Tackling Climate Change

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With a modest $7,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Dr. Lonnie Thompson decided to take a shot in the dark. It was 1974 when he and a team of researchers travelled to the Quelcayya Ice Cap in Peru to drill for ice. Until then, such drilling was only done in polar regions, and the idea of looking for ice samples anywhere near the equator was thought to be futile. Quelcayya is the largest glaciated area in the tropics and only reachable by way of a two-day journey on horseback from the end of the nearest road. But the hard work proved fruitful. What Dr. Thompson found in that ice became valuable evidence that completely altered the course of the climate change debate. “All the greenhouse gases we are concerned with in today’s world have been archived for hundreds of thousands of years in the bubbles in ice,” says Dr. Thompson, a professor at the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State. “They’re capsules of the atmosphere from the past. They’re a wonderful archive of so many things.” Since that first trip to Quelcayya in 1974, Dr. Thompson has travelled all over the world, looking for ice samples that can tell him more about the atmosphere’s tumultuous past. And the story those samples tell is a concerning one which, by now, is not news to most people. Quelcayya and many other glaciers around the world are melting at a startling pace. And while the implications are not fully understood, a clear eventuality is a potentially devastating rise in sea levels. And sea levels are just one of many observable symptoms of climate change. The cause of this change — increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide — can also affect air quality, water quality, crop yields, and other metrics that can fundamentally distort not only an economic system, but also personal well-being. Dr. Thompson testified before Congress about his findings in 1992 and due to his work and the work of other scientists around the world, climate change has received more and more attention on a global scale. And that attention is turning into action. World leaders gathered in Paris for two weeks in early December for COP21, a United Nations conference in which representatives from over 190 countries negotiated a global agreement to limit temperature increases. The agreement marks an important step forward in the battle against climate change, a battle that Dr. Thompson believes should transcend politics. “There’s no way you can argue that a glacier has a political agenda,” says Dr. Thompson. “It’s not donating money. It’s not trying to change the system. It’s just summing up what’s happening in its environment and reacting to it. When it gets warmer, they get smaller.” Many participants in COP21 shared Dr. Thompson’s sentiments. The conference produced an agreement with the stated goal of limiting global temperature increases to 2° C above pre-industrial levels. The so-called Paris Agreement will become legally binding once it’s ratified by 55 countries that produce 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas. This margin of 2° C is a particularly strict one, as many scientists warn that the environment is already being stretched to its limits. “If we miss that target by just a degree or two, there will be a huge impact,” says Dr. Bryan Mark, State Climatologist and Associate Professor at Ohio State’s Department of Geology. “There are a lot of thresholds in nature that don’t have plasticity. There may have to be events that shift public opinion.” Some of those opinion-shifting events are already happening — just not yet in Ohio. “If you go up to Anchorage, Alaska to give a climate change talk, it will be standing-room only because the people there see the glaciers,” says Dr. Thompson. “They see them retreating every year and they become concerned about it. If we had a glacier in Ohio, people would be very concerned because they'd see it. We like to see things.” In the eyes of Dr. Thompson and many of his peers, education is essential for stirring people to see climate change and acknowledge their role in it, and educators all around Ohio State are working to increase awareness and empower the public to face the issue head-on. “What I’m saying is (that we should) rely on the science. And I think that’s where universities come into play,” says Dr. Timothy Haab, professor and chair of Ohio State’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Developmental Economics. “We should be the place that houses the unbiased scientists that are able to look at these things. And I think that’s what we are.”


Scott K.

Scott K.

New York, New York, United States

Hi there. I'm Scott, a writer with a passion for science, travel, and storytelling. I'm excited to work with you.

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