incredibly sensitive to even tiny climate changes. According to some rough estimates, if the ocean temperature rises even one degree Celsius, it could thin the bottom of a floating ice shelf an extra 30 feet a year.

Scientists still don’t know exactly what a figure like that could mean for the future of the planet. That fact scares them even more – and makes finding out how ice sheets work before the rising oceans invade coastal megalopolises all the more urgent.

NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY CONFERENCE HEATS UP CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE

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 Joe Piaskowy/MEDILL

Scientists and attendees reflect on communication

by Joe Piaskowy
Nov 11, 2009

Glaciers are retreating, lakes are drying up and sea levels are rising faster than expected. Extreme weather is on the rise and predicted to become more extreme as global temperatures climb.

Yet, paradoxically, scientists realize the evidence of climate change may still be a hard sell.

Scientists continue to collect empirical data and evidence in support of global warming and the role human activities are playing in driving climate into new and dangerous places.

 Joe Piaskowy/MEDILL Planetary scientist Brad Sageman welcomes 225 students, scientists and area residents to Northwestern University's first public climate change conference.
Joe Piaskowy/MEDILL
Planetary scientist Brad Sageman welcomes 225 students, scientists and area residents to Northwestern University’s first public climate change conference.

“Despite all the accumulating evidence about climate change on the planet, polls show that people are actually decreasing in their belief that climate change is a problem, ” said Brad Sageman, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University.

In a concentrated effort to share the science with the public, the department co-sponsored Northwestern’s first climate change conference with the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern, the Program in Environmental Policy and Culture, and One Book. The conference organizers brought together scientists and policy experts from around the country to highlight research, ideas and solutions. 

More than 225 students, scientists and area residents came out on the unseasonably warm November day to participate in a series of presentations covering the politics as well as the science surrounding climate change.

Chicago architect Mark Hartman said that he attended the conference with a professional as well as a social agenda.

“The topic of climate change is a hot topic politically,” Hartman said. “And it affects me personally as well as the world I live in.” Hartman expressed an interest in greener buildings. 

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows that not everyone shares Hartman’s concern and foresight. The poll released in October indicates that only 35 percent of Americans surveyed see global warming as a “very serious problem,” down from 44 percent in April 2008.

Lonnie Thompson/OHIO STATE  An Alaskan  lake melted from a glacier as global warming is melting glaciers across the globe.
Lonnie Thompson/OHIO STATE
An Alaskan lake melted from a glacier as global warming is melting glaciers across the globe.

As public support for addressing climate change may be waning, scientists are finding it more and more important to get the message out.

Conferences such as the one held at Northwestern are vital, said Francesca McInerney, one of the conference speakers and an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at the university. 

“They help get us thinking about how what we are doing is relevant to the climate change question and then communicating it to the people who are outside of our field,” she said.

McInerney’s research focuses on measuring and reading isotopic signatures, essentially the carbon dioxide and methane levels, of rock and fossil record. Her research shows how natural climate change affected the ecosystems of earth’s distant past, causing huge displacements in species.

And, right now, CO2 levels are higher than they have been in the last 800,000 years, she said.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is a thermostat for our planet. Scientists know that from measuring the CO2 in ancient air bubbles trapped in ice cores and from isotopic signatures of the earth’s past. When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are high, so is the earth’s temperature.

“We can track CO2 rise and we can track and temperature rise and there really is little debate about the way CO2 causes warming,” McInerney said.

Keynote speaker Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University kicked off the conference by painting a picture of a planet in peril, where over 90 percent of the world’s glaciers are retreating and the earth is experiencing unprecedented changes faster than predicted.

The glaciers at Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania have lost 85 percent of their ice mass, 26 percent of which has melted since 2000, accelerating sea levels rises.

Thompson/OHIO STATE At Mt. Kilimanjaro, more than 85 percent of the ice that covered the mountain has melted, with 26 percent disappearing since 2000
Thompson/OHIO STATE
At Mt. Kilimanjaro, more than 85 percent of the ice that covered the mountain has melted, with 26 percent disappearing since 2000

For Thompson understanding our climate past is essential in understanding the future.

“You can look at what role climate change played in civilizations of the past – this takes it out of the political arena and to things that actually happened. The past tells us that we should be concerned with climate change because it certainly does have an impact on societies,” he said.

According to scientists some people seem to be confusing a few seasons of cooler weather with long term climate patters, and this is a mistake.

The speakers shared a common message – Climate Change is real, it is happening now, it has happened before and we have to act now if we are to mitigate some of the serious problems associated with Global Warming.

“I’m an optimist at heart,” Sageman said. 

“I feel like human beings always take a long time to get there heads around things and we have just started this discussion. I have a lot of belief in our ability to innovate and solve problems,” he said.

HARNESSING THE SUN FUELS EARTH’S BEST HOPE

Courtesy of Medill   The sun promises the most substantial source of renewable energy for the earth.
Courtesy of Medill
The sun promises the most substantial source of renewable energy for the earth.

by Kristen Minogue
Nov 11, 2009

The world needs a solar revolution to enter the era of energy sustainability and avert the floods, droughts and crop losses expected to result from global warming, according to one scientist.

But politics, economics and technical hurdles ensure the world will run on fossil fuels for the near future. 

Sources of renewable energy abound, ranging from wind to hydro to biofuels. But only one can fuel the entire planet and allow everyone the same standard of living that Americans enjoy, said University of Chicago climate scientist Elisabeth Moyer. And that is the sun. 

“Getting it straight from the sun is really the best way,” Moyer said.

Radiating the power of two light bulbs per square meter of land, the sun could provide enough energy in a minute to fuel the planet for a year. The trick is to harness and store that energy. 

Moyer, who teaches climate and energy, broke down the realities of supply from most of the major alternative energies at the recent Climate Change Symposium at Northwestern University. Even with the most unrealistically optimistic assumptions about catching all the rainfall or harnessing wind at just the right speed, hydroelectric and wind power would barely make a dent in world energy needs.

Biofuels pose the problem of using cropland on a hungry planet for energy production.

Moyer did not include nuclear energy in her discussion. She said after the conference that she believes the industry will take years to revamp after the halt in 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident melted half the fuel in a reactor. The incident ended plans for new U.S. plants even though no one was injured and only small amounts of radiation escaped.  

But the U.S. government recently launched a plan to add 100 new nuclear reactors, nearly doubling the current number. And nuclear continues to supply 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and 8 percent of its total energy, surpassing all the current energy obtained from renewable power sources.  

However, in the roaring energy market of the 21st century, fossil fuels are still drowning out the cleaner alternatives.

With nuclear providing 8 percent of our energy, renewable resources including biofuels provided 7.3 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. in 2008. But fossil fuels still accounted for 85 percent. 

And of the 7 percent derived from renewables, only one percent of that came from solar power. 

Two major obstacles stand between the sun and a less carbon-infested planet. Simple cost is the first and storage is the second.

Assuming a 40-year lifespan, the price of electricity from a solar thermal system costs double that of coal-generated electricity. The price more than quadruples if the system only lasts for 20 years and is even more expensive for power from photovoltaics. 

Past experience and the laws of development indicate that as time passes, people get smarter and technology gets cheaper. But in the meantime, coal remains an incredibly inexpensive and reassuringly domestic energy source. And with the infrastructure that is in place, the cost of replacing it could amount to tens of trillions of dollars, estimates Jack Lewnard of the Gas Technology Institute. 

Lewnard said he believes the same rules apply to developing countries, that stand little chance of bypassing the carbon phase if they want to enhance their economies. 

“I can’t say that they’ll skip,” he said, speaking at an NU energy conference two days after the climate change symposium. “They may be able to make some dents in things, but right now the path for industrialization is still on the fossil path.”

If the price of solar doesn’t go down, the government should step in and raise the price of fossil fuels to close the gap, said Northwestern economics professor Mark Witte.

“We just have to make CO2 production so expensive that we don’t do it,” he said.

Witte said he prefers a carbon tax to a cap-and-trade strategy for its simplicity and transparency. But he said he would support whichever method gets the job done faster.

One need that will add to the cost is carbon sequestration, removing and storing CO2 from fossil fuels to substantially reduce greenhouse gas production associated with global warming.

Finding a way to economically store the light from the sun after it gets dark is another challenge. Because unlike the market for energy, the Earth’s rotation away from the sun every night is a given.

GETTING ACCLIMATED: CLIMATE CHANGE GLOSSARY 101

Courtesy of Richard Alley   As the earth loses dramatic ice monuments to global warming, the meltwater is raising sea levels and threatens coastal areas with flooding.
Courtesy of Richard Alley
As the earth loses dramatic ice monuments to global warming, the meltwater is raising sea levels and threatens coastal areas with flooding.

It’s easier to understand climate change– and even to do something about it– if you know a little of the lingo. Top scientists from around the globe agree that the world is heating up at an increasing rate, and understanding the process is essential to halting it. Familiarity with climate terms and phrases can become a bridge for understanding the issue on a broader scale. A basic climate change vocabulary is essential to connecting the dots between climate and your life in a changing environment.  

The Big Dry/The Big WetClimate scientists often focus their studies on specific areas of the world, and then come together to share findings with one another in order to get a full view of today’s warming effects. The Big Dry and the Big Wet refers to climate changes that are taking place in Australia, where floods ravage Queensland while, at the same time, Tasmania is plagued by extreme drought and heat. Experts need to better understand the Big Dry and the Big Wet but, in general, they know that climate change means rising sea levels with coastal flooding and more inland drought.

Bipolar SeesawThe world’s ocean waters move in and out of one another as warm water flows north and pushes cooler water south, a process known as thermohaline circulation. But this conveyor system operates in a delicate balance. As the globe heats up and glaciers begin to melt, thermohaline circulation can accelerate, throwing this balance out of whack. This effect is known as the bipolar seesaw, where climate shifts accelerate in the north and are out of phase with temperatures in the south due to the vast redistribution of heat via the conveyor.

Cosmic Ray Dating
Believe it or not, scientists can use cosmic rays to date icebergs and accurately identify the history of climate change on earth. Cosmic rays are subatomic particles accelerated in the shock waves of exploding stars and hurled across the galaxy, including through our solar system. Cosmic rays piercing into the atmosphere create Beryllium-10 and other isotopes that fall to the earth’s surface and continue to decay. Evidence of these atoms imbedded in ice can help identify when certain warming events have taken place through the years.

Ice CoresUsing special drills, scientists are able to cut into glaciers and drill down, pulling out three-foot-long, four- to five-inch-wide cylinders, or ice cores. Ancient air pockets that include carbon dioxide gas, a thermostat for climate change, can be used to identify climate records going back hundreds of thousands of years.

Ice RaftingDebris can be carried hundreds or even thousands of miles by ice, whether it’s via a glacier advancing or simply via a chunk of ice that’s broken off into the ocean. The long trek is called ice rafting. Dirt and rock was carried via ice rafting and later dumped into the ocean during the last ice age. Scientists drilling into ocean sediments can identify six massive meltings associated that layers of sediments and related to worldwide climate change.

Courtesy of Jorge Strelin   Current view of the Southern Patagonian ice fields
Courtesy of Jorge Strelin
Current view of the Southern Patagonian ice fields

Ice SheetsWhen it comes to ice, is anything bigger than a glacier? If it measures larger than 20,000 square miles, then yes, and it’s called an ice sheet. One-tenth of the earth’s surface is buried by ice. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (the only current ice sheets on earth) are the major contributors.

Little Ice Age/Last Ice AgeThe Little Ice Age refers to a cold period that lasted from the fourteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. But the last full-scale ice age ended about 11,500 years ago. In order to get a more accurate picture of the earth’s warming, climate scientists have labeled climate periods dating back hundreds of thousands of years by studying ice cores drilled from the glaciers.

MeltwaterAs the globe warms, glaciers slowly begin to melt and shrink back. Scientists can measure a glacier’s meltwater over the course of a year to track the results of climate change on the world’s glaciers. Years of more meltwater versus years of less meltwater can mean different scenarios for the big picture of climate change.

MoraineAs glaciers advance and retreat, they leave rock and dirt behind on land ans well as in the seas. Over time, this debris can accumulate and form a moraine, or a long, ridged hill. Scientists can point to moraines to help identify the effects of climate change and to date the retreat of the glaciers in the past ice age.

Ocean Conveyor Belt
Warm waters and the salt content of the oceans determine the water’s overall density. As surface waters are driven north by winds, the oceans ultimately mix together in deep-sea basins, with heavier water sinking and driving cooler water to the south. Also known as thermohaline circulation, this refers to the overall circulation of the oceans across the globe.

Sea IceBecause ocean waters contain salt, freezing and climate change occurs differently than it would in fresh water. Sea ice refers to frozen ocean water, as opposed to icebergs, which are frozen fresh water.

Westerlies Winds play a large role in climate change, as they direct cyclones, move the surface ocean waters and ultimately aid in the flow of the ocean conveyer belt. The Westerlies are the winds between 35 and 65 degrees latitude that blow from west to east. They primarily come from the northwest in the southern hemisphere and the southwest in the northern hemisphere.

Courtesy of Adi Torfstein   Morianes, ridges of debris left by past glaciers, near the Dead Sea.
Courtesy of Adi Torfstein
Morianes, ridges of debris left by past glaciers, near the Dead Sea.

Younger DryasThe most recent ice age that ended 11,500 years ago and an event that scientists refer to as part of “abrupt” climate change. Although at that time an ice age appeared to have halted on earth, the Younger Dryas returned conditions to nearly ice-age proportions. Slow warming following the event is what led to the past 10,000 years of relative climate stability that nurtured civilization as we know it.

Breadbasket farmers weigh costs of lost crops in a warming climate

 	 Farmers worry about the increased cost of energy and fertilizer under climate change legislation, but the costs of crop loss would be far greater, according to the Environmental Working Group.  Source/credit  	 MEDILL

Farmers worry about the increased cost of energy and fertilizer under climate change legislation, but the costs of crop loss would be far greater, according to the Environmental Working Group.
Source/credit: MEDILL

by Annie Snider
Oct 8, 2009

Not acting on climate change poses a greater economic threat to American farmers than the controversial climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this summer.

That’s the conclusion of a study published Wednesday by the Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C.

Numerous climate studies predict altered rainfall and more heat waves in breadbasket states such as Illinois. That would mean new pests to battle and more crops lost.

“A very small loss in crop yields would cost farmers far more than climate change [legislation] would,” said Craig Cox, Midwest vice president for the Environmental Working Group and co-author of the study.

But the increased costs of crop production predicted by the group are a fraction of those estimated by the Illinois Farm Bureau.

The House bill calls for a reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent of 2005 emissions by 2020. Meeting this goal would likely increase the cost of energy, fertilizer and crop sprays — major factors for farmers.

And it’s not just farmers who have a stake in getting the economics right. When ethanol subsidies diverted large amounts of agricultural land to corn earmarked for energy production, consumers saw the price jump for staples such as bread and milk.

The Environmental Working Group study synthesizes data from U.S. Department of Agriculture economic analyses and studies by institutions including Duke University and the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

Its conclusion: the House climate bill will produce a negligible cost increase. For example, it predicts that soybean production would become 45 cents more expensive per acre by 2018. That’s an increase of less than one percent.

The study then compares this increase with potential crop loss due to climate change. If climate change caused crop yields to drop one-half of one percent per acre, the study said, those losses would outweigh the extra costs associated with the climate bill.

Higher temperatures could cause yields of corn and soybeans to decrease between 30 and 63 percent by the end of the century, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Illinois Farm Bureau agrees climate change poses a threat, but it takes issue with the USDA cost projections.

“Our view is this bill would have a very negative impact on farmers” said Lori Laughlin, director of issue management for the Illinois Farm Bureau. Laughlin cited statistics from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which predicts a $9.91 per acre production cost increase by 2020 under the House bill. That’s about 22 times higher than the USDA estimate.

“Based on all the analyses we’ve seen, this legislation would have a negligible impact on climate change,” Laughlin said.

Laughlin said her group is not opposed to acting on climate change, but that farmers should have a place at the table when that action is decided.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is one group trying to bring farmers to the national table, though it does not oppose the House bill.

Martha Noble, senior policy associate with the coalition, said acting on climate change is a “win-win” for farmers and the environment.

“There are a lot of things farmers can do in their systems,” Noble said, “some of which, like crop rotation, they used to do.”

Some of the changes farmers could make, such as changing tilling methods, would sequester carbon dioxide in the soil. The House bill includes an offsets program that would allow farmers to gain income for using these methods.

As the policy debate moves forward, agriculture may not be the sector with the loudest voice, but its fate will be felt by every American.

“Farmers are environmentalists,” Laughlin said. “You could call them the original environmentalists.”
The scientists share a passion for studying climate change on a massive geographic and historic scale, but they recognize the impact that day-to-day individual actions can have on keeping the planet healthy.

Travis takes up the challenge to reduce the Comer retreat’s carbon footprint by using horses for horsepower and building into the hillsides. Here are a few top priorities for a low-carbon lifestyle.

Sustainable fuel. Travis has used horses, not horsepower, to haul wind-felled wood from the forest blanketing the hills on the farm since 2005. That lumber feeds two high-efficiency wood-fired boilers capable of heating at least two buildings. And while the lights in the main building and along pathways stay on to keep guests safe during the conference, Travis shuts off all unneeded heat and electricity for most of the year.
Sustainable food. A garden and greenhouse bursting with beets, squash and eggplant provide enough organic produce to sate Travis, his staff and the Comer family. This year, Travis’s onions, herbs and tomatoes added flavor to the hungry scientists’ plates, too. (And like the food, the plates, cups and utensils used at the conference complex are all compostable.)
Sustainable construction. Most of the buildings at the complex, including an airplane hangar used for conference sessions, are built into a hillside. That keeps them naturally insulated in the winter and cool in the summer. Travis said little material goes to waste in updating the facility. “When we take down a building, we recycle everything that we can,” he said.

The least energy efficient building is the “climate change hotel,” a log cabin purchased from a neighbor that now houses 16 of the scientists during the conference, Travis said. Even though the cabin lacks the eco-friendly features of the rest of the buildings, it plays a key role in making the conference unique, Travis said.

“What it’s done for the science group is pretty great,” Travis said, because the cabin’s secluded location, surrounded by trees, wildflower meadows, trout streams and woodland paths, gives them a chance to unwind in a natural setting.

Philanthropist Gary Comer founded Lands’ End in 1962 and ran the popular apparel company for 40 years before selling it to Sears. After that, he devoted his self-made fortune to support the Comer Children’s Hospital at the university of Chicago, climate change research worldwide and education.

Comer recruited Travis, a Wisconsin native who had been working at Lands’ End for six years, to help build and manage the retreat in 1993. Originally used for business meetings, it now gives forward-thinking climate scientists from across the world a comfortable and inspiring place to meet and hash out ideas about the planet’s history and future.

“It’s this non-traditional environment where you can get out and walk and talk and speak freely,” Travis said. “It’s this interchange of ideas and research among them that really seems to create this energy level they don’t see other places and brings them back.”

The scientists, who see the impacts of climate change in their fieldwork, understand the stakes.

Irene Schimmelpfennig, a post-doctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said the Swiss alpine glaciers she studies could disappear entirely in the next few hundred years if the current warming trend continues. The actions she takes to reduce her emissions include composting, using public transit and conserving electricity. That’s not enough to avert the melting but individuals do have a role to play in slowing warming trends.

“If everybody had the consciousness to make this effort, it could have a significant impact,” Schimmelpfennig said.

Another Lamont scientist, Aaron Putnam, said taking personal responsibility for carbon emissions isn’t just a nice thought. It’s a necessity.

“We need to ultimately find a way of leveling emissions off,” Putnam said, “so it’s going to require everyone to work together.”

And as long as Putnam, Schimmelpfennig and the other scientists keep coming back to work together, Travis will be there to welcome them with local Wisconsin beers and cheeses, hugs and how-are-you’s, and a space built to sustain their work and the planet they study.

CARBON CAPTURE NEEDS A FOREST OF ARTIFICIAL TREES

by Joe Piaskowy
Oct 02, 2009

World leaders at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh debated curbs in carbon dioxide emissions but scientists such as Klaus Lackner are pioneering solutions to capture the powerful greenhouse gas that is warming the planet.

Significant emissions cuts would have to be undertaken immmediately to make a dent in global warming, experts contend. Innovation has to be part of the equation.

Lackner is an inventor and the Ewing-Worzel Professor of Geophysics in the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering at Columbia University.

Klaus Lackner/Columbia University   Computer generated image of Lackner's synthetic "trees".
Klaus Lackner/Columbia University
Computer generated image of Lackner’s synthetic “trees”.

He was the last to speak at this years’ Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change, held at a hilltop retreat in Wisconsin.

Lackner stepped up to the podium after two days of scientific debate on the forces of climate change and the many natural climate cycles of the planet. But everyone recognized the human-generated emissions that now threaten the Earth with dramatic global warming as carbon dioxide levels increase. And regardless how climate change occurs, Lackner offered a potential way to clean up the carbon.

“I am working on capturing CO2 from the atmosphere” Lackner said. “You have heard a lot today about what the problem is. I am interested in the solution to that problem. I would argue that one of the important things we can do is capture the carbon dioxide and store it.”

Most world leaders, including President Obama, agree that high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are leading to higher ocean levels, inland drought and unstable food supplies. They agree in principle that something must be done but carbon dioxide levels continue to grow.

While the current climate bill slowly billows through Congress, greenhouse gases are accumulating in our atmosphere at rates faster than human civilization has ever seen. 

Lackner and a small team of engineers, who make up Global Research Technologies in Tucson, designed and produced a prototype machine that mimics a tree in taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. After sequestering the carbon dioxide, the machine releases it and turns the CO2 into a liquid that can be stored and managed.

Jasmin Shah/CSEF  Klaus Lackner demonstrates rising CO2 levels to attendees of this year's Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change.
Jasmin Shah/CSEF
Klaus Lackner demonstrates rising CO2 levels to attendees of this year’s Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change.

“We believe the synthetic trees we are building are about 1,000 times as efficient as pulling CO2 out of the air than a normal tree. They are built to capture CO2 from the air and do nothing else,” Lackner said.

Lackner emphasizes that, because carbon dioxide mixes with the air so quickly, his machines do not have to be planted at points of emission. They can, in effect, be placed anywhere in the world and successfully sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.

“In a way air capture is a method of last resort,” Lackner said. “You can capture CO2 regardless of where it is emitted and, for that matter, when. You could imagine having a car, which in its lifetime will emit 100 tons of CO2, and before you even buy that car you put 100 tons away. So in a sense you create a sink where you can put that CO2 over the next 10-15 years.”

While each CO2 “tree” is effective at capturing CO2, Lackner estimates that we will need around 1 million machines operating around the world and each collecting 1 ton of CO2 a day for them to bring emissions down to an acceptable level. He estimates that this artificial forest would saok up about 30 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Lackner and his team have an edge. A huge benefit of the technology they want to deploy is that the carbon can be captured anywhere. Lackner says that it makes sense to capture the carbon close to where you will be storing it. This way you can eliminate the burning of additional fossil fuels or having to build a pipeline to transport the liquid.

A current flaw in the implementation of the design is that it runs on electricity. Electricity is produced by coal burning power plants, which are a primary source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Lackner says that, to be most effective, his CO2 machines will have to run on renewable energy sources such as solar.

Jasmin Shah/CSEF   Klaus Lackner talks with glacier specialist Aaron Putnam from the University of Maine.
Jasmin Shah/CSEF
Klaus Lackner talks with glacier specialist Aaron Putnam from the University of Maine.

There are still many difficulties on the horizon for Lackner and his team, including obtaining the funding to build enough machines to make this technology effective. 

“We need to raise support for developing these tools,” Lackner said. “And we need to figure out how to move from trying out new ideas to manufacturing of real devices.”

For Lackner’s machine to get to the point of manufacture, his team needs to raise around $20 million in venture capital. Once the capital is raised, his team will need about two years of intensive design work followed by 20 years of production.

Lackner would also undoubtedly benefit from a carbon tax or a cap and trade policy that would make it economically beneficial for companies and manufacturers to curb their carbon emissions.

“I’d like to see a price on CO2,” he said. “And regulations that make it possible to solve the problem with capture and storage.”

Lackner and his team have a long road ahead of them, a daunting task but one Lackner and his colleagues deem absolutely necessary.

“It is time to do something about the CO2 levels in the atmosphere,” Lackner said.

Related Links

Global Research Technology Homepage
Klaus Lackner Columbia University Bio

ANOTHER PLAYER IN THE CLIMATE THREAT: GLOBAL WINDS

NASA Shifting wind currents could be forcing more carbon dioxide from the oceans into the atmosphere, upsetting the delicate give-and-take balance and pushing the warming Earth even closer to the edge.
NASA
Shifting wind currents could be forcing more carbon dioxide from the oceans into the atmosphere, upsetting the delicate give-and-take balance and pushing the warming Earth even closer to the edge.

by Kristen Minogue
Sep 29, 2009

The ozone hole above Antarctica could be posing another threat to the planet. The gap in the atmosphere not only ushers in cancer-inducing ultraviolet rays but may be accelerating global warming as well. 

Scientists are just catching on to a shift in the winds that occurs at the ozone hole. The cooling of the stratosphere the hole causes intensifies the winds around Antarctica. The shift churns up ocean waters from the deep and could be releasing more carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas responsible for a large part of global warming. 

Normally the oceans act as a protective sink. Even with global warming, it is projected to absorb just under half of the carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere. But the models that generate those numbers don’t take into account changes in the atmosphere – such as wind – that could make the ocean cough up more of its stored carbon dioxide. With warmer waters already giving off more carbon dioxide, the wind just adds to the load. 

“The winds are shifting closer to Antarctica,” geochemist Bob Anderson said at the Comer Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin this fall. “There’s no question about that. The debate is centered on whether that shift in winds is having any impact on carbon dioxide being emitted from the ocean.” 

Anderson, an adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, now believes wind could play a crucial role in climate change previously overlooked by most researchers, who have largely focused on the oceans. 

He calls the process “wind-driven upwelling.” It works something like this: Winds driving from west to east push waters northward from the southern ocean around Antarctica. But they don’t all move north at the same speed. Some areas move faster than others. When that happens, nutrient-rich waters from the deep rise up to replace the missing surface waters. And when they do, they bring their sunlight-trapping, planet-warming carbon dioxide with them. 

Anderson developed the idea after noting large spikes in opal – the silicon-rich stone more commonly seen in jewelry stores – during the warming period that melted the glaciers 17,000 years ago. He found the opal in fossilized sea shells mixed in the sediment cores taken from the ocean floor, cores that store a record of past epochs. 

His findings, published in the journal Science this year as well, suggest the opal could only have come from deep-ocean upwelling, providing the silicon needed for diatoms (microscopic algae) to make the opal found in their shells. The same process would have brought more carbon dioxide to the surface as well, Anderson said. The opal became a “proxy” for detecting the ancient release of carbon dioxide. 

“It seemed to me in looking at our results from the southern ocean that you could drive upwelling by increasing the winds, because it’s the winds that drive upwelling today,” Anderson said. “So, if you turn up the winds in the southern ocean, you can increase upwelling.” 

His findings are arousing lots of debate. 

Up until now, most climate change scientists have relied on ocean currents to help explain global warming. According to this model, the Atlantic Ocean works like a multilayered transport system. Hot water from the tropics flows to the poles, where it cools, gets heavier, sinks and then flows back down to the equator. This conveyor keeps the mid-latitude regions such as the United States and Europe from getting too cold – unless an influx of cold freshwater from melting glaciers shuts it down. 

Wally Broecker, who originally developed the ocean conveyor-belt model of the circulatory system that keeps much of the earth habitable, is a little skeptical of giving winds too prominent a role in the conversation. Broecker, also at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is one of the pioneers of contemporary climate science and coined the phrase “global warming.”

“There are big changes in the ocean that penetrate all of the South Atlantic, and I don’t think we know enough about ocean circulation to say that those couldn’t have done the job,” he said at the Comer Conference in response to Anderson’s presentation. 

But researchers cannot deny that the winds have shifted. Scientists discovered years ago that, when ice breaks up in the Arctic, the area near the equator where the north and south trade winds merge, moves south. Anderson said this could lead to a complete reorganization of the winds in the Southern Hemisphere, increasing the release of carbon dioxide. 

The Northern Hemisphere may not be able to take all the credit for the shift, though. Anderson is among the scientists starting to suspect the ozone hole might be driving a change in the winds as well. 

United Kingdom scientist Corinne Le Quere helped ignite the debate in 2007. She and a team of researchers noticed that instead of absorbing more carbon dioxide – which the ocean should do in response to rising levels of the gas in the atmosphere – it was absorbing less.

At the end of a paper she published in Science, Le Quere speculated that the depleted ozone layer could have caused the southern winds to shift. Anderson’s more recent research supports this, but the idea remains an issue of contention for climate change scientists. 

In the debate over water and wind, Anderson said he did not think accepting the role of the wind meant discarding the impact of the oceans. To him, it’s just one more piece in a complex and interconnected puzzle of the Earth. 

“The winds affect the oceans affect the ice affect the winds. And it’s really hard to pull apart the chicken from the egg.”


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