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

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

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

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

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

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

The other side of CO2
The other side of CO2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Kristofor Husted
Oct 22, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by Eric P. Skalac
Nov 09, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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


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by Lauren Biron
Dec 07, 2010

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

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

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

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

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


Chris Bentley/MEDILL Participants  continued sharing stories, theories and friendship at a picnic that closes the Comer Conference.
Chris Bentley/MEDILL
Participants continued sharing stories, theories and friendship at a picnic that closes the Comer Conference.

by Eric P. Skalac
Oct 22, 2010

As glaciers and ice sheets melt at an ever-increasing rate, scientists accelerate their pace to piece together the climate change puzzle before the earth gets much warmer.

The big picture that those pieces create gets clearer every year on a farm in the green, rolling hills of Wisconsin, a place the massive glaciers of North America never flattened.

The Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference is held here each year at a corporate retreat developed by the late Gary Comer, a sailor, philanthropist, Chicagoan and founder of the Lands’ End clothing line.

Here, scientists pinpoint research underpinning their deep concerns about steadily filling the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gases emitted by burning fossil fuels. A warming world means more floods and more droughts as turbulent weather redistributes water across the planet. Areas that are already very dry will become even drier with drought, and more floods will assault coastal areas and many river basins of the world.

Both the conference and the number of the nation’s key climate change experts attending it have grown significantly, with 72 scientists participating this year. These men and women take their research high into the mountains of Greenland, New Zealand and Peru, exploring the fingerprints left behind by the growth and retreat of glaciers thousands of years ago. They refine the methods of calculating the age of cosmic ray-bombarded rocks, the way ice is shrinking around the world and the rise in carbon dioxide.

“The earth is sitting here, the sun warms it up, and it tries to dump the heat back into space,” said Richard Alley, Pennsylvania State geologist and emcee of the conference. “Some of it doesn’t get through when CO2 is in the way. This is physics—it’s not politics. It’s not made up.”

Eric Skalac/MEDILL Scientists from varied disciplines filled in pieces of the climate change puzzle at the annual Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change, held this fall in Wisconsin.
Eric Skalac/MEDILL
Scientists from varied disciplines filled in pieces of the climate change puzzle at the annual Comer Conference on Abrupt Climate Change, held this fall in Wisconsin.

In a conference room cocooned in an airplane hangar beneath a hillside, these scientists came together once again this fall to discuss the state of the planet, “the Earth’s story,” as Alley put it. 

Not only climate change scientists but the chemists, biologists, geologists and an inventor all are working on facets of a greater problem. And they all gathered in this remote Wisconsin estate to share, to collaborate and to socialize.

The tone of the conference is unique – friendly, nearly familial at times. Stephanie Comer, the daughter of the late Gary Comer, and her brother Guy oversee their father’s continuing legacy of climate change philanthropy. Stephanie Comer said she believes that the tone of the gathering echoes the bond made between her father and the climate scientists who attended the earliest conferences held before her father died in 2006.

“I think part of it is my Dad’s friendship with Wally and George and Richard, and some of the other scientists,” Stephanie Comer said. “I think that really set the tone for this.”

She’s referring to Wallace “Wally” Broecker, George Denton and Alley—three leaders in the field of climate change. 

Alley speaks about ancient air pockets in ice cores—a “time machine,” as he refers to them. The cores collected by many scientists show that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has reached about 30 percent higher levels now than at any other period preserved in the ice over hundreds of thousands of years. Rising carbon dioxide levels are a thermostat for the warming Earth.

Chris Bentley/MEDILL The friendly, relaxed tone of evening gatherings during the conference contrasts with the fast-paced, in-depth daytime presentations on melting glaciers, past climate change and the impact of drought and sea level rise in a warming world.
Chris Bentley/MEDILL
The friendly, relaxed tone of evening gatherings during the conference contrasts with the fast-paced, in-depth daytime presentations on melting glaciers, past climate change and the impact of drought and sea level rise in a warming world.

Broecker, of Columbia University, discovered the “conveyor belt” of ocean currents that transport heat and salt through the planet’s oceans and maintain a temperate climate in areas of the U.S. and elsewhere. He also coined the term “global warming.” 

Research by Denton, of the University of Maine, studies the movement of ancient ice sheets and mountain glaciers and demonstrates the differences between climate progression in the northern and southern hemispheres.

Gary Comer counted on the three men as advisers for research initiatives he funded after he witnessed climate change heading on a dangerous course. 

Comer sailed in the northern territories of Canada, visiting Inuit villages, and on these trips he witnessed Inuit people discussing ways that their climate already had changed. In the summer of 2001, Comer sailed up the west coast of Greenland with family and friends in his yacht the Turmoil. 

After studying ice reports with the captain, he and his crew realized that the fabled Northwest Passage sea route was just clear enough of ice to navigate. It wasn’t easy, but they completed the trip, unlike many earlier adventurers killed in the same quest.

Comer recognized that a navigable Northwest Passage was not a good sign for the Earth. And after returning to land, he tracked down the best climate scientists he could find. 

Broecker’s name kept showing up in the research, and Comer worked with him to develop a mentorship program that connected post-doctoral researchers with veteran climate scientists through fellowships. By now, the Comer Science and Education Foundation he created has donated some $50 million toward climate change research and facilities.

The Comer Science and Education Foundation continues to carry on his work toward “understanding what he thought was an important issue,” Denton said.

His foundation also makes grants of seed money to young researchers who are “likely to advance our understanding of abrupt climate change, with special attention to opening new subfields rather than continuing existing ones,” Alley said. “The foundation consults with a panel of advisers, who are watching the field and looking for new options.”

This year’s conference offered 35 presentations of research over two days, covering new data and advancing techniques for various areas of climate science. 

Meredith Nettles of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory discussed earthquakes that can be felt in the Dakotas and caused as large sections of ice shear off the front of glaciers in Greenland. Anitra Ingalls of the University of Washington explained techniques for using a new class of fossilized algae to compute ages of old ocean beds. Tom Lowell of the University of Cincinnati presented dating information for the expansion and retreat of the massive Laurentide ice sheet in Canada and the northern United States.

After two solid days of intense discussion, the conference emptied out onto the hillside for one last gathering and a picnic for this gathering of colleagues and friends. A bluegrass band arrived.

And the band grew as the darkness deepened. Aaron Putnam (graduate assistant at the University of Maine) played banjo, Ray Pierrehumbert (geophysicist at the University of Chicago) played accordion, Jeff Severinghaus (professor of geosciences at the University of California, San Diego) and Alley played acoustic guitar.

Students, staff, professors and cooks sang along to folk songs and an earnest interpretation of  “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”

Another session of the Comer Abrupt Climate Change conference was nearly at an end. As the picnic continued into the night and fireworks lit the hillside, everyone came together around the outdoor tables and a campfire to continue sharing stories, theories and friendship.

Related Links

The Comer Science & Education Foundation


MEDILL Richard Alley, George Denton and Wallace Broecker at this year's annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference.
Richard Alley, George Denton and Wallace Broecker at this year’s annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference.

Three titans of climate change science –  Wallace Broecker, Richard Alley and George Denton – warn that global warming is real and requires immediate action.

The three scientists came together once again this fall in Wisconsin at the annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference where dozens of researchers presented the latest findings on sea level rise, melting glaciers, modeling techniques that assess climate impacts and an invention to suck greenhouse gases from the air.

Broecker, Alley and Denton maintained a close friendship with Lands’ End founder and philanthropist Gary Comer, a trio of advisors as Comer accelerated climate change research with $50 million in funding for initiatives involving key scientists across the country.

Since his death in 2006, they continue to work with the Comer Science and Education Foundation to fund promising new research.

Interviewed at this year’s conference, Broecker, Alley and Denton discuss the disturbing future of climate change and what is already occurring in a series of videos. Here’s why it’s well worth listening to what they have to say.

Geophysicist Wallace Broecker predicts an “enormous mess” due to CO2 and climate change  

Wallace Broecker is a pioneer of radiocarbon dating—one of climate science’s mt powerful tools in constructing timelines for climate events that took place over past epochs. The role of the oceans in climate change led him to analyze the ocean transport systems that move heat and salt around the earth. This is the great “Ocean Conveyor Belt.”

Broecker, a native of Oak Park, is a geophysicist with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and recipient of a litany of international awards.
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At the conference, Broecker said that climate scientists are able to estimate the amount temperature rise that will result from the carbon dioxide and other emissions from fossil fuels that we are pouring into the atmosphere.

“What actually happens can be more than expected or less than expected, but to say that nothing will happen is just not scientific,” said Broecker, interviewed at the conference.

There is a chance, of course, the nothing will happen. But Broecker believes that, “it would be foolhardy for the world to base the future on the hope that that’s going to be the case.”

Regardless of the size of the change, “the consequences of CO2, where not catastrophic, are going to make an enormous mess that the inhabitants of the planet in general are going to say was bad and regretful that we let happen,” Broecker said.

Geologist Richard Alley makes the climate change alert something to sing about   

Richard Alley clearly enjoys explaining complicated climate science to people who don’t necessarily have a science background. He’s a geologist, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, and the kind of talented speaker whose video on YouTube has 10,000 views and counting.

See “Richard Alley Dances to Explain Ice Ages, CO2 and Global Warming” for yourself.

Alley’s conference presentation—“Ice Retreat: Not Much Good News to Report”—showed the continued shrinking of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which will mean rising oceans and the threat of coastal flooding. He displayed diverse estimates for rising ocean levels over the next decades, estimates that range from a few feet to catastrophic levels.

“If someone tells you with confidence that [the ocean level will rise] less than a meter this century, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Alley’s demeanor is electric, evident most in his frequent hand gestures. He flings his arms over his head and out to his side. He shifts positions as he speaks passionately about the action needed to adequately address abrupt climate change.

“If you live in air conditioning and in a heated home, and you drive your car out of the garage and into the garage, you may not see [a change], but someone’s growing your food,” Alley said at the conference. “And a lot of the places that people are growing that food are living closer to the edge than we are.”

Alley chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ panel on abrupt climate change, was a lead writer of the 2007 assessment report of the U. N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and authored the book The Two-Mile Time Machine Time Machine details, in part, his involvement in the research of climate change using miles-long, cylindrical ice-cores drilled out of Greenland’s ice sheet.

Scientists measure the ancient air pockets trapped in these cores for carbon dioxide levels.Their comprehensive record shows that levels of the greenhouse gas never rose above about 300 parts per million in hundreds of thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution. Concentrations have currently reached 390 parts p er million.

Alley plays guitar, converting parts of the climate science saga to song. He said he believes that recognizing we have an impact on the climate, based on the science, isn’t about politics. “Admitting that we’re changing the atmosphere does not tell you how to vote tomorrow.”

Geologist George Denton warns of U.S. water shortages that will worsen with climate change  

“We’re using up freshwater resources,” said climate scientist George Denton, of the University of Maine. “The last time that there was a lot of rainfall in the western United States was 16,000 years ago. It filled the aquifers.”

And burgeoning urban sprawl in the Golden State is rapidly depleting them.

Water is already a vitally precious commodity in the West and, if wind patterns change drastically – as has happened in past periods of climate change –  water could become a lot scarcer, Denton warns.

“The record is screaming at us that wind belts change with these climate changes. And with wind belt change comes change in the storm tracks. With change in the storm tracks comes change in what areas are wet, what areas are dry, and the boundaries between them,” he said at the conference.

Denton gave the example of the aquifer beneath the Great Plains, which is being depleted to grow our crops. It also was filled during the last ice age, and Denton said that, “the so-called fertile croplands of the middle part of the United States is developed because of use of this aquifer, for irrigation.”

“We should start to think these things through, clearly,” Denton said. “And somehow adjust our lifestyles to take into account what happens on the planet during these climate changes.”

Denton studies the geologic record of large ice sheets and smaller mountain glaciers, and has demonstrated the differences that can occur between climate progression in the northern and southern hemispheres.


by Fahiemah Al-Aliand Jennifer R. Luna
May 24, 2010

There’s no escaping the hot topic of climate change.

For the second time in less than a month, President Obama’s top science adviser, John P. Holdren, told Chicagoans that the Earth is getting hotter due to human activities. And he’s got the global thermometer record for more than a century to prove it.

“There have been assertions out there that the Earth has been cooling since 1998. That is absolutely wrong,” Holdren said, addressing a crowd of about 400 at the at the Field Museum’s Comer Symposium.You look at the trends and you average over periods of time. 


Conclusion: The temperature is up, he asserted. The lecture, sponsored by the Gary C. Comer Family, focused on meeting the climate change challenge with immediate technical and policy options for remedial action.

“The reason that requires the fastest, biggest change in course is the dominant contribution of our energy system to global climate disruption,” Holdren urged the audience.The event marked one of several occasions that have placed Chicago under the spotlight on climate change.

“This is about as close to the source [Holdren] as you’re gonna get,” said Wisconsin resident Richard Peidelstein, 54, who attended the symposium with wife Nancy.

Holdren’s presentation mirrored the one he gave last month at the National Engineering Academy’s Grand Challenges for the 21st Century Chicago Summit. 

Just last week, global warming skeptics of The Heartland Institute held their Fourth International Conference on Climate Change. 

“Chicago is a residential magnet for people from all over the country and all over the world,” said Chicago resident Jeffrey Greenspan, 58, after Holdren’s presentation, citing the city as a hub for “cross-referencing to different world opinions” on matters of science.

NASA Sea temperatures at the start of the 2010 hurricane season. Rising sea temperatures and severe weather are the forecasts for global warming.
Sea temperatures at the start of the 2010 hurricane season. Rising sea temperatures and severe weather are the forecasts for global warming.

Holdren applauded the Chicago Climate Action Plan for obtaining close to a whopping $100 million in stimulus grants for implementation of ‘greener’ city practices such as rooftop gardens and energy conservation measures.

“These local regional and state efforts are immensely important,” acknowledged Holdren. “The federal government wants to encourage them,” he said.

Since November 2006, CCAP has set several ‘green’ goals, including the installation of 4 million square feet of ‘green’ roofs in process or in planning. CCAP also aims to reduce the city’s 7 million tons of waste per year by 90 percent by 2020.But there are also those who want to discourage these efforts, noted Holdren. He had a message for global warming naysayers, too.

“Scientists all over the world have broken their spears trying to find [holes] in climate science because you make your reputation if you can prove the mainstream is wrong, “ he said.

“But nobody has been able to do it,” said Holdren, calling on what he referred to as the “geographically diverse mountain of peer-reviewed research” that runs over a period of decades as proof of climate change data.So what’s the White House’s stance on the global hothouse?

Holdren’s solution to the challenge lays down three options. One is focused on mitigation – things individuals and governments can do to reduce the pace and magnitude of the changes in climate that human activities are escalating. 

The second option is adaptation – measures individuals can take to reduce the adverse impacts on humans that result from the changes in climate.

The third option? Suffering, said Holdren. And that means widespread disease, dramatic loss of species, environmental damage from fossil-fuel harvesting and use, often, in areas of the world that already suffer from water shortages and famine, Holdren asserted.

Mitigation and adaptation becomes costlier, more difficult and less effective as the magnitude of the changes in climate to which you’re trying to adapt gets bigger, he said.

“If you’re living on an island that is only two meters above sea level, and sea level goes up by three meters, you don’t adapt- you evacuate,” he said.

Greenspan, who applauded the lecture, said he only wished audience members would have gotten more microphone time to ask questions.

“You never know what kind of interesting discussions will be generated by people hearing the talk,” he said. He noted, however, that one of the most compelling elements of the lecture was the fact that Holdren addressed key issues surrounding climate change without the use of scientific jargon.

“It [Holdren’s lecture] was organized to say: What is the problem? How did we get to this problem? Is the problem supported by data?” he said, stressing the implementation of scientific charts and data.“Otherwise, it just becomes political persuasion.”

Related Links

Dr. Holdren’s full presentationTaking part of climate change map


by Lindsey Valich
Oct 26, 2010

Earthquakes triggered as glaciers break apart in Greenland can be felt as far away as South Dakota. 

Seismologist Meredith Nettles knows their force firsthand because she has measured them during field trips to Greenland’s melting ice castles. 

Although no one can physically experience them shaking the ground of Sioux Falls, instruments can pick up the seismic waves of these quakes. 

The glacial quakes, in turn, offer scientists clues to current rising sea levels and warming sea temperatures as they relate to global climate change, said Nettles, assistant professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Courtesy of Meredith Nettles Scientists test the GPS systems used to measure accelerating glacier velocity, linked to increased melting of glaciers in Greenland.
Courtesy of Meredith Nettles
Scientists test the GPS systems used to measure accelerating glacier velocity, linked to increased melting of glaciers in Greenland.

Glacial earthquakes occur when large ice masses break off glaciers in a process called calving, Nettles told scientists the 2010 Comer Conference on abrupt climate change, held this fall in Wisconsin. When calving occurs, it reduces overall resistance to glacier flow, causing the glacier to gain velocity and often accelerating the calving.

Calving takes place naturally, but Nettles and her colleagues have demonstated in a series of high-tech observations the alarming increases in that acceleration and the rate of erosion at the edges of glaciers.

“We do see that these big changes are happening,” Nettles said. 

With a process she describes as “very time and resource intensive,” Nettles and her colleagues placed global positioning systems (GPS) on the ice and were able to track the movement of glaciers over time to get an estimate of glacier velocity. This information is used to recognize the link between changing environmental conditions and the erosion at the edges of glaciers. Before this, many glacier models assumed that the vulnerable edges of glaciers were not important.

“This is a piece of information that you can use to make a more sophisticated model of ice flow,” Nettles said. “It is a step forward in understanding overall how changes in environmental conditions will affect glaciers and ice sheets.”

The rate of melting is a critical component for scientists to predict how fast and how much ocean levels may rise, posing risks to coastal areas. Estimates for the rise vary widely but at least a meter of escalation is expected in coming decades. 

Nettles has been studying glacial quakes in Greenland since 1993 and just completed a five-year series of studies funded in part by the Comer Science and Education Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Many of the quakes that Nettles studied are registered as magnitude 5 in Greenland and humans can feel earthquakes of smaller magnitudes if they are nearby.

In addition, these quakes typically last for 50-60 seconds, versus the typical 2 seconds of magnitude 5 earthquakes that occur along fault lines. A 5.4 magnitude earthquake centered in Southeastern Illinois in 2008 was enough to cause some local damage. 

Nettles likens the glacial quakes in Greenland to the movement of an elevator. People in an elevator usually feel the elevator starting and stopping, but not the slow motion in between floors.

She said she seeks to respond to doubts about global warming by simply showing others the data she has collected. Sitting in an airplane, a man next to her asked about the data she was analyzing on her computer. When she told him what she was researching, he voiced skepticism regarding climate change.

“Let me show you the data,” she offered, and proceeded to let the information speak for itself. 

“Part of it is that people just haven’t seen the data,” Nettles explained regarding those skeptical of climate change. “The noise gets conveyed, but it’s surprising how unlikely it is that someone has seen those basic data records. The dialogue gets distorted by not separating out, for example, the actual observation of what’s changing from whose fault it is.”

This philosophy of open information is something she has extended to the village of Tasiilaq in Greenland, approximately 100 kilometers away from the sites where she and her colleagues set up their stations. In Tasiilaq, Nettles has begun working with students in the village school to spur their involvement in the data-collecting process occurring in their country.

“I want them to know science is something they can do,” Nettles said.

This is not a view in which Nettles herself felt any confidence as she majored in political science as an undergraduate at Harvard University. She said she was interested in science but found it a very lofty ambition. 

“I always felt like that was a job for people way different than me,” Nettles said. At the same time, however, she was a research assistant to a seismologist and fell in love with the science. “You can make a contribution even if you’re not Newton. That is something I try to convey to the kids in the schools.”

Nettles’ impact is a lot like the glacial quakes—making reverberations that make rapid climate change hard to ignore.


by Eric P. Skalac
Nov 04, 2010

The Arctic is warming, and that’s not a good thing. 

Yarrow Axford, a geologist at Northwestern University, is studying the temperature history of the Arctic using tools that may seem strange to us: the mud from beneath Arctic lakes, and the remains of non-biting midges contained within.

When Axford was a college freshman at Mount Holyoke College in the 1990s, she’d thought of science as a matter of “just about memorizing facts and equations,” though she soon realized just how many unanswered questions and topics of fresh investigation remained. 

Yarrow Axford Northwestern University's Yarrow Axford in the Arctic, where she studies of mud to show that the region is warming.
Yarrow Axford
Northwestern University’s Yarrow Axford in the Arctic, where she studies of mud to show that the region is warming.

After an introductory geology class, Axford became enchanted by the way that earth science could explain the world around her. “There’s a reason there are mountains in certain places and not in other places. There are reasons it rains or doesn’t rain. Just the fact that there were actual explanations for all of that was really exciting.”

Now, Axford mostly researches the last 100,000 years—really recent stuff in geologic terms. Primarily, she studies climate processes and climate change in the Arctic, but also the role that the Arctic plays in the global climate system.

“She integrates biological data with geochemical data, which is a really powerful combination,” said Brad Sageman, chair of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern, and an enthusiast about Axford’s current work:

Axford’s been very productive for a young scientist, Sageman said. “She’s been going gangbusters in the last two years… she’s really exploding out of the gate here.”

Axford  said that her research focuses on the question, “How unusual are the dramatic changes that we’ve seen in the Arctic recently?’”

It is in fact quite unusual, as Axford told the audience at this year’s Climate Change Symposium, co-sponsored by Northwestern’s Earth and Planetary Science Department, the Environmental Science and Engineering Program, the Environmental Policy and Culture Program, and the Initiative for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

“You hear that argument made a lot,” Axford said after the symposium, referring to climate change skeptics and their insistence that current climate warming is the result of natural variations in the climate system. “Well, we can test that idea by going back and looking at long-term records of natural variation, and asking those records if what’s happening now fits into natural variation that we’ve seen in the past.”

She teaches a graduate course on sustainable energy and climate change for ISEN and she demonstrates the factual evidence for human-driven climate change.

“What I try to establish pretty firmly,” she said, “is an appreciation for the fact—and it’s a fact—that if you add a lot of carbon dioxide, or any greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, you’ll change Earth’s energy balance, and you’ll warm the planet.”

But simple facts are often muddled by the reality of a very complicated science. 

“That simple fact gets very clouded in all the details of climate feedbacks: of clouds that we don’t understand very well, the fact that we don’t know exactly how sensitive climate is to a given amount of greenhouse gas.” 

Axford said that it often comes down to trust. “Most people are either predisposed to trust me on the issue or not trust me on the issue. That’s a very simple case, but kind of hard to make if someone’s not predisposed to trust me—I have to show them all the facts, and that takes a while.”

But she said she likes to start with the simple facts of climate change, because complicated questions follow. “How fast are we going to warm, how much should we worry about it, should we care, is it immoral to do nothing about it, what can we do, how much is it going to cost? Those are all really hard questions to answer, so I like to start with the easy part, which is yes, we’re warming the planet.”


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by Chris Bentley
Dec 12, 2010

Large-scale carbon capture could bridge the way to renewable energy sources, according to Columbia University geochemist Klaus Lackner. The technology could offset the greenhouse gas contributions of developing nations and growing global energy demands where fossil fuels still play a major role.

Courtesy Klaus Lackner    An artist's rendering of GRT's (now Kilimanjaro Energy) "artificial trees." The current prototypes update this design in an evolving technology to capture carbon directly from the air.
Courtesy Klaus Lackner
An artist’s rendering of GRT’s (now Kilimanjaro Energy) “artificial trees.” The current prototypes update this design in an evolving technology to capture carbon directly from the air.

Lackner helped successfully strip carbon dioxide pollution directly from ambient air in a pioneering 2007 demonstration. The technology could help ease the climate change risks of a growing global energy economy. The latest generation prototypes of his “artificial trees” could sponge up CO2 from greenhouse gas emissions for commercial reuse, such as the production of synthetic fuels. The captured carbon could also be sequestered underground.

Fossil fuel-use will increase as the developing world improves its standard of living, said Lackner, interviewed recently in Wisconsin at the Comer Conference on abrupt climate change.

Global Research Technologies is now Kilimanjaro Energy, headquartered in New York City. Lackner co-founded GRT and remains an advisor and director for Kilimanjaro.

Recently ARCH Venture Partners led a round of venture financing for Kilimanjaro to develop advanced CO2-capture prototypes, such as Lackner’s “humidity swing” — a device which sponges CO2 from the air using a renewable sorbent.

Some environmentalists have portrayed the idea of mopping up carbon pollution from the air as reactionary, justifying the continued use of fossil fuels instead of the search for alternative energy sources.

“Air capture is an important ingredient,” Lackner said. “Whether you could conceivably do without it someday is another question.”

But air capture on a large scale could help close the carbon cycle. This would ease the energy economy onto a more sustainable path, said Lackner, a geophysicist at Columbia University.

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