Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Climate Change – Glaciers, People & Options
OSU Climate Change Webinar Series
Speaker: Lonnie Thompson
Date: 10/29/12

I recently had the opportunity to attend an OSU hosted webinar on Climate Change regarding glaciers, people and options.  Lonnie Thompson was the speaker.  Thompson is a paleoclimatologist and University professor at the Ohio State University(OSU).  He has achieved global recognition for his drilling and analysis of ice cores from mountain glaciers and ice caps in many parts of the world. I’d like to share with you some of what I learned.

Both natural and non-natural mechanisms are impacting our climate.  Natural mechanisms include changes in the sun, and changes in the amount of volcanic dust going into the atmosphere.  Non-natural mechanisms include things like aerosols, particles from burning fossil fuels, and the increasing concentration of the amount of greenhouse gasses.  

The stratosphere is cooling while the troposphere and surface are warming in concert.  A bit of background: the troposphere is closest to the Earth’s surface and is the layer of the atmosphere where all weather takes place.  The stratosphere is above the troposphere and contains the ozone layer, which is primarily responsible for absorbing the UV radiation from the sun.  A glacier in East Antarctica (EPICA Dome C) records changes in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere that have occurred for over 800,000 years.  Carbon Dioxide and Methane have oscillated for this time period on a fairly regular basis, but are currently way over that which they have been, and are predicted to increase even more.  The main driver for this prediction is population: the projected population of the Earth by 2050 is 9 billion.  Not to mention the increase in livestock, crops and energy consumption needed to maintain that kind of number.

There are many systems in nature that can be used to look at the Earth’s historical patterns in weather: tree rings, corals, pollen, ocean and lake sediments and ice cores are just some examples.  This webinar focused on ice cores.  Ice cores can give scientists information about historical temperatures, atmospheric chemistry, net accumulation, the dustiness of the atmosphere, vegetation changes, and volcanic history.  Ice is the best indicator of climate change – as the planet warms, ice melts. There’s no denying that correlation.

Some of the glaciers/ice caps that were noted in this presentation are retreating at rapid rates and are listed here: 
Quelccaya Ice Cap in the Peruvian Andes (the largest body of ice in the world)
McCall Glacier in the Brooks Range, Alaska
Muir Glacier in Southeast Alaska
Kyetrak Glacier in the Eastern Himalayas
Kilimanjaro in Africa

Just a couple of things I noted were how widespread this occurrence is, and how long this has been going on.  Try doing an internet search on any of these glaciers, the images that come up of receding ice is mind boggling. Pictured here is McCall Glacier in Alaska, photos taken from http://www.drmattnolan.org/mccall/index.htm

I searched for Kilimanjaro glacier just now as I am writing this article -  and found this newspaper article, posted 9 hours ago:

My point? This issue is global and it isn’t going away.

Some of the ice that has been retreating is uncovering ancient plants, that when recovered and aged are showing that the ice hasn’t retreated this far in over 5,000 years in some cases.  As ice retreats, sea levels rise – and how does that impact the human population? -  Loss in coastline, increased occurrence of avalanches, loss of resources and livestock in some cases.

The number of natural disasters/events from 1980 to 2010 has increased tremendously.  The number of fatalities from these occurrences is huge as compared to 30 year averages.  

What are the ingredients for the perfect disaster and what do we do about it?  Thompson suggests the following: the long lifetime of CO2, climate system inertia (it takes 20-30 years to see impact of efforts made now), a lack of positive feedback from the changes we make given the two previous elements, and finally - our addiction to fossil fuels.  It sounds like we have three choices here: Prevention, Adaptation or Suffering.  We can try to prevent the perfect disaster by reducing the pace and magnitude of climate change by the activities we choose, we can adapt  and try to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change or we can suffer through the impacts as they occur.  

Want more information?  Thompson gave these websites as a source:

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