By Valerie Nikolas, Jan. 14, 2019 – Glaciers in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are rapidly retreating in sync, a trend unique to the accelerating pace of warming in which the Earth is currently caught. Researchers such as University of Maine geologist Noel Potter, who studies glacial retreat in New Zealand, observe this trend with increasing frequency.

Unlikely partnerships in drones and cosmic rays are helping to uncover insights unique to New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Using drone technology, PhotoScan software and isotope dating, Potter and his team mapped changes in the Hooker Glacier, located on the flank of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. His results show unprecedented levels of recession in the Hooker Glacier now compared to the last 1,500 years.

“The Southern Alps are really falling apart,” Potter said during his presentation at the fourteenth annual Comer Climate Conference held in October in southwest Wisconsin. “Collapse is immense. And the ice likely has not been as far back as it is today since these moraines were deposited.”

Researchers often refer to glaciers as the Earth’s “thermometers.” Because they are more sensitive to changes in temperature than other landforms, they can give a more accurate indication of regional climate variations.

Noel Potter near the Hooker Glacier with the DJI Phantom 4 drone he used to take aerial images of the landscape.

Potter and his team flew a DJI Phantom 4 drone above the Hooker Glacier, where it took thousands of aerial videos and photographs. They then stitched the photos together in Agisoft Photoscan software to make an “orthomosaic,” a highly detailed, 3-dimensional model of the landscape. Potter says the team’s orthomosaics are so detailed they can pick out individual boulders in the landscape.

The team used the orthomosaics to determine particular boulders to study, extracted pieces of quartz from those boulders and then used isotope dating to determine when and where ice was present at each site. Beryllium-10 is an isotope that gives scientists a glimpse into the past. The isotope is created as cosmic rays hurling through the solar system strike rock.

If you’ve ever peered out at a mountainous landscape, you’ve probably noticed long, narrow ridges in the side of the mountains. These ridges that form from sediment deposits on the sides of glaciers are called moraines, and glacial geologists like Potter study their rough edges to determine where a glacier’s ice reached and retreated at certain points in time.

“We use cosmogenic dates from boulders collected on these moraines to tell us when the glacier occupied the position marked by those moraines,” Potter said.

When a glacier retreats from a moraine, the isotope beryllium-10 collects at predictable levels once it shakes free of ice. Determining when the glacier freed the rock is called “cosmogenic dating” and it tells scientists how old particular moraines are. The term relates to the clock created as cosmic rays strike the rock and react with quartz to generate beryllium-10.

Potter and his colleagues collected data from 11 moraines just east of the main divide of the Southern Alps.

Hooker Glacier moraine ages, as determined by Potter et al.’s research. (Noel Potter)

The outermost, oldest left moraine was deposited roughly 1,500 years ago—around 497 A.D. The next oldest moraine studied was deposited around 1,100 years ago in 1066 A.D.

“We had moraines forming here in New Zealand when glaciers in the Alps of Europe were retreating,” Potter said. These New Zealand moraines were deposited well within the range of what is referred to as the Medieval Climate Optimum, the warm period in Europe which took place between 750 and 1250 A.D. This shows that more snow was accumulating in the Southern Alps during this time, meaning the Northern and Southern Hemispheres were not experiencing the same temperature fluctuations–the Southern Alps retreated later.

The terminal moraines are the most recent and were deposited as the ice began to retreat from what was once its point of furthest advance. These moraines were deposited between approximately 700 and 250 years ago, sometime between the years 1321 and 1787 A.D. These moraines were deposited during the time of the Little Ice Age, a cold snap in Europe that lasted roughly from 1250 to 1850 A.D.

Potter’s colleague Peter Strand explained that glaciers are high energy systems. Despite fluctuations in temperature, glaciers try to maintain a constant equilibrium between the area above the snow line and the area below, called the ablation area. The ablation area and the accumulation area must maintain a constant ratio, thus causing advances in colder temperatures and retreats in warmer conditions.

The Hooker Glacier in particular features a long ablation area, which is the only area where moraines form. This makes it an ideal area for studying the fluctuations in temperature during certain time periods.

“There’s so much moisture being added in the top and so much being lost through ablation at the bottom that the turnover time for ice going through these systems is quick, which makes them more responsive to changes in climate,” Potter explained.

The differences in the landscape are so dramatic, they can even be observed by the naked eye through comparing photographs of today with those of the early twentieth century.

Glacier fluctuations during the last 4,000 years. Glaciers in New Zealand remained at a steady state during some of the Bronze Age Optimum, a warm period of time in Europe, the Iron and Roman Age Optimum, a warm time in Europe, the Dark Ages Cold Period, a cool time in Europe and during the Medieval Warm Period, a warm time in Europe. (Noel Potter, 2018, modified after Schaefer, et al., 2009)

Potter’s team also found that the Hooker Lake, located at the foot of the Hooker Glacier, did not begin to form until between 1965 and 1976.

“Retreat from the terminal position has really accelerated since the lake began to form,” said Potter. “When a glacier like the Hooker is rocketing back to that lake it is just catching up quickly to a climate signal that has been imposed upon it for a while before.”

The changes in glacial position and appearance of a lake highlight the delicate balance between warming and cooling in the Earth’s “thermometers.”

“To counteract one Fahrenheit degree of warming [in this area], precipitation would have to increase 50 to 80 percent,” said Aaron Putman, a colleague of Potter’s at University of Maine.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report, released in 2007, was one of the first major publications to shed light on the temperature differences in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres during the Little Ice Age.

Potter’s finding that the climate of New Zealand was independent of temperature fluctuations seen throughout Europe during the same time adds to a growing body of evidence that supports the IPCC’s report and confirms the paradigm shift about this time in the planet’s history.

“My research shows pretty clearly that natural variations in climate have regional, not global, effects in geologically recent times,” Potter said. “Only since the Industrial Revolution have we seen climate doing the same thing all around the world. The [2018] IPCC is warning about the consequences of the same warming we see in the glaciers when it starts to affect other systems with more chance to do harm to people.”

Photo at top: An aerial photograph of Mount Cook and the Hooker Glacier. (Drone footage from glaciologist Noel Potter’s DJI Phantom 4)



By Hannah Magnuson, Dec. 20, 2018 –

Tiny bubbles of gas trapped in glacial ice are giving scientists clues about Earth’s sea level 125,000 years ago.

The gas bubbles serve as bite-sized samples of ancient atmosphere for researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. They traveled to the ice cores of the Taylor Glacier blue ice area in East Antarctica to collect them.

The atmospheric samples give the researchers clues to understanding ocean temperature, circulation and sea level from eras long ago—clues that can help predict where today’s accelerated climate change may be taking us.

Sarah Shackleton, a sixth year Ph.D. student in the Geosciences Research Division at Scripps, explained that her research team measured the ratio of noble gas atoms present in the ice samples as an indirect way to reconstruct mean ocean temperature from the Last Interglacial, a period of warmer than average global temperature, which occurred 116,000 to 129,000 years ago.

Atmospheric noble gases like xenon and krypton are valuable to researchers because they don’t participate in biological or chemical reactions, just physics-based processes, Shackleton explained. And measuring their ratio in atmospheric samples gives the scientists predictable clues about the ratio that must have been in the ocean.

Shackleton, along with her research team, traveled to Antarctica's Taylor Glacier to collect revealing atmospheric samples.
Shackleton (back row, second from right), along with her research team who traveled to Antarctica to amass data that can feed into future climate change models. (Photo by Isaac Vimont.)

“What happens is, if the ocean cools, [xenon] becomes more soluble in ocean water so more of these gases can essentially fit into ocean water,” Shackleton explained. “And so if the ocean cools by a significant amount, that means that more of these xenon atoms can reside in the ocean, which means there are less in the atmosphere.”

Shackleton, who is mentored by Scripps geosciences professor Jeff Severinghaus, explained that oceans are a major focus of climate research because they absorb most of the excess energy that greenhouse gases trap in Earth’s atmosphere, buffering the air from more dramatic global warming.

Oceans have a very high heat capacity which allows them to take in a lot of energy without warming significantly. But the excess heat does cause ocean water to expand, raising sea levels.

The goal of Shackleton’s research is to determine how much of elevated sea level rise during the Last Interglacial period was due to ocean warming and how much was due to ice sheet loss. Though still waiting for peer review, Shackleton presented her unpublished research to fellow climate scientists in fall at the Comer Climate Conference in Wisconsin.

Shackleton’s research found that global ocean temperatures were 1-degree Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels during the Last Interglacial period due to an ocean circulation phenomenon dubbed the “bipolar seesaw,” which refers to periods when the Northern and Southern Hemisphere temperature change is out of sync, with Antarctica warming as Greenland cools, and vice versa.

A 1-degree temperature rise should equate to about 0.7 meters (2.3 feet) of sea level rise, yet the sea levels during the Last Interglacial were a full 6 to 9 meters (19.7-29.5 feet) higher than pre-industrial levels, according to outside scientific research, mainly on fossilized coral reefs.

The rest of this elevated sea level rise must have come from Antarctica or Greenland losing significant ice mass, Shackleton explained. If researchers can determine precisely when and where this ice loss occurred, they can gain insight on where to expect ice loss in the future, as the planet continues to warm.

Shackleton's team of climate scientists set up camp in Antarctica to gather clues from a past period of warming, the Last Interglacial period. (Photo by Bernhard Bereiter.)
Shackleton’s team of climate scientists set up camp in Antarctica to gather clues from a past period of warming, the Last Interglacial. (Photo by Bernhard Bereiter.)

“When we talk about this period of time, it really comes down to the fact that sea level was higher, and we want to know—was it Greenland that lost [ice] mass? Was it West Antarctica? East Antarctica?” Shackleton said. “Because that gives us some indication of which one might be considered more unstable, or more prone to really lose mass and contribute to sea level rise.”

The Scripps research team speculates that, at the beginning of the Last Interglacial, a mass of warm water called Circumpolar Deep Water melted Antarctic ice sheets from below. Most scientists believe this process is causing the accelerating mass loss from West Antarctica today, so it’s possible it occurred during past warm periods, too, Shackleton said. To do so, the water mass, which circulates around Antarctica, would have been driven onto Antarctica’s continental shelf–the portion of the continent submerged in shallow water. Scientists think that changes in wind-driven ocean circulation could be responsible for driving the Circumpolar Deep Water onto the continental shelf.

Shackleton emphasized that her team doesn’t know for certain whether the Circumpolar Deep Water intruded onto the continental shelf during the Last Interglacial period, “But if it did, then it would be a good way to cause a lot of mass loss from Antarctica and get the sea level rise that we’re talking about from that period of time,” she said.

Her team’s data can help validate ice sheet models, which are predicting current and future sea level rise by projecting when—and how quickly—certain ice sheets will melt and how much mass and sea level rise they will add to the ocean.

By inputting sea level and climate data from the past, researchers can test the models to make sure they are realistic. Shackleton explained that her climate science colleagues are researching all aspects of past climate conditions, to inform models with a wide array of data and make future predictions more accurate.

“We’re a very small cog in a bigger wheel of trying to figure out what’s going on,” she said.

Photo at Top: Sarah Shackleton, left, and her colleague collect ice samples at Antarctica’s Taylor Glacier. (Photo by Bernhard Bereiter.)



By Jillian Melero, Dec. 16, 2018 –

Tapping into wind and solar and other green energy technologies, the U.S. can produce 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, compared to 17 percent produced in 2017.

That’s the conclusion of a study conducted by the Department of Energy. And the transition is a necessary step to avoid increasing global warming beyond the 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of global temperature rise that would bring more extreme climate change. Approximately 1 degree C of global warming has occurred already with industrialization. bring

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its  report on the implications of a 1.5 C warming of the planet in October. In order to mitigate the impacts – including more extreme drought, flooding, sea level rise, severe storms, increased wildfires, and more – the panel recommended ending global dependence on coal-generated electricity by 2050 with a two-thirds reduction by 2030 in order to decrease carbon emissions and the production of other greenhouse gases.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), released in November by a collaboration of 13 U.S. government agencies – including NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense – supports this conclusion.

To achieve this goal, the U.S. will need to establish policy and invest in research and development to produce, store, and transmit energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectricity, or biofuels to meet its needs while reducing carbon emissions.

This development is already underway in the world’s fourth-largest economy – Germany.

Energiewende is the German energy transition policy, adopted by the government in 2010. The policy includes the complete shutdown of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022 and utilizing renewable energy sources (RES) wind, solar, and hydroelectricity for at least 60 percent of its energy production by 2050. Germany produced 33 percent of its electricity from renewable resources in 2017, reaching its 2020 goal three years early.

The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) took a group of 11 engineering students on a Global Engineering Trek (GET) with a focus on research and development in renewable energy technology and sustainability within the cities of Hamburg and Heidelberg Germany this September.

“Germany is a global leader in energy in sustainability and clean technology, from the top down, from Federal government but also from the bottom up, from grassroots,” said Mike McMahon, Senior Communications Manager for ISEN. “It’s a great ecosystem for clean technology and a sustainable mindset. The businesses think green, but also the people think green in the way they live and act. So, it’s in the public policies but it’s also in the businesses and in the daily life.”

Hamburg earned the title of “Europe’s Green Capital” for 2011 for its environmental efforts and focus on sustainability. The city is home to 190 renewable energy companies, producing, financing and researching wind, solar, biomass, and biogas derived energy. One of those companies, Planet Energy, constructs wind and solar power plants under the subsidiary Greenpeace Energy, a renewable energy provider with the activist profile of its parent company, Greenpeace.

While Germany generated 33 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2017, the majority – 37 percent, came from coal. Hard coal supplied 14.6 and lignite supplied an additional 22.5 percent.

Lignite, also known as brown coal, is one of the lowest grades of coal for energy production. It’s a soft coal, abundant and inexpensive to mine, but emissions-heavy. The low energy output means more of it is needed to produce the same amount of energy as some of its higher-grade counterparts. And the cost to transport it makes it impractical to use outside of the areas where it’s mined.

“We are strongly opposed to burning more lignite,” said Michael Friedrich, press officer for Greenpeace Energy. “There’s currently a fight in a region west of Germany, next to Cologne at the river Rhine, where they’re trying to stop a utility clear-cutting a forest right next to the lignite mine in order to start mining under the former forest,” Friedrich said.

The shutdown of the coal industry is one of Greenpeace’s goals. But the company’s environmental activism doesn’t detract from the realities of a changing economy. “The workers in the mines are asking themselves ‘What will our future look like?’ I think you have the same questions in the U.S. where Donald Trump is trying to bring coal back. And we have the same questions here with workers, ‘what are we going to do when the pit is closed?’” Friedrich said.

For that reason, Friedrich said it’s important for the utility company to develop relationships with the local community and work together to develop plans to create new jobs, generate income, generate taxes and help move the economy forward. “So, the coal can go, and they still have a future, but a clean future without emissions,” he said.

But nuclear energy may be a necessity to bridge the gap in achieving those clean energy goals. The formerly pro-nuclear Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to end Germany’s nuclear program after the Fukushima plant in Japan suffered three meltdowns in 2011. However, critics say that Germany’s shutdown of its nuclear plants without first having alternative energy sources in place has made it more reliant on coal and has driven up prices for electricity, according to a report from Politico Europe.

Some U.S. climate scientists including Jim Hansen, director of the Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions program at Columbia University, have called for environmentalists to re-evaluate nuclear as a clean energy option to reduce carbon emissions. Hansen is the former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

“The climate issue is too important for us to delude ourselves with wishful thinking. Throwing tools such as nuclear out of the box constrains humanity’s options and makes climate mitigation more likely to fail. We urge an all-of-the-above approach that includes increased investment in renewables combined with an accelerated deployment of new nuclear reactors,” Hansen stated in a Guardian article co-authored with fellow scientists Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley in 2015. Hansen made similar comments in 2016 at a panel on nuclear energy held at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Another issue in the transition to renewable energy is storing the surplus energy produced. Wind and solar are fickle supply sources. Some days supply more energy than others. For that reason, research initiatives are underway in the U.S. and abroad to develop high-powered batteries for more efficient ways to store the surplus energy from windy or sunny days for what may literally be a rainy day. But Greenpeace is exploring another alternative.

“If we have 100 percent renewable energy, which is mainly wind and solar power here in Germany, the question of course arises, ‘What happens when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining – are the lights going out?’ No, they are not, because it’s possible to store huge amounts of excess green energy in the gas grid,” Friedrich said.

He noted that Greenpeace is pioneering the use of “wind gas,” or hydrogen gas derived from wind-generated electricity through the process of electrolysis. Electrolysis uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen in a unit called an electrolyzer. The hydrogen gas can then be stored within the “hundreds of thousands of kilometers” of Germany’s existing gas grid.

“We are campaigning for this crucial element of the energiewende in Germany. In our future energy system, we need it as a basis for energy security so even if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining for longer periods, even for three weeks or so, it can easily be provided from the gas grid and be retransformed into electricity with flexible gas power plants,” Friedrich said.

Biogas and flexible gas grids are one potential solution to the storage problem. Another is solar batteries. Northwestern’s engineering students also visited one of the wind and solar farms of developer, juwi.

“The solar panels were really cool because you hear about this great technology, these solar panels, but the only problem is [there’s] no battery source, and that’s something that everyone is looking at right now that definitely piqued my interest,” said Godson Osele, who is studying biomedical engineering at Northwestern.

Headquartered in Wörrstadt, Germany, juwi has several international projects. In November, the company contracted with the University of Queensland’s Heron Island Research Station – a key research station studying the Great Barrier Reef — to supply the station with high-efficiency solar panels, an integrated microgrid system and solar battery storage facilities. The system is expected to be operational mid-2019. it will supply more than 80 percent of the facility’s annual energy needs and will end the station’s reliance on diesel-generated power. In July, juwi completed a solar plant for a utility company in the southern Indian state of Karnataka and finalized contracts to build more plants for a South African utility.

While Germany has made strides producing electricity from renewable sources, most of its transportation still relies on gasoline and diesel fuel, bringing emissions reduction to a halt over the last few years.

According to Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt (KBA), Germany’s Federal Motor Transport Authority, 66.2 percent of newly registered automobiles were gasoline-fueled, 32.2 percent were diesel-fueled, and less than 1 percent each were hybrid or electric in 2016. In the U.S., 97.2 percent of new car sales were gasoline-fueled, 2 percent were hybrid, and less than one percent each were plug-in hybrid or electric in 2016 according to Edmunds.

One company working to make electric vehicles more accessible is Heidelberger Druckmaschinen.

The city of Heidelberg’s carbon dioxide emissions peaked in 1990, making it one of only 27 cities to start lowering emissions, according to the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40). The city passed an energy control and climate protection program in 1992 further reducing emissions. In 1997, it won the European Sustainable City Award and in 2002 it received the Green Electricity Gold Label for having 25 percent of its electricity used in public buildings come from renewables.

Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, founded in 1850, is a long-time manufacturer of printing presses and printing software. After enduring heavy layoffs and salary cuts throughout the printing industry, the company updated its business model and began manufacturing AC/DC converters for Porsche and Audi in 2012. In 2017 the company began development and construction of the Heidelberg wall box charging station for electric vehicles. The charging station is designed for individual as well as commercial use.

But electric vehicles aren’t the only clean energy alternative to gasoline or diesel-fueled vehicles.

Another stop on Northwestern’s Global Engineering Trek was The Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht(HZG) Center for Materials and Coastal Research. HZG employs more than 950 scientists, engineers, technicians, doctoral students, apprentices, and administrators. Among the many projects under development at HZG are high performance, lightweight materials for cars and aircraft to help reduce fuel consumption; and new methods of hydrogen fuel storage.

Some of HZG’s recent progress focuses on the field of solid-state hydrogen storage for use as a high efficiency, low pollution alternative to fossil fuels. Compared to liquid or gas storage, solid state can store larger volumes of hydrogen in a hybrid tank system, with fewer safety issues such as leaks.

“What I found most interesting was the hydrogen gas fueled car,” said Aarij Rehman, an Industrial Engineering student with Northwestern. “It seems like most non-traditional cars are electric powered. So, seeing a different form of a clean energy vehicle really surprised me. Although the vehicles were still in early development stages it was clear the team behind the project was making substantial progress.”

The first hydrogen-fuel cell train made news in Germany in September. The zero-emission train developed by French company Coradia iLint, can travel at a speed of approximately 70 miles per hour and utilizes a mobile hydrogen filling station located on a 40-foot-high steel container next to the tracks at a station in Bremervörde.

The transportation sector is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. Developing clean fuels, fuel storage, and integrating these improvements into public transportation can help countries to reduce emissions and stay below the 1.5-degree C global warming point.

The United States’ potential to take lessons from Germany, build on them, and offer some new ones in return means there is hope for a clean energy future. But there need to be policies in place to support it.

“Obviously, you want to bring things like that to America, which is a lot bigger than Germany, but I think it’s something we can bring to the United States on a much larger scale,” Osele said. [We] hopefully make the right steps to bring it to the level that Germany has, 36 percent of their energy sector is coming from renewable sources. That’s something that we can work toward [that] can be beneficial for the earth and for the economy as well.”

The NCA4 recommends achieving emissions reductions through a combination of technologies and policies including “increasing the energy efficiency of appliances, vehicles, buildings, electronics, and electricity generation; reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels by switching to lower-carbon fuels or capturing and storing carbon; and switching to renewable and non-carbon-emitting sources of energy, including solar, wind, wave, biomass, tidal, and geothermal.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists agrees that in order for the U.S. to achieve a high renewable future at low costs, to create new jobs, and significantly reduce carbon emissions and water use, the country needs a long-term national renewable energy policy that should include “a national renewable electricity standard or well-designed “clean” energy standard, a price on carbon emissions, and a significant increase in research and development funding.”

Federal Energy Policy Summit to discuss state and national issues related to solar power and energy took place in Washington D.C. Dec.4 – Dec. 6.

Photo at top: The headquarters of Greenpeace energy in Hamburg, Germany utilize rooftop wind turbines. (Jillian Melero/Medill)

RelatedNorthwestern engineering students return to Germany for lessons on sustainability



By Karyn Simpson, Dec. 20, 2018 –

Columbia University climate science veteran Wally Broecker

Columbia University Geology Professor Wally Broecker, the pioneering grandfather of climate science, laid it on the line. The two ways we know of to bring down civilization are nuclear bombs or carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, the driving force of climate change, he said this fall during an interview at the annual Comer Climate Conference this fall in Wisconsin. “It’s got the seeds of really terrible chaos on the planet and we’ve got to start to respect that.”

Within days of the conference, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautioned that even raising the global temperatures by 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) could have disastrous effects on sea level rise, extreme temperatures, rainfall and drought. And we’ve already raised temperatures 1 degree globally.

What needs to change to mitigate the accelerating threat?

Penn State climate science veteran Richard Alley

Scientists sharing their latest research at the 2018 conference say we need to move swiftly toward a sustainable energy system and trap the carbon dioxide emissions from continued near-term needs for fossil fuels. Meeting the challenge offers wide-ranging opportunities for innovation and economic growth, said Penn State climatologist Richard Alley at the conference.

“Economic studies are consistent in showing that engaging with climate officially, wisely, helps the economy, it helps employment as well as the environment,” he said. Watch the video for more insights from Broecker, Alley and other scientists.

Photo at top: Fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide hold heat in the atmosphere, the thermostat of climate change and of the extreme weather, floods, drought and human displacement that are accelerating with it.
Editor’s note: This interview with the late Wally Broecker was conducted at the 2018 Comer Climate Conference just a few months before he died.



By Karyn Simpson, Dec. 16, 2018 –

Scientists are taking a serious look at ocean biological systems that temper carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and trap them in the ocean depths, a way to slow global warming and put off the 2° C (3.6° F) tipping point in temperature rise that would trigger disastrous levels of sea level rise, extreme temperatures, and both massive flooding and drought.

Climate scientist Jennifer Middleton calls these systems the ocean’s biological carbon pump and explained how it works at the annual Comer Climate Conference in southwest Wisconsin this fall.

Atmosphere and ocean CO2 cycling pattern from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Middleton, a post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is studying these systems in the hope that scientists can find ways to use them to help mitigate the effects of climate change related to fossil fuel emissions.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, made the strongest case yet for how human-forced climate change is reaching a critical level as fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide drive up global warming.

We know that the ocean waters absorb some 25 percent of the human-produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mitigating climate change at the expense of ocean acidification that is already threatening marine life. But the ocean’s biological carbon pump is different. The natural oceanic system relies on organisms such as phytoplankton and beneficial algae to draw carbon dioxide from the air, trap it as organic carbon and send it into the deep ocean, where it gets buried and is unlikely to rise to the surface for at least a millennium. This result overall means less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – just what we need as we head toward the global warming tipping point of 2° C, the warning cry of the recently released IPCC report.

“There are these regions of the ocean where circulation causes the water to come up or down,” said Middleton, who is studying ancient climate variability and iron fertilization in the South Pacific Ocean. “In these regions, the exchange of gases and heat  between the ocean and the atmosphere are really important because they kind of set the scene for what gets pushed back down in the ocean and circulated through the whole ocean system for a while.”

J. Middleton
Jennifer Middleton, a post-doctoral research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, shows how the ocean’s biological carbon pump can trap atmospheric carbon dioxide to slow climate change. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

These systems set the stage for the biological carbon pump, Middleton said. In areas where there is significant upwelling of nutrient-rich water to the surface of the ocean, you get a higher opportunity for ocean productivity, meaning it can take more carbon dioxide from the air.

“In these regions, if you can get the ecosystem to generate a lot of primary production – so a lot of photosynthesis, turning carbon dioxide into organic matter – you can sort of suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and turn it into something that is fundamentally different from inorganic carbon, which then chemically behaves quite differently in the ocean,” Middleton said.

This organic matter is typically algae that may sink to the deep ocean after it dies and – along with the carbon it contains – get buried there, she said.

“If it gets buried as organic carbon in the sea floor, then it’s kind of trapped there and you don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Middleton said.

It doesn’t all get buried, though. Some of the carbon-containing algae will get eaten or will decay before it reaches the ocean floor, which oxidizes the carbon and ultimately releases it back into the air as carbon dioxide the next time the surrounding water returns to the surface, Middleton said.

Ocean productivity – judged by how much carbon it biologically removes from the atmosphere – is highly variable across the globe and depends on a number of factors including water temperature, available nutrients and water density. By studying historical productivity patterns, scientists hope to learn what made certain areas and time periods more productive in order to explore possible ways to duplicate the pattern today.

“Right now, [productivity] is higher than it was during the last ice age,” said Kassandra Costa, a post-doctoral research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Costa spoke at the Comer Climate Conference about her research into productivity patterns across the North Pacific Ocean during the last glacial maximum. “It’s a little bit tricky as far as forecasting what’s going to happen under modern climate change because in addition to the nutrients that are reaching the surface, there are other factors that might influence how productive it could be. So I could imagine how productivity might increase with an increase in climate change because the surface water is getting warmer and it has more access to nutrients, but there are other factors that could actually reduce the changes in productivity.”

K. Costa
Kassandra Costa, a post-doctoral research scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, talks at the Comer Climate Conference about her research into productivity patterns of trapping carbon across the North Pacific Ocean during the height of the last glaciers. (Photo Credit: Abigail Foerstner)

The biggest limiting factor, Costa said, is the availability of nutrients and micro-nutrients needed to transform carbon dioxide in the air to organic carbon that can be buried on the ocean floor. When significant upwelling brings nutrient-rich water to the surface of the ocean, the key missing ingredient is iron.

“Today, they’re quite productive, but if they’re too productive, they run out of iron, they run out of that vitamin that they need,” Costa said. “So that could be something that could basically just slow them down from taking off and being hyper-productive as a result of anthropogenic [human-forced] climate change.”

Scientists have hypothesized about a process called “iron seeding,” which could artificially force the ocean pump to be more productive and bury more carbon dioxide. This would involve adding iron to parts of the ocean that have a history of high productivity for the carbon pump system in hopes that doing so would eliminate that limiting factor and allow productivity to blossom.

“People have said, ‘If we throw a bunch of iron into the Southern Ocean, that will cause a bunch of algae blooms that will then remove carbon from the atmosphere and maybe, hopefully, push it all the way down to the deep ocean and bury it. And then it’s not our problem.,’” Middleton said.

But there are several unknowns involved with this theory that cause researchers to hesitate.

“We don’t know the efficiency of what fraction of the carbon would stays down there versus coming back up again later, from a geoengineering perspective,” Middleton said. Even if iron seeding increases productivity in an area, that means there’s no way to say exactly what percentage of that would be buried long-term. “And also, just every time humans try to do major-scale interventions of the earth system, it kind of backfires.”

There is also no conclusive data on what effects iron seeding would have on the ocean as a whole, Costa said. While the process might help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, there may be consequences for the ocean system that scientists haven’t yet predicted.

“I think it’s a little bit complicated because we don’t fully know the repercussions that it might have for the whole ocean system,” she said. “I think people are working on it, but I think at the same time we’re trying to be cautious because we don’t fully understand what the full repercussions of experimenting with the ocean like that would do.”

While scientists are interested in continuing to research the possibility of using the oceans to help delay the IPCC’s predictions, it isn’t the end-all solution, and other actions will need to be taken to avoid dramatic impacts from climate change across the globe.

“The ocean’s not going to save us, not going to save the planet from warming, but it will potentially help,” said Aaron Putnam, assistant professor at the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Science. “I mean, half the carbon that goes in the atmosphere goes straight to the ocean. And a good portion of the heat that goes to the atmosphere, that’s in the atmosphere, gets mixed out in the deep ocean. But you know what the net balance is. You can see it in the CO2 charts. You can see it in the temperature records. It’s still warming, so that’s not enough.”

Atmospheric carbon dioxide has now topped 400 parts per million due to fossil fuel emissions, while natural levels have never topped 300 parts per million in the 1 million years leading up to the Industrial Age.

Photo at top: Oceanographers work on a research vessel in the Northern Pacific. (Photo Credit: R. Katz)


by Jillian Melero, Dec. 19, 2018 –

Bronzeville, the South Side home of Chicago’s Black Renaissance and the birthplace of Black History Month, hopes to launch its next Golden Age with support from a smart microgrid being installed by utility ComEd. The microgrid will tap green energy to help power the community.

Once completed in 2019, the grid will have a load or active consumption capacity of 7 megawatts, installed over two phases with the energy generated from its own resources including solar panels.

That’s enough generating capacity for the grid to serve approximately 1,060 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Previous microgrids have served military bases or hospitals and the Illinois Institute of Technology operates on one as well. But the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster will be the first of its kind to serve a community within a metropolitan area, giving the community a more resilient power grid to help withstand outages.

Representatives from ComEd, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and Siemens Digital Grid North America held a conference Dec. 4 to discuss the microgrid coming to Bronzeville.

“We have a microgrid in place at the university that was started in 2008. We completed the project in 2013 and it has saved the university about a million dollars annually,” Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Initiative at IIT said.“In case of an emergency, we will be able to island the campus. And run the entire university as an islanded operation. So, even if there is a major outage in the neighborhood, in the area, in the vicinity of the university, the university campus will remain in operation.”

Mohammad Shahidehpour, director of the Robert W. Galvin Center for Electricity Initiative at Illinois Tech lays out the the energy innovations at work in the Bronzeville and IIT microgrid cluster at a Dec. 4 conference. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

A microgrid is a smaller power grid that can operate independently, drawing on its own power sources, in this case relying on solar power and solar batteries to serve customers within the area. It can still be connected to the larger electric grid where it can draw or supply energy as needed. The Bronzeville project will connect with an existing microgrid at IIT. Some benefits of microgrids, especially newer smart grids such as the one in Bronzeville, include fewer and shorter power outages, improved monitoring of power usage and, in this case, the use of renewable resources and production of clean energy.

For the next 10 years, Bronzeville will serve as a testing ground. In addition to undergoing a cost-benefit analysis, the microgrid cluster will be evaluated on more than 55 different metrics, including resilience, according to ComEd President and CEO Terence Donnelly.

ComEd President and CEO Terence Donnelly discusses the metrics involved in evaluating the cost and benefits of the Bronzeville microgrid. Chicago, IL. Dec. 4, 2018. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

“How do you measure resilience? It’s more than reliability. It’s more about hardening. It’s more about surviving storms, cyber-attacks, things like that. But we’ve worked with our stakeholders and the [Illinois Commerce Commission] to develop a model of resiliency that we’re looking to measure in Bronzeville,” Donnelly said.

Three aspects of resilience that Donnelly said will be examined are energy system resilience, measuring energy performance and resilience to threats; community resilience, measuring the impacts the project has on the community of Bronzeville; and critical infrastructure resilience, measuring the ability of systems like transportation and communication to withstand and recover from disruptions.

A storm in November with heavy snow and high winds caused power outages for more than 300,000 ComEd customers.

“We haven’t seen an event like that since 1998. And without investing in smart grid over the last five years, this could have been much higher, and we could have seen outages [impacting] 500,000 to 600,000,” Donnelly said.

Over the course of 2011, before ComEd began modernizing its power grid, a total of 14 storms caused 2.8 million power outages. The average time to restore power for each customer was 366 minutes. In 2017, it took an average of 116 minutes to restore power, Crain’s Chicago Business reported. That year, 14 storms shut down power to 901,000 customers.

Questions of Cost

ComEd did not confirm whether the new technology and enhanced energy supply will increase or decrease utility bills for its customers.

“While we haven’t broken out the microgrid’s cost for each of ComEd’s 4 million customers, we know that microgrids have some positive economic impacts, including reducing costs associated with power outages; supporting economic growth, especially in the digital sector; and enabling valuable services to the grid and consumers, such as demand response, real-time pricing, day-ahead pricing, voltage and capacity support,” ComEd Director of Communications Paul Elsberg wrote in an email.

Data from the Department of Energy (DOE) projects that the cost of energy will continue to increase but that future increases will be more gradual post smart grid installation.

The Bronzeville microgrid project received funding from two grants from the Department of Energy (DOE). The first grant for $1.2 million was awarded in September, 2014 to develop and test the microgrid controller, the nerve center that will control the integrated microgrids of Bronzeville and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The second grant of approximately $4 million was to study the integration of solar panels and batteries into the microgrid and requires a matching cost share of $4 million from ComEd and its university, laboratory, and technology partners, said ComEd Communications Director David O’Dowd.

The Illinois Commerce Commission approved a $25 million investment by ComEd in the microgrid project in February. Along with the $4 million grant from DOE, the total estimated cost for the microgrid as filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) was $29 million.

The 2011 Electricity Infrastructure Modernization Act (EIMA) laid the groundwork for ComEd to implement annual rate increases to subsidize the estimated $2.6 billion for modernization of the power grid as a whole.

The utility raised its rates by 2.3 percent in June and was scheduled to issue another 8 percent increase in October. However, after a settlement negotiated by the ICC reallocated the cost of transmitting power across high voltage lines, ComEd customers saw the price of energy decrease instead, Crain’s reported. The lower pricing is locked in through May 2019.

Bronzeville, Community of the Future

Bronzeville’s smart grid is one step in a series of smart city developments in the works for the South Side neighborhood. ComEd’s projects include a “Save and Share” app to track energy usage; an electric vehicle mobility program, the ComEd Dash, that serves a seniors’ home in the area; and an energy storage initiative installing batteries for power storage as well as electric vehicle (EV charging stations). The initiative will also include a partnership with Aris Renewable Energy to install street lights outfitted with solar panels and wind turbines and “smart kiosks”, interactive digital displays in high-traffic areas that provide emergency alerts, maps and directions, news and other public information.

“We have a robust partnership with the Bronzeville community advisory council, that’s extremely active,” Donnelly said. “we have many initiatives there, for example, outreach around stem education, an energy academy, an Ideathon. Working with students over four years to expose them to these technologies to learn how to benefit the community.”

Paula Robinson addresses visitors to Bronzeville’s microgrid showcase and job fair, sponsored by ComEd, and held on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Courtesy ComEd)

In order to build, maintain, and develop new innovations for Bronzeville’s “Community of the Future,” ComEd and the Bronzeville community advisory group are developing education initiatives focused on STEM and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) programs in area high schools.

Twelve Bronzeville high schools participated in the partnerships first “Ideathon” in December of last year. High school students attending school in Bronzeville were partnered with college mentors and engineers from ComEd as well as Silver Springs Network, a provider of smart grid products, headquartered in San Jose, California; Accenture, a management and consulting company that works in digital technology, headquartered in Dublin; AECOM, an American engineering firm with multinational projects headquartered in Los Angeles; and others to innovate new products.
The 12 high schools were invited to participate after some feedback from Bronzeville’s Community Development Partnership.

“Initially ComEd said, ‘Well, we’ve got X number of science and math schools that might be interested in this type of Ideathon,’ but the community was like, ‘No, we want all the schools to be involved,’” said Paula Robinson, President of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership. “There were 12 high schools, so all of the high schools were involved.”

Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly of King College Preparatory High School showcase their winning innovation at ComEd’s 2017 Ideathon. (Courtesy ComEd)

Robinson said it is the community partnership’s place to push for a seat at the table, the same as any other stakeholder such as ComEd parent company Exelon, or technology partners Siemens and Lockheed Martin.

“There’s kind of a collaborative self-interest that’s going on here, and that’s a lot to navigate,” Robinson said. “That’s probably where ComEd gets a lot of engagement as well as grief from my organization because we are in some new territory. We are looking at opportunities where the community, beyond advising, can also be what we call innovators. Where we’re co-creating and innovating in this new space as well.”

Teams that made it to the final round pitched ideas to a panel of judges in the “Spark Tank.” King College Prep juniors Ashton Mitchell and Breshaiya Kelly won with their idea for a microprocessor designed to help prevent accidents when emergency vehicles travel through busy intersections.

The top three teams from King College Prep High School, Young Women’s Leadership Charter School and the De La Salle Institute received prizes of $2,000, $1,000, and $500, respectively.

In blue, the footprint of the Illinois Institute of Technology microgrid, completed in 2013. In red, the footprint of the Bronzeville microgrid, estimated for completion in 2019. The smart grid cluster will be the first of its kind, connecting a university, an urban community, and integrating solar power and battery storage.

The partnership hopes to boost Bronzeville’s economy infusing it with new green energy and smart technology jobs within the community, maintaining the microgrid, wind turbines, solar panels as well as developing new technologies. O’Dowd said the utility estimates that a 10 MW microgrid would create 50 jobs.

In September, ComEd hosted a microgrid showcase and job fair at the IIT campus to raise awareness about the microgrid project, how it might benefit the community, and to inform the community about job opportunities in the energy field and related industries. More than 50 employers participated and more than 200 people attended.

The microgrid area will run from 33rd Street to the North, 38th Street to the South, State Street to the West, and South Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Drive to the East. It will serve the Chicago Public Safety Headquarters, the De La Salle Institute, the Math & Science Academy, a library, a public works building, restaurants, health clinics, public transportation, educational centers and churches.

Photo at top: I-90, Bronzeville and the Illinois Institute of Technology on Chicago’s South Side.



Aaron Dorman, Dec. 16, 2018 –

Natural ocean biology can help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by trapping it in surface algae that sinks to the bottom of the sea. That’s the focus of research by two Columbia University scientists. These studies concluded that iron fertilization of the oceans surrounding Antarctica had occurred in the past to speed up the carbon trap, and that this could be happening again as ice sheets break up and glaciers melt.

And the two researchers with Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory – Kassandra Costa and Jennifer Middleton- speculate that seeding the ocean with iron could stimulate more carbon uptake.

According to Costa, high-nutrient content in the Pacific sub-Arctic—the area underlying the Alaskan and Siberian coast—represented “unutilized biological capacity” for growing phytoplankton and trapping a portion of atmospheric carbon. Middleton’s research involves the Southern Ocean (or Antarctic Ocean), which is also high in nutrients but lacks one key ingredient to produce abundant carbon-consuming plankton: iron.



By Jillian Melero, Dec. 16, 2018 –

The Greenland ice sheet is more than three times the size of Texas, 2 miles deep at its thickest point. And it’s melting.

Not only is it melting, but it’s melting at a rate not seen in 400 years, according to a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters in April. The study involved taking short ice core samples and examining the surface layers of snow to find out how much melting had occurred.

In some places, it’s melting 250 percent faster – in others 575 percent faster than it has over the last 20 years compared to pre-industrial times, according to a study published in the international science journal Nature in early December.

If the Greenland ice sheet (GriS) melts away completely, it will raise sea levels by more than 20 feet, according to the National Snow- and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

The Nature study, by researcher and lead author Luke Trusel, outlined the rapidly increasing melt rate of the GriS, as measured through similar ice core samples, and correlated that data using satellite observations and modeling. Trusel works at the Cryosphere &Climate Lab at Rowan University in New Jersey.

The study found that global temperature alone was not the only contributing factor to the rapid melt. Other factors that are symptoms of global warming, such as algae and soot traveling through the air and becoming trapped in the ice, have changed the color of the ice from white to a darker, more heat-absorbent shade, contributing to the rapid melting.

Geologists and researchers such as Trusel study the history of these ancient icy masses to try and gain key understanding of what has happened before and what is happening now so they can better predict what will happen in the coming years and how it impacts the places and ways that we live today.

The annual Comer Climate Conference gathers climate scientists, geologists and researchers from universities around the country to Wisconsin each fall. These experts spend two days reviewing the work they’ve done — studying the history of geological changes and climate impacts in the past to better understand the pressures these systems are under today, and how they might react in the future.

“We as a society are recognizing that one of the primary controls of the changes in water level of the ocean are the freshwater that is locked up in ice sheets – and the last great ice sheet came and went but that was responsible for something on the order of 85 meters of sea level change,” said Tom Lowell, professor of glacial and Quaternary geology (from approximately 2.6 million years ago to the present) at the University of Cincinnati. “[Sea level] went down and came back up in a rapid [pace] – it didn’t go in a symmetrical pattern. So the point is, how fast can sea level go up? And what are the sources of that?” he asked at the conference.

To find the answers to these questions, some researchers look into the history of the long gone ice sheets, such as the Laurentide, that once covered North America.

Tom Lowell presented his research on the reorganization of ice sheets and the massive sea level rise when ice sheets melt at the annual Comer Climate Conference in Southwestern Wisconsin this fall.  (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

The Laurentide Ice Sheet (LIS) stretched across Canada and much of the northern United States more than 20,000 years ago.  The motion and retreat of this massive glacier carved out the Great Lakes, as it slid across the continent, gouging out basins, that it would later fill as it melted.

The movement of the ice sheets or continental glaciers have formed the lands and waters that we live on today. And as these processes repeat or accelerate, they will also reshape the landscapes of our future.

Lowell presented his research on the Laurentide at the annual Comer Climate Conference in Wisconsin in October.

“I would argue that if you really want to understand how to kill off an ice sheet, you’d want to go to ice sheets that are no longer with us, and that is the basis for my long interest in the Laurentide ice sheet,” Lowell said.  “I would also argue that our understanding of the Laurentide, which is the largest one of those puppies, is less well understood than it seems.”

Some of the mystery around the Laurentide can be seen in the varying pattern of seams visible within the ice sheet.   At the end of the last glacial maximum (LGM) – when glaciers reached their furthest extent between 26,000 and 21,000 years ago – the Laurentide covered an area of more than 5 million square miles and was up to 2 miles thick in some places. When the Laurentide began to melt and recede, it’s estimated to have raised sea levels by approximately 85 meters, or more than 278 feet.

All that remains of the Laurentide today is a single ice cap the size of Delaware, the Barnes ice cap, in the Canadian Arctic.

Lowell’s presentation “Reorganizing Ice Sheets” examined the Laurentide and identified periods of separation and reformation of the ice sheet. Different sections of the ice slid in different directions at different times at different speeds before coming back together and solidifying again. But the causes of these drifts, the rate at which they occurred, and the reasons they took the directions they did are still unknown. But finding these answers can give us some insights as to how fast ice sheets can melt today as climate change accelerates global warming.

An image of the Western Lobes of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Patterns in the ice show that different segments moved in different directions at different rates, at different times before solidifying again.

“The point that I really want to drive across here is Greenland, at its last glacial maximum was bigger than it is today, but Greenland will get lost in this [the Laurentide]. According to my modeling friends, the uncertainty of the Laurentide is the same sea level equivalent as Greenland,” Lowell said. “Think about that for a second. If you want to reconstruct former sea level rises, [what’s the uncertainty of the estimate of] this puppy we don’t know [points to the Laurentide] to the same volume as that guy [points to Greenland].”

Brenda Hall is a professor with the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. Her research focuses on the cause of ice ages, and of rapid climate change, as well as the stability of ice sheets to help predict where – and how fast – climate change can impact ice sheets today. Hall has research projects in the Antarctic, South America, and Greenland, and presented her research on the Antarctic ice sheet at the Comer Conference in October.

“I can divide the work I do between two main themes,” Hall said. “One being trying to understand abrupt climate change on a variety of different time scales, and then the other part of the work, which is really what I was presenting on today is how do we understand the stability of ice sheets that exist on Earth and their potential to cause changes in sea level.”

Brenda Hall, a professor with the School of Earth and Climate Sciences and Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, presented her research on the history of the Antarctic ice sheet at the Comer Climate Conference in Southwestern Wisconsin this fall. (Jillian Melero/Medill Reports)

The Antarctic ice sheet has two main components. The larger East Antarctic ice sheet is a land-based ice sheet. If it were to melt, it could raise sea levels by 50-55 meters or 164 – 180 feet, but it’s thought to be relatively stable, Hall explained.

In contrast, the smaller West Antarctic ice sheet isconsidered less stable. It’s on land that is largely below sea level, and because of that, it’s thought to be susceptible to rapid collapse. If the West Antarctic ice sheet were to collapse, it would raise global sea levels by 4 meters, or more than 13 feet, inundating many islands and coastal cities. Because of its perceived instability, there is concern about this ice sheet, as well as portions of the East Antarctic ice sheet, Hall said.

“Glaciers that end in the ocean have a very different response to climate change, than glaciers that end on land. And we have suspicion that that is telling us something about the different mechanisms that are controlling the glaciers.” Hall said she will be returning to the Antarctic to continue her research within the next year. “This time we’re really taking a close look at behavior of marine-terminating glaciers versus the ones that are ending on land,” Hall said.

Ultimately, much of the research has led to more questions. Both Lowell and Hall said that one of the greatest misconceptions about their work is that things are “all figured out.” And sometimes these general misunderstandings can lead others to make to some risky conclusions.

“I think there sometimes is a misconception about changes in the past,” Hall said. “There are times in the past when it’s been warmer than today, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s sometimes a misconception that if there are warm times in the past, then somehow warming now isn’t bad.”

Hall’s concerned that this assumption can lead to complacency or to behaviors that could contribute to climate change and rapid ice sheet deterioration, such as what we’re now seeing in Greenland’s ice sheet. Melting ice sheets mean escalating sea level rise.

“There’s natural climate variability, but there’s also man-made climate variability which will be superimposed on whatever the natural climate cycle is. And, we don’t really understand the natural climate cycle, so we don’t even know if we’d have the potential to trigger something that we don’t know about,” Hall said.  “So, that’s the biggest misconception is in the public is, yes there’s natural climate variability, and yes there are times when it’s been warmer in the past, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay for it to get warm now because of what we might be doing.”

Photo at top: (L-R) Scott Braddock, Brenda Hall, Paul Koch, Rachel Brown, Audra Norvaisa, Jon Nye formed a research team working in the McMurdo Sound Region of Antarctica. (photo from University of Maine School of Earth and Climate Science)



By Hannah Magnuson, Dec. 16, 2018 –

Climate scientists veterans Richard Alley, Wally Broecker and George Denton have witnessed immense changes during their decades-spanning careers. They’re buoyed by scientific advances, but also see critical mitigation needs amid public apathy – and a policy gridlock.

Despite political stagnation, the scientists persist with pioneering research to map the way to firm predictions for what will happen to our changing climate and how it can be addressed.

Between the three of them, they have studied ice sheets and oceans around the globe in sites such as New Zealand and Antarctica, testified in front of U.S. Congressional committees, won top awards for scientific achievement and fostered the next wave of geoscientists. They convened colleagues active in research across the globe to discuss their latest findings at the annual Comer Climate Conference this fall, a climate change conference in Southeastern Wisconsin for scientists funded by the Comer Family Foundation.

Broecker, a geochemist and the longtime Newberry Professor of Geology at Columbia University, played a critical role in discovering the global ocean circulatory system. He has been studying climate change for over 60 years and is credited with coining the term “global warming” in a 1975 research paper. Alley launched the PBS series Earth: The Operators’ Manual, helped author the massive assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and teaches geosciences at Penn State. Denton follows the tracks of past glaciers across continents and is a distinguished professor for the University of Maine’s School of Earth and Climate Sciences and Climate Change Institute.

All three men delve thousands of years into the past to better understand where human-generated climate changes may be taking us now. They study the changes Earth’s climate underwent during previous periods of warming to identify what to expect as greenhouse gases continue to heat up our planet.

On the Changing Field of Climate Change

Over the course of Alley, Broecker and Denton’s careers, climate change captured the public’s awareness and transformed into a buzzword in a polarized political landscape.

“At one point in my life I would brag that what I was doing was interesting enough that I might get a job in it and I might get a little research funding, but it wasn’t so interesting that anyone would yell at me about it,” Alley said.

Alley presented on ice fractures in Antarctica to a group of colleagues at the Comer Climate Conference.
Richard Alley calls for action in response to what the science clearly shows about climate change. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Foerstner.)

In his 41 years studying ice fields, he’s seen climate change wax and wane in the public’s interest as other issues have at times dominated the national conversation. Right now, he doesn’t think major media outlets are covering the issue enough, or in the manner it deserves, he said.

“There’s more he said, she said, they said. We jump up and down and yell at each other instead of the big discussion of ‘this is what the science says, how do we respond to that in a way that respects our values and respects our economy and our employment and our environment?’”

Despite the gridlock in the public sphere, Denton cited several significant advances within the scientific community’s study of climate change over the course of his career.

He thinks the biggest progress started with CLIMAP, a project that intertwined climate change field work with modeling. The project was first published in 1981, when numerical models were becoming more sophisticated and was run by the World Data Center for Paleoclimatology. The project’s emphasis on modeling forever altered the course of climate change research, Denton explained.

“We don’t do anything anymore without a climate model,” he said. “That was a big, big change there. It brought this sort of thing into the modern world.”

The second big advancement, according to Denton, came from developing methods to determine the absolute chronology of particles, and then testing the results through modeling runs. By using accelerators and mass spectrometers, which measure the mass of charged particles to analyze their molecular composition, the scientists can determine the ages of the particles within the ice sheets they’re studying to provide insight on glacial retreat and warming behaviors.

“Wally Broecker here was instrumental in that,” Denton said.

On the Future of Climate Change Research

Looking forward, the geoscientists anticipate large research projects and systemic policy shifts as essential measures for combating the changing climate.

Denton believes the next step for advancing climate science lies in understanding the Southern Ocean. Oceans play a crucial role in climate change, because they absorb and store much of the excess carbon emitted from greenhouse gases—resulting in ocean acidification and sea level rise.

Starting about 18 years ago, a collaborative group of researchers administered by Princeton University’s Environmental Institute distributed a series of floats all over the Southern Ocean. The floats automatically dropped to a depth that allows them to take the ocean’s measurements—a move that will enable “a new understanding of the Southern Ocean and how it affects climate,” according to Denton.

Alley advocated for the continued scientific investigation of possible climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. “We need to know what is possible,” he said.

As an example, he cited seeding the Southern Ocean with iron—an idea discussed by researchers at the conference as a potential way to grow more plants and displace carbon dioxide so that it’s buried in the mud of the ocean’s floor. He explained that while it might help a little bit, this method might also deplete the ocean of oxygen in some areas, causing an outpouring of nitrous oxide.

Pioneering climate scientist Wally Broecker discusses his colleagues’ field research at the Comer Climate Conference. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Foerstner.)

To avoid the risk negative side effects, he predicts research will favor the implementation of a  renewable energy system.

“My gut feeling is that if we do the research and we find out the whole picture including how [climate change] would feed into human societies, then we’re going to find that it’s easier by a good bit to switch to a renewable energy system,” Alley explained.

Broecker foresees a worldwide carbon tax as a necessary measure for minimizing fossil fuel consumption. He also thinks scientists should explore geoengineering—which involves practices that directly address climate change such as removing CO2 from the air or reducing the Earth’s exposure to the sun.

“That’s our only out right now,” Broecker said, explaining that geoengineering is “a Band-Aid that [helps control] bleeding immediately but, if you take the Band-Aid back off again it’s going to start to bleed just as bad again. So that means it has to be a long-term commitment.”

On The Next Generation of Climate Scientists

 In addition to their own research, Alley, Broecker and Denton have each mentored a host of Ph.D. students and post-docs at their respective institutions. Many of their former students are now mentors themselves and expand their old teachers’ reach to countless more students.

At the Comer Conference, many scientists attending were students of Broecker or Denton, or students of their students. Together, they spanned four generations of Ph.D. scientists.

Graduate student Allie Balter was one of many scientists in attendance from the University of Maine, where Denton has long served on the faculty.

“To be able to come home [from field trips] and show [Denton] photos and hear his stories about the time he went there and what he found and his perspective and everything is really great,” Balter said.

Denton poses with a group of current and former students from the University of Maine at the Comer Climate Conference in October.
George Denton (center) posed with a group of current and former students from the University of Maine at the Comer Climate Conference in October. (Photo courtesy of Abigail Foerstner.)

“They’re our future, these pretty sharp people,” Denton said of the young scientists in attendance at the conference. He lamented the difficulty the new generation of climate scientists will have in securing funding for their research given the current federal administration that is reluctant to accept the reality of climate change.

“Many [scientists] are removing the word ‘climate’ from their proposals. They call it ‘environmental change,’” Denton explained. “It’s pretty sad.”

Broecker estimated that he’s mentored about 50 Ph.D. students and worked with about 50 post docs over the years. He explained that much of his motivation behind mentoring was “selfish enjoyment” since he loves science and had fun sharing his knowledge and forging relationships with his students.

“You can’t use your students like slaves. You’ve got to inspire them and let them go out on their own,” Broecker said. He cited his former student Jeff Severinghaus, now a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography  as an example:  Severinghaus decided to study California’s sand dunes for his thesis without asking for Broecker’s permission, and he went through with it.

“You have to respect that and honor it because that means you’ve got a really good student,” Broecker said. He wants his legacy to center around his love of science and fostering of new scientists, rather than on him being the “father of global warming.”

“Science is fun. Science is important. And one should be generous,” Broecker said.

Photo at top: Antarctica’s ice fields serve as research hotbeds for climate scientists studying climate changes from past eras to better understand future implications. (Photo courtesy of Jasmine Nears.)



By Jillian Melero, Nov. 15, 2018 –

Climate change is rapidly taking the world as we know it into uncharted territory. What we do next and how quickly we do it can shape the degree to which  changes are catastrophic – with an escalation in wildfires, drought, flooding, food shortages, and severe storms – or advantageous – with investments in renewable energy and innovation. We are seeing some of both already.

The latest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, gives us a time-frame of 12 years to cut global emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels and stay below the tipping point of 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) global temperature rise. The report was based on the work of 133 scientists and other authors and more than 6,000 peer-reviewed research articles. The Paris Agreement, from which the Trump administration has withdrawn the U.S., set the 1.5-degree limit as an urgent limit in 2015 with the support of 194 countries.

“Everybody talks about the Paris Convention – we can’t heat the Earth more than 1.5 degrees. So what are you gonna do?” asked Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker in an interview during October’s annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin, “Is there a magic switch you pull? Boom! We stop raising CO2 and the Earth cools and it doesn’t warm anymore? Forget it!” Broecker said.

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