By Morgan Levey, Dec. 16, 2017 –

Elevation map of the coastline of Maine. (From glacial geologist Brenda Hall’s presentation at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference)

We think of rising fossil fuel use and the resulting carbon dioxide emissions as key catalysts of climate change in today’s warming world. And changes in climate throughout Earth’s history had many drivers, including geological forces, orbital cycles, ocean circulation and a litany of planetary mechanisms that happen on a microcosmic scale. Now imagine that there is another way for Earth’s temperatures to rise rapidly – one we’re not aware of as yet beyond a few clues and one with the potential to amplify today’s global warming.

A little over 17,000 years ago, Earth was well past the peak of the last great ice age and the Southern Hemisphere had begun shifting into the warmer climate we know today. Globally, however, this was not the case. The North Atlantic was experiencing one of the coldest periods of time in the region’s history. Yet scientists are beginning to believe that, although winters were extraordinarily cold, summer temperatures might have been fairly mild in the North Atlantic during this time, warm enough that the ice sheet covering the region may have begun retreating. If that were true, new research suggests that a new mechanism exists, one with the capacity to quickly warm the entire globe at once, at least on a seasonal basis.

Brenda Hall presenting her research at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference this fall. (Morgan Levey/ Medill)

“This is still under study, but our work indicates the end of the ice age may have been rapid,” says Brenda Hall, a glacial geologist at the University of Maine. Climate scientists such as Brenda Hall are urgently trying to put all the pieces together from the past to better predict where human activities may be taking climate now. She’s attempting to chronologically map the retreat of the North American glacial mass through Maine roughly 17,000 years ago in an effort to understand the mechanism that might have triggered warming in this area.

During the last ice age carbon dioxide was trapped in the depths of the Southern Ocean. When deglaciation began, normal ocean circulation resumed and the trapped carbon dioxide was slowly released into the atmosphere. But Hall thinks warming might have occurred so quickly that temperatures may have risen prior to much rise in carbon dioxide levels.

“This may indicate a reduced role for carbon dioxide in causing the warming [then], and it also indicates that another mechanism is present that can cause rapid global warming,” Hall says.

That doesn’t mean that carbon dioxide – driven by fossil fuel emissions to the highest levels in at least a million years – isn’t forcing global warming now. But this other mechanism Hall is investigating could turn up the thermostat even more.

A lineage of research

The impetus for Hall’s research in Maine started with her mentor, George Denton, her Ph.D. advisor in the 1990s. Denton is a glaciologist whose research for tracking glacial retreat has been so fundamental to the field that he has not one, but two glaciers in Antarctica named after him.

George Denton explores the important clues about abrupt climate changes revealed by the end of the ice ages. (2016/Medill Photo)

Denton, with fellow climate scientists Richard Alley and Wallace Broecker, and philanthropist Gary Comer, who supported widespread climate research, published a paper in 2005 based on fieldwork  they had conducted in Greenland. They had discovered an inconsistency in the annual temperature records preserved in physical characteristics of the past during the Younger Dryas, a period of moderate glaciation that started roughly 13,000 years ago.

Glacial geological fieldwork involved dating beryllium-10 isotopes found in samples of rocks taken from glacial moraines, lines of boulders that trace what was once the edge of glaciers and ice sheets, as well as boring ice core samples and dating the pockets of air trapped inside. From the moraines that Denton and the others were dating, the team learned that temperatures during the Younger Dryas were only shifting a few degrees. However, previously published data from ice cores bored recorded a much larger change of 15 degrees Celsius from the same area.

The Younger Dryas marks an era when the North Atlantic region was suddenly thrown back into a near-glacial state as the rest of the world thawed almost completely. Like the era Hall is studying, it was thought to be bitterly cold. The small shift in temperature recorded in the moraines led to the belief that varying temperatures between seasons could account for the ice core shift. While the winters in the region were frigidly cold, the summers may have been quite moderate.

Hall’s research

Hall began to wonder if seasonality was having an effect on ice sheets during other periods of extreme cold in the North Atlantic. Around 17,000 years ago Earth was warming and glaciers were melting from the Southern Hemisphere to the Swiss Alps. “And so that made us wonder, what about the ice sheets?” says Hall.

Hall recently presented her findings at the Comer Climate Conference in southwestern Wisconsin, an annual meeting of climate scientists who have received research funding from the Comer Family Foundation.

Hall’s work is in its infancy, as she gets the dates back from the lab and beginning to analyze her results. But her initial data is proving consistent with her hypothesis. The ice sheets were likely retreating.

Traditionally it is believed that the climate of the hemispheres is out of phase, driven by a bipolar see-saw mechanism, a roughly 1,500 year cycle based on ocean circulation where one pole warms and the other cools. The recorded prevalence of seasonality suggests another mechanism might be at play, one that also “would have to be able to affect the entire globe at once – at least in summer,” Hall says.

She acknowledges that this suggestion is highly controversial, but her initial findings are further confirmation of this. “The bipolar seesaw – if it exists – would only occur in the winter,” Hall says.

Climate scientists, suhc as Hall, map the warming and cooling trends that have occurred throughout our planet’s lifespan in an effort to track the causality of individual factors on climate changes. Earth is large, so a lot of this happens at the level of regions or continents. When a force affects the whole planet, it’s significant. And in today’s warming world, where we are driving carbon dioxide levels to unprecedented heights, it means that warming could be amplified by forces we are only beginning to discover, let alone understand.

The lineage continues

On the other side of the North Atlantic, Gordon Bromley, a glacial geologist and former student of Hall’s, is conducting similar studies – trying to chronologically map the retreat of the ice sheet – but through Scotland.

Gordon Bromley presenting his research on Scotland at the Comer Climate Conference (Morgan Levey/ Medill)

“We’re using exactly the same techniques, same philosophy as we approach it,” says Bromley who also presented his latest findings at the Comer Climate Conference. His results so far have matched Hall’s. “I was pleased to see the same signal, same recession, during the periods that we think our conceptual model says it should be retreating, that is happening on the west side of the Atlantic and on the east.”

Like Hall’s research, Bromley’s Scottish work is building upon previous evidence of global ice sheet retreats around the same period of time. “I’d say that Brenda’s New England work and our Scottish work both grew organically and quite separately from the same line of inquiry. That they are converging attests to the global nature of abrupt climate change,” says Bromley.

For Bromley and Hall, the similarity in results is encouraging, but the work is also tied to a legacy that both are proud to be a part of.

“The way that George trained Brenda and Brenda trained me – hopefully I can train my students that well. It’s like being part of the family business,” says Bromley.

Elevation map of the coastline of Maine. (From Brenda Hall’s presentation at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference)

Note: Morgan Levey is a Comer Scholar, a Medill scholarship program supported by the Comer Family Foundation to promote graduate studies in environmental journalism.


Carp caught at the event will provide data to develop water jets that can keep the invasive fish from moving upstream to the Great Lakes
By Austin Keating, Aug 31, 2017 –

(Austin Keating/Medill)

Photo at top: Some of the carp caught at Redneck Fishing provide research that can prevent the invasive species from entering the Great Lakes. (Austin Keating/Medill)

At the annual Redneck Fishing Tournament in early August, teams of Asian carp catchers unload their hauls into a semi-trailer full of the invasive, dead fish.

Most of the harvest went to cat food and fertilizer factories, but several dozen were taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for study in the battle to keep the jumping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes — where they could spread prolifically and ruin the area’s $7 billion fishing economy.

Carp caught at the tournament serve many functions. (Austin Keating/Medill)

Jan Jeffrey Hoover, a research fishery biologist for the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi, went to the Redneck Fishing Tournament in the small western Illinois town of Bath to take measurements from the larger carp caught at the event. These measurements will help the corps replicate their serendipitous success at blocking large numbers of Asian carp from the Upper Mississippi River.

“Because the water there is restricted through a series of gates [north of St. Louis], it comes out at a higher velocity — for a relatively short distance — but enough that it’s impeded the entry of Asian carp into the Upper Mississippi River. We can exploit that technology, and we can exploit that weakness in the carp’s biology, by replicating hydraulic conditions that mimic that flow,” Hoover said.

At Redneck Fishing, the race to net the most Asian carp in four separate heats resulted in a catch of more than 2,700 of the fish. The carp that elude capture continue up the Illinois River and are prevented from reaching Lake Michigan by an electric barrier.

Research fishery biologists Steven George (right) and Jan Hoover (left) take down measurements. (Austin Keating/Medill)

But the corps wants more precautions and recently requested $275 million from the federal government to install jets near Joliet to mimic flows seen in the Upper Mississippi. The corps already has a series of electric barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects to Lake Michigan. But despite their largely successful track record, a live Asian Carp was recently found just a few miles away from Lake Michigan, according to the the Chicago Tribune. It could have been carted there by a bird rather than jumping the barrier — scientists are unsure, Hoover said.

If funding is approved, the jet-enabled new layer of protection would have to be fine-tuned to keep out silver carp, a greater threat than the bighead carp, both of which are found in the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers, Hoover said. Silver carp, unlike bighead carp, jump when stirred by a wake and noise. They also occur in substantially larger numbers and have higher burst-swimming speeds than the bighead carp.

Both types of carp have gradually inched closer to Lake Michigan since flooding from fish farms in southern states introduced them into the Mississippi River in the late 1970s.

Finding the right water flow to impede Northern Illinois-adapted carp requires data on fish length and weight, which Hoover gathered at the event. He only picked the largest fish because they swim faster.

Having weight and length measurements for the fastest fish will allow the corps to develop maximum water velocities that prevent most carp from moving upstream.

Data are also gathered using water tunnels like this to evaluate swimming behavior and endurance at different water velocities.

Asian carp in a water tunnel. (Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center)

Hoover also collected data that will be useful for lowering the count of Asian carp in Illinois rivers through other harvest events like Redneck Fishing.

“We’re collecting measurements on some of the fish they’re collecting here. And we’re dissecting them to look at their reproductive condition and the stage at which they’re reproducing,” Hoover said, adding that he also collected bones for age determinations and eggs to establish the number of offspring from individual females.

All of this can be incorporated into a harvest estimate through population modeling “to learn what rates of harvests would be useful in pushing … populations into a downward spiral,” Hoover said.

Bath — and its slice of the Illinois River — is a global hotspot for Asian carp. That’s why “harvesting events” like Redneck Fishing are so important. Not only does the yearly event help keep the population in this section of the river at bay, but it also gives scientists hundreds of fish to choose from for scientific study.

The weekend-long event in early August brings hundreds of tourists and locals to the small town with a population of about 300. Speed boats full of people holding nets follow pontoon boats that stir the carp with deep wakes, causing them to jump out of the water.

Racing to be the top carp catcher at the Redneck Fishing Tournament. (Austin Keating/Medill)

“Asian carp have a variety of impacts, not the least of which is public safety when they fly from the water and strike boaters. But more insidious are the environmental impacts that the species pose. Particularly in side-channels like this off of main-stem rivers like the Illinois and Mississippi rivers,” Hoover said. “Asian carp — once they get into a system like this — render it void of zooplankton. And that’s a food source for commercially desirable fish.”

Hoover added that his research is funded by the Aquatic Nuisance Species Research Program.

Lifelong Bath resident Robin Daniels has volunteered at every Redneck Fishing tournament since the extravaganza began 11 years ago. While they were able to fill a semi-trailer full of the fish, prior years had much larger harvests. The turnout this year was lower, and the water level was high due to rain — making the fish less likely to jump, she said.

“I don’t think the carp are as bad because, in previous years, they’ve caught so many,” she said. “I grew up on this river, boated on this river. I would have never thought of seeing a flying fish back in those days. So we’ve all experienced a big change in this area.”

See related story: How Tiny Bath on the Illinois River Turned an Invasive Species into a National Tournament.



By Tiffany Chen –

 Drought and crop faiure in the Midwest. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

Water is a scarce resource to 1.1 billion people worldwide who lack access to water, according to World Wildlife Fund. And some 4 billion people suffer from water shortages for part of the year. Though water covers 70 percent of the planet’s surface, only 1 percent of it is drinkable.

When the quality, quantity, availability and accessibility of water is unreliable, researchers consider people and communities as water insecure. This complex risk is woven into our everyday life, impacting economic productivity, health and nutrition, according to scientists measuring the impact with the Household Water Insecurity Experiences (HWISE) scale.

Scientists from around the globe gathered to share potential solutions to worldwide water shortages during the Household Water Insecurity Experience Conference at Northwestern University

To tackle the problem, researchers gathered at Northwestern University to develop and refine the first household insecurity scale, a novel tool to meaure water insecurity that people face at the household level. Northwestern anthropologist Sera Young organized the  three-day HWISE conference in conjunction with the university’s Institute for Policy Research and Center for Water Research to draw together collaborators who have collected data from across the globe.

“Water insecurity is very important,” said Shalean Collins, research study coordinator for Young’s group at Northwestern, who explained the urgency of worldwide water issues. “Anywhere you go, people will tell you in many different contexts and in many different languages, ‘water is life.’”

“There is no one, true cross-culturally appropriate way to measure water insecurity at the level of the household,” said Collins. “Water is used for more than consumption. It’s used for economic productivity [and] for all manner of things. It’s harder to pin down exactly what water insecurity is and how to measure it.”

Water has numerous usages within a household. A family needs water to drink, to bathe and to water their crops. With shortages, families have to decide how to prioritize water use and consumption and distribute their resource accordingly. These choices can make it difficult for scientists to assess how severe water scarcity is in a region and how global warming is making scarcity worse.

The HWISE research spans four continents and 19 study sites, from South America to Asia. The mission of the project is to develop a systematic cross-cultural scale to measure household-level water insecurity, to track the changes in insecurity over time and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions.

“Across the sites where data has been collected, [we find that the length of questionnaires] needs to be reduced,” said Godfred Boateng, a postdoctoral reearcher with Young’s group who analyzes data from the field sites. “The goal [of this conference] is to do some content re-evaluation, take out the redundant questions and make sure we have questions and items that are relevant to the scale we are developing.”

“Forcing people to answer yes and no questions is not optimal,” said Professor Edward Frongillo, of the University of South Carolina. Scientists agreed that short and quantifiable questions should be asked to assess household-level water insecurity level in the community and to avoid respondent fatigue.

Researchers often face many difficulties collecting data in the field due to cultural differences and the interpretation of language.

“Upset” is often translated into “sad” or “angry” in African and Latin American countries. Colleagues at the conference suggested researchers optimize the questions by asking “how satisfied” people are with water supplies before prompting respondents to answer the full water insecurity scale.

In translating the scale into local languages, researchers have to ensure they don’t lose the meaning of their questions. They often need to paraphrase the questions until it is fully understood by respondents, said Patrick Mbullo, a graduate student at Northwestern University from Kenya.

Amber Pearson, assistant professor of geography, Michigan State University, participates in the HWISE workshop.

Social psychology also plays a role. When interviewers question if there is enough money to buy water, people are often offended because they think the researchers are implying they cannot provide for their family, said Mobolanle Balogun, a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos in Nigeria. “Even [say] I’m poor, and I’ll say I’m rich; I’m sick, I’ll say I’m not,” she said.

If people think the researchers are from the government, “they tend to put themselves lower on the scale, wishing something good will come out of it,” said Balogun, describing another scenario.

The scientists suggested that interviewers be trained to ask unbiased questions and gather unbiased responses when facing such challenges in the field by asking respondents questions in a third-person angle.

Another challenge that the conference highlighted is the potential for push back from  communities and repondents. “Conducting assessments interrupts [people’s] schedule for that particular day,” said Mbullo.

Respondents are sometimes bothered by the seemingly redundant assessments as researchers try to gather data that demonstrate patterns across time. After an unpleasant experience with surveys, some people refuse to answer questions and tell their community not to engage with researchers.

Balogun suggested that the research teams discuss the survey within a community prior to conducting fieldwork. Communicating with the local leaders and communities in advance can help people understand the purpose of the research and alllow for local buy-in.

Th HWISE consortium will continue refining the Household Water Insecurity Experiences scale to create a cross-cultural assessment for countries that are threatened by water scarcity.

See related story: Half the World Suffers from Water Shortages – Global Researchers Gather to Meet the Threat



By Morgan Levey –

Vivien Rivera with a rain gauge at Gensburg Markham Prairie (Liliana Herndandez Gonzalez/ ISEN)

“You can ask the question, well do you expect this to look like the city or do you expect it to look like pristine prairie? And the answer is it’s going to be somewhere in between,” says Aaron Packman, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University and director of the Center for Water Research.

Packman’s question refers to levels of contaminants in the soil and water at Gensburg Markham Prairie, part of Indian Boundary Prairies, a remnant ecosystem just 20 miles southwest of Chicago. Over the past year the Institute of Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University has been collecting data on the prairie site as part of an effort to study the benefits of urban green spaces for cities.

“People are designing green spaces, for example green roofs, but there is no data available about the benefits of these green spaces — for example soil water retention, or improvement of water quality, air quality,” says Liliana Hernandez Gonzalez a Ph.D student at Northwestern University and one of the project’s leads. “With high frequency data we can get models to understand them better.”

Liliana Hernandez Gonzalez, a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, conducts water sampling at Gensburg Markham Prairie (Vivien Rivera/ ISEN)

NU students in collaboration with ISEN presented the data they’ve collected over the past year at Gensburg Markham Prairie to members of The Nature Conservancy in an annual update for the partnership at Indian Boundary. The prairie site is owned by Northeastern Illinois University and The Nature Conservancy and managed by the conservancy. Gensburg Markham Prairie alone covers over 100 acres of well-preserved grassland, amid housing developments and highways.

The data covers everything from water levels and soil moisture to levels of outside contaminants and is difficult to assess. The ISEN team did find lead and zinc traces in the topsoil and copper traces in the water table. But the levels were less than 3 milligrams per meter, the EPA’s standard for levels of concern, and far below the average background levels for the state of Illinois.  

“Those background levels are coming from the EPA, from a study they did in 1994,” says Gonzalez. “They took like 200 samples in the entire state and, near our site, they only took two samples. But that’s the data that’s available right now.” This outdated study is leading the team to look for other data sets from sites, preferably other prairies in the Midwest region.

A waggle node sensor installed at Paintbrush Prairie (Liliana Hernandez Gonzalez/ ISEN)

To do that, the ISEN team installed 23 sensors in Gensburg Markham Prairie that measure soil moisture and water levels. Along with regularly  sampling the soil and water, the team also installed a waggle node, technology developed by Argonne National Laboratory to collect real-time measurements of  humidity, temperature, air quality and other environmental factors and transmit it via wireless internet to an open-source server.

So far the NU team has one of Argonne’s waggle nodes installed, as it’s dependent on power. “The next phase is to move them to the middle of the prairie, so then we need a solar powered waggle, which we’re working on now,” says Packman. “From there you could take them anywhere.”

An ISEN team presentation for the group at the prairie looked at potential areas of collaboration with The Nature Conservancy, particularly in areas of how the soil and water samples can inform the ecological restoration of the site.

“We, the NU team, don’t have expertise in conservation ecology,” says Packman.“Examples of new directions from the discussion with TNC include assessing the effects of urban inputs on degradation of prairie habitat in nature preserves like GMP, monitoring and controlling water levels for migratory bird habitat in restored wetlands, and use of the video cameras on the waggle nodes to obtain time-series data on plant communities.”

The effects that winter road salt has on the site is one of the areas of research that both organizations see as providing benefit for future management of the prairie.

“We dump massive amounts of salt into our waterways every winter. What do we see [from] that? There’s not enough research done,” says John Legge, Chicago Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s kind of mindblowing.”

In the last samples that ISEN analyzed, taken just two to three weeks before the presentation and three months after the last snow, higher concentrations of magnesium and calcium, key ingredients in road salt, were found in drainage ditches near the roads than in the middle of the prairie, according to Gonzalez.

“But they’re still lower than the background concentrations in Illinois,” says Gonzalez. “We took them in the summer. We’re planning to do more sampling in the winter and we’re also going to install some electrical conductivity sensors in water and soil and then we can get data all year, like high frequency data of these salt concentrations.”

All of the research at the prairie can be summarized as concern for the health of this rare remnant ecosystem’ and the need to gauge the human impact on the site.

“We think of this site as having huge value because of how pristine it is. Without having been plowed with having clearly some of the highest levels of plant and insect biodiversity in prairie remnants in Illinois. Just as a reference for what much of the state once was,” says Legge.

But it’s also essential for other sites that need ecological restoration.

“As others are working to recreate prairie habitat on areas that have had some other agricultural or other impacts, what are we aiming for?”

See related story: Prairie Plays Key Role in Chicago’s Flood Management


 By Adam Cohen, August 4, 2017 – 

If you ask Chicagoans to draw a map of their city, the first line on the page will likely be a slightly angled north-south axis. Everything west of the line is urban territory. Everything east of it is fresh water.

Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes contain one-fifth of world’s surface fresh water – 6 quadrillion gallons of it. But is Chicago an aquatic paradise, immune to worldwide water shortages that are accelerating with global warming?

Scientists here say the answer is no. “There are estimates that industrial and economic development will be limited by water in the city of Chicago within the next 20 years,” says Aaron Packman, professor of Civil, Environmental and Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University.

Though the Great Lakes are vast, water extraction from them is limited under the legally binding Great Lakes Compact. Most Chicago suburbs cannot obtain their drinking water from Lake Michigan. “Go a county or two to the west or south, where they must use groundwater [from aquifers]. Those sources are rapidly becoming depleted,” says Seth Snyder, a colleague of Packman’s at Northwestern and chief of water research at Argonne National Laboratory, a world-renowned science and engineering research center located on a sprawling campus 30 miles southwest of the city.

Packman and Snyder are two of the principal researchers at the Northwestern Argonne Institute of Science and Engineering (NAISE), a partnership between Northwestern and Argonne. Although Argonne was founded in the 1940s during the Manhattan Project, NAISE is one of dozens of programs that now use the facilities to develop state-of-the-art technologies for sustainability, energy and other applications.

A resin wafer at Argonne testing new technologies for water treatment and conservation. (Adam Cohen/Medill)

One such breakthrough is a desalination and water treatment process called resin wafer electrodeionization (RW-EDI). RW-EDI is extremely energy-efficient as compared to traditional desalination methods. The porous resin wafers require very little voltage to power electric fields as part of a system that filters out impurities from water. The technology has been proven to function in a commercial setting – a scale roughly 100 times larger than the “mini-stacks” of wafers built at Argonne.

Resin wafer technology plays a vital role in NAISE’s plan for more efficient food, energy and water use on a systemic level. Recovering the 1 billion gallons of treated wastewater that the city dumps into the Chicago River every day “will more than triple available water,” says Snyder. The reclaimed water could be used for industry and agriculture.

“That’s a big part of the game,” continues Packman, highlighting the fact that industry and irrigation account for roughly 90 percent of national water consumption. “If you could take sources that are lower quality than the ones we would normally use for drinking water, and link them to users who don’t need the quality of water we would normally have for drinking water, this opens up whole new pathways for water use.”

A device built to hold a “mini-stack” of resin wafers, part of a system to remove impuities from water. (Adam Cohen/Medill)

Packman, Snyder and Yupo Lin, a chemical engineer who leads the resin wafer project at Argonne, are featured speakers at a Taipei symposium on August 5 and 6 tackling global resource management. Hosted by National Taiwan University (NTU) as part of their ongoing international collaboration effort, the conference will cover clean water technologies, the Urban Food-Energy-Water Nexus, and green infrastructure. The technologies being developed through the Northwestern-Argonne partnership have crucial implications for an island nation like Taiwan, which receives influxes of freshwater only through typhoon rains. “Water is hard for them,” says Lin, who holds over 20 patents related to his resin wafer work. “The keywords we’re looking for are ‘new water sources.’”

The Northwestern-Argonne team will also be learning from the success of their NTU partners and other scientists at the symposium who are developing models to measure the overall inputs and outputs of urban systems. “Imagine the amount of food, energy and water going into and out of the city of Chicago,” says Packman. “It’s very hard to track. We’ve been working on things like urban water systems data collection with distributed sensor networks. They’ve been able to do that in Taiwan. This gives us some basis to make some connections together to improve understanding of cities both in Taiwan and the U.S.”

While this work on the Food-Energy-Water Nexus could help solve problems for the global community, it should also be a boon to water-rich Great Lakes economies, which Synder feels should be a leader in attracting business with water reuse programs. “Just like you should install photovoltaics in Phoenix, water-intensive industries should be in the Chicago region,” he says. “We are working on enabling that vision.”

This intersection of efficiency and economic development led to the establishment of a non-profit called Current in 2016. Founded by World Business Chicago, Current is a public-private partnership that serves as an “innovation platform for the Chicago region’s water industry to leverage its strengths for global environmental and economic impact.” Current partners with the city and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) to implement the technologies being developed at Argonne. (MWRD is the independent local government agency that manages the region’s wastewater and storm water.)

This weekend’s conference is being hosted in honor of the 40th anniversary of NTU’s Graduate Institute of Environmental Engineering. Participants are also eager to fulfill the promise of increased international collaboration. “We were invited,” says Packman, “both to celebrate prior achievements and to explore new opportunities.”

Photo at Top: Lake Michigan at Chicago. (Medill Archive)


By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran/Video by Kelly Calagna –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran –

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

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

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


By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

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

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

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

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

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

A meeting of minds

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

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

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

Lowering our carbon footprint

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

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

Fracking and the risks of water contamination

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

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

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

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

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

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

From local to global

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Jia You –

Richard Alley works at the forefront of climate research, interpreting the time machine of climate past locked in ice cores he collected in some of the coldest places on Earth. The University of Pennsylvania geoscientist has spent more than 10 field seasons in Antarctica, Greenland and Alaska collecting clues from the ice sheets to tell us where climate may be heading now.

Alley frequently testifies before Congress, chaired the National Research Council’s Panel on Abrupt Climate Change and participated in the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He has also advised numerous administrations on climate change.

Alley has appeared in numerous television documentaries, and hosted “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” a PBS special on climate change that he published as a book of the same title.

Alley shares his thoughts on why we must do more to address climate change and how that will bolster the economy.

“It is easier to break something than to build it,” he said at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference held in southwestern Wisconsin this fall. “When we think about what we are doing to the climate, cranking up CO2, it’s very very unlikely that it turns the planet into Eden.”

View the videos for more comments.
Dec. 2, 2015

Photo at top: Veteran climate scientist Ricard Alley argues fixing climate is good for the economy. (Kelly Calagna/Medill)


Photo at top: Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra of California (Guleed Ali/Columbia University)

By Kevin Stark –

Throngs of demonstrators frustrated with government inaction on climate change filled the streets of Manhattan in fall. They wore cardboard cutout life preservers that said “preserve our communities.” They carried a giant sunflower, nearly the width of a city street. Colorful signs, young and old, a cross-section of America.

And there was Yonig Goldsmith wearing a white robe like a prophet, but carrying a graph like a climate scientist. He is a climate scientist and the white robe was a lab robe.

“The scientists—there were not that many—but we all stood with signs that were posters of different plots [on graphs] showing what is happening,” Goldsmith said.

What role should science play in climate change advocacy?

This fall, Goldsmith and other scientists at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in southwestern Wisconsin grappled with this question. The conference is hosted by the Comer Family Foundation, which supports widespread climate research, and it brought together top climate scientists working from Antarctica to Greenland and everywhere in between.

Yonig Goldsmith and Allison Jacobel, graduate researchers at Columbia University, representing the science community at a September climate march in Manhattan. (Alice Bell/flickr)

The scientists agree that Earth is rapidly warming and that poses risks to human well being. But researchers do not agree on how to best take up the challenge of telling the climate change story. In emotion their responses range from optimistic to despondent, in strategy from advocacy to a focus on economic growth.

How do we talk about climate change so that people care even while they worry about making the rent? How do scientists communicate the threat of an abruptly warming planet to a public that often requires clarity, brevity, and certainty?

In December, world leaders will gather in Paris for the United Nations climate-change conference. Advocates are hopeful that the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions will be signed. Remember, in 1997 a framework was drawn up in Kyoto, Japan, to take a firm stand, but “the agreement failed on the international stage,” Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine.

Goldsmith is a Columbia University doctoral candidate studying ancient lake levels in China. He believes that now that a global agreement is likely to be forged, scientists need to take an active roll in the advocacy debate. He is somewhat of an outlier among his colleagues.

To be clear, researchers should not be activists based on the premise of scientific objectivity, Goldsmith said. But researchers should not be on the sidelines either.  For Goldsmith, scientists need to be there, holding evidence. Pointing to data. Stating the case. “CO2 is rising. The oceans are warming. The glaciers are melting with an exclamation mark,” Goldsmith said.

Is there collaboration in climate messaging within this community? Does anybody agree?

Action Agenda

Goldsmith and I spoke about the role of scientists in the policy debate at the conference, several months after the march in Manhattan. He was preparing to participate in another march the following week at Columbia University, where he is a doctoral candidate studying with climate pioneer Wally Broecker.

Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University, coined the phrase global warming in the 1970s and became the “Grandfather of Climate Science.”  He famously told the New York Times, “The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking at it with sticks.”

During the 1970s, believing that immediate action was needed to mitigate global warming, Broecker sent letters to senators, wrote papers, and generally “tried to advocate in this way—that is his avenue” Goldsmith said.

But for Goldsmith, letters and papers are no longer enough. Goldsmith says this to his veteran colleagues at the conference: you are the most “influential climate scientists in the world” and you have to “get up and talk about this.”

Broecker’s response (and the conversation) mirrors the greater debate within the science community. For Broecker, his role is as a scientist—not at all an activist—and to be credible he must remain objective and neutral, he says..

Goldsmith agrees that scientists need to be careful about discrediting their research, but he does see a need for a more active roll for researchers in the public debate.  “Scientists are the ones that have to say, this is what what we work on, this is the logic, this is what we have. This is the evidence,” he says.

Researchers should focus on  understanding  the science. Activists should focus on divestment from fossil fuels, Goldsmith said. He points to the success of writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben, winner of the Right Livelihood prize in 2014 and founder of McKibben organized the Manhattan march.

McKibben is leading an international movement to ‘divest,’ from the fossil fuel industry. He encourages organizations, universities, and others to withdraw financial investment from the oil and coal industry. Today, economists consider investing in the oil industry as a risk, in part, because of this advocacy (oil prices are dropping drastically because of over-supply which strengthens the argument for divestment).

Scientists marched with charts instead of protest signs in Manhattan (Alice Bell/flickr)
Scientists marched with charts instead of protest signs in Manhattan (Alice Bell/flickr)

“I very much believe in the economics approach because it makes sense to people,” Goldsmith said. “It is not this vague suffering of some whatever in some place in the world, which we cannot relate to.”

But only a handful of science researchers are actively engaged in the economics debate—Richard Alley of Penn State ranking among the most prominent. So, what does he think?

Alley said that communicating his fascination for science to a public audience was a “transition” and a “jolt,” and that policy is lagging behind the science. But he believes he found a message that will resonate with people: business.

Today, Alley is widely regarded as one of the best communicators of climate science. Alley, a glaciologist and geosciences professor  at Penn State, wrote the book  “Earth: The Operator’s Manuel,” the companion book to a widely popular PBS documentary (both were significantly more popular than the “Fate of Greenland”).

He also may be a perfect messenger as someone who is “right of center” and has “enjoyed working for an oil company and benefited from its largesse.” Alley believes the answer to the problem of how to engage with the public about climate change has the power of the free market behind the message.

He said that people will take action to reduce carbon emissions “because there is money to be made as much as ethically important things to do.”

It is not the case that doing the right things for future generations means “hurting ourselves now,” he said. He sees business opportunities and innovation where other see downsizing if we hope to reduce emissions.

The former vice president and author of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore is also advancing what has been called “sustainable capitalism” through Generation Investment Management, a company that “shifts the incentives of financial and business operations” to reduce damage to the environment caused by “unsustainable commercial excesses,” according to a recent article in The Atlantic.

Gore and Alley agree that including environmental and social impact on corporate activity can actually result in bullish gains in capital and that there is “money to be made,” (as Alley put it) and that returns can be better than just as good (according to Gore).

Gore has been able to prove that money can be made in sustainable energy investments, but there is no a guarantee that climate change will be solved on a policy level, or even that the renewable market will replace traditional oil and coal.  As Bill Gates put it in a separate Atlantic article, renewables will be “uncertain compared with what’s tried-and-true and already operating at unbelievable scale.”

Even the message of the melting ice can be a tough sell.

Philip Conkling co-wrote  “The Fate of Greenland: Lessons form Abrupt Climate Change” with Alley, Broecker, and University of  Maine climate researcher George Denton. The book chronicled the melting  ice sheet covering much of Greenland, the culmination of years of science and many voyages in the glacial North.

The book was supposed to “change the world, or at least make a little ripple,” Conkling said.  But it sold 4,633 copies. “It was like, what a disappointment,” Conkling said.

Conkling is the founder of the Island Institute, a non-profit that advocates for the remote coastal communities off the coast of Maine and in other areas. He is a rare non-science presenter at the Comer conference.

He lectured on how to tell the climate story and began by saying, “I was going to subtitle this presentation 35 years of failure but I thought that would be a little grim.”

Still, the success of collaboration between communities and the Island Institute encourages him. His newest enterprise, Philip Conkling and Associates, is a consulting firm that guides the vision and planning of non-profits.

Islands aren’t the only places that need protection as the climate risks grow.

Hurting Ourselves Now

A few months ago, I was talking about sea-level rise and development in the San Francisco Bay Area on a local radio program. I had just published an investigative package with a local news organization that detailed $21 billion worth of current bayside development projects in an area that scientists say could be flooded by the end of the century as glaciers melt, pouring more water into the oceans.

The station took a call from a skeptical listener who said the research was full of  “could be” statements and projections and wondered what about the research was news.

The caller and often apathetic policymakers are a problem for journalists and scientists who worry about what will happen if carbon emissions continue to climb and the planet continues to warm dramatically and quickly.

The biggest sticking point often for public engagement is the uncertainties that are inherent in climate modeling. Projections of sea-level rise – one of the key threats -fall in ranges. The projections are a product of highly complicated scientific models, and researchers can run different scenarios of action (and inaction) to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.

Sea-level rise projections fall in a range at the end of the century. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

With the United Nations fifth assessment in 2013, the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that sea levels could rise between 11 and 36 inches by the year 2100, depending on how aggressively carbon emissions are reduced.

The difference between the low and high projections could mean billions of dollars in adaptation planning for coastal communities. And that’s without even looking beyond this consensus figure to other, less conservative projections. The gap, reflecting the rate of melting of the vast polar ice sheets, often leaves policymakers scratching their heads.

Which is another way of saying, it leaves policymakers inactive.

The report I published with a team at the San Francisco Public Press found 27 bayfront megaprojects – including new headquarters of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google – all in low-lying areas that climate scientist say could flood by the end of the century.

While interviewing policymakers, the uncertainty came up a lot, mostly as an excuse for why no specific sea-level rise regulation on the books for business in the Bay Area.

“It may be unwise—and expensive—to require immediate measures to adapt to wide-ranging, highly uncertain sea-level rise projections further out in time,” wrote San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a memo to a civil grand jury convened before the investigative package ran.  His administration has said that sea-level rise regulation needs to be written with nuance to adapt to changing science.

A map from the San Francisco Public Press. Production by Maia Wachtel, Marcea Ennamorato and Brittany Burson, UC Berkeley CAGE Lab. Illustration by Clark Miller. Find the interactive version by Amanda Hickman at (Reporting Kevin Stark/Medill)

Alley said that inaction because of uncertainty is short-sighted, and compared it to not buying car insurance just because there’s no certainty we will have an accident.

“The uncertainties actually motivate doing more,” Alley said. “You do not know whether or not you will be run over by a semi on the way to work, but you should buy a safe car, buckle your seatbelt and not drink while you are driving.”

Alley said scientists need to “care deeply and passionately about how things work,” but communicating this message to the public is a difficult challenge—and one that a new generation of researchers is leaning into by taking journalism classes and putting off research to collaborate with science reporters.

While the scientific community is in consensus that badly needed mitigation of the rate of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere is needed to slow the current rapid period of global warming, not all scientist agree that financial markets will solve the problem.

Guleed Ali, a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, is skeptical of the marketsplace solving the problem.

“We are here today because of business” pushing fossil fuel use, he said. He sees winning support from other perspectives.

Ali researches the geomorphic record of Mono Lake, which is a large, shallow saline soda lake in the Eastern Sierra of California, and he often speaks to the local community about his work.

Through trial and error—or “talk and blab” as he put it—Ali found that people engage more with images, or in his case, with art. Ali produces graphic images that explain the dense science. “That is the most straightforward way to penetrate that initial wall,” Ali said. “Art is something that is engaging. It is disarming.”

Science is a world of charts, graphs, data points, but Ali sees the world differently. “For someone like me, pictures are so much simpler,” he said. “They give life to these inanimate things that we write about.”

Ali said the route to solving the issue of global warming is through the hearts and minds of the public. People need to “see with their own eyes,” he said.

“If you see steam coming out of the bowl you know that the bowl is hot,” Guleed said. “It’s steam.”

The problem is that the majority of the public in the United States is disconnected from the changes that are taking place in the Earth’s climate. He said it is “abundantly clear” for those communities—“farmers and pastorals”—that are connected to the earth in a direct way.

Guleed Ali of Columbia University includes beautiful images that he draws along with complicated data in scientific talks.

The question for some of Ali’s colleagues is this: can engaging with people on an emotional level—providing steam-from-the-bowl evidence that the world is rapidly warming—move the public fast enough to mitigate warming?

The “ultimate objective” of the International Panel on Climate Change to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system—read: keep the world climate from being so screwy that society cannot grow food or live in coastal communities.

This temperature level is 2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. Today, we have already reached half that level of temperature rise and the other half is already spooled into the atmosphere.

If 2 degrees does not seem like a big deal—temperatures can vary 20 or 30 degrees in any given day. But it is important to to understand that the figure represents global average. If the global average temperature rises above the 2-degree mark, atmospheric climate will be disrupted. The world could see severe drought, less rain but more severe storms, and it will be a challenge to grow food to feed the world’s population.

It is clear from conversations at the Comer conference that every one agrees on one thing – the story of climate change needs to be told. All of the researchers I spoke with are doing this in some way. But, it was also clear that the science community doesn’t agree on how to tell the story. They are still debating, proposing and challenging – which they do in their science as well.

But they all keep trying to tell the story. And they all seemed to have hope.

“People will get there,” Ali said. “We are doing this for that reason.”


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