Sparkling conversation!

February 28th’s post suggested that Earth scientists in general, and climate scientists in particular, might change the direction of the conversation we’re having with the rest of the world. In particular, we might contemplate putting aside the oft-repeated rehash of the basic science behind the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations, the concomitant global warming, and its human attribution. Even though these points are fundamental and even though our audience is not yet entirely on board, we need to move on.

Why? Because our audience, though not quite so informed and up to speed as we might like, is showing definite signs of tiring of this subject, when framed in this way. Surely we have many things we could talk about that would be far more interesting, to nearly everyone – politicians, business leaders, educators, journalists, children, even our life partners.

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A personal experience shapes my thinking on this point. In 1969 I was two years out of my Ph.D., and working for government laboratories in Boulder. Then I got a phone call from Julie London. No, that was not the torch singer of the time, who was everyone’s heart throb. Sigh. It was Julius London, who then chaired the University of Colorado’s Department of Astro-Geophysics. He was inviting me to join the department as an adjoint lecturer, and to teach a course in upper-atmospheric dynamics, my specialty. I leapt at the chance.

Two weeks in, Julie stopped by my office, asking me how the teaching was going. “Not so great,” I answered. They don’t understand the most basic aspects of the hydrostatic equation (the starting point for the course).”

“I know that,” he said. But you have to move on. The students are bored.”

I was floored. On the one hand I thought the criticism was unfair. Boring? Me? The students didn’t get it! Worse, I’d thought I was approachable. Yet they’d gone to him behind my back. But I took Julie’s advice. And, you know, he proved absolutely right. I lightened up, the students brightened up; we had a good semester.

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But back to the here and now. If we’re not going to rehash the basics, what will we discuss?

How about some of the new work that’s coming on line all the time? To test this idea, I went to my office bookshelf and grabbed the four latest issues of Science, the prestigious journal published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I searched for articles speaking to the Earth as resource, victim, threat.

What did I find? Even this slapdash approach yielded a gold mine of ideas for changing the direction of the conversation! Here are some of the titles [not chosen by any particular objective criterion; just what caught my eye]. The list starts from the February 18 issue and works backward.[1]

From February 18:

An earthquake may have hinted that it was on its way (p 836, p 877). Looks as if the 1999 quake near Izmit, Turkey may have signaled its onset for as long as 45 minutes before the main shock hit, at magnitude 7.6.  

Wow. Tornadoes don’t even give that much warning. Of course, this is hindsight. And not all earthquakes exhibit this behavior, right? But just suppose we could buy ourselves a few minutes’ time to warn people. That might save a lot of lives! For this reason, the search for credible earthquake prediction has occupied a lot of seismologists for a number of years. And here is another ray of hope.

But political- and business leaders might do well to think through the social implications of such forecasts, particularly the early ones. Public response to storm and flood warnings has proven problematic, even after millions of opportunities to practice. How should emergency managers and other officials craft messages to minimize panic or dysfunction? How best to foster compliance? And speaking of compliance, do we really know what we want people to do with an earthquake prediction? Probably not.

We now can, and are now studying the magnitude and duration of glaciations some 440 million years ago (pp 903-906). Most of what you and I read in the popular media about cycles of glaciation extends back no more than the last million years or so. In fact, usually we go back no further than say 10-20 thousand years. Imagine being able to extend our view back some 200 times to 40,000 times as far into the past, and beginning to sort out the complexity of the relationships between glaciation, ocean temperatures, and mass extinctions, even that far back.

What a mystery story! Like CSI on the big stage. And think of how such knowledge might guide our policymaking today.

From February 11:

Climate data pose challenges in the 21st century (pp. 700-702). No – we’re not talking about what the data have to say, and the controversies that are sure to spring up. Rather we’re talking simply about the sheer mountain of information that’s being stockpiled, at precisely the time when the number of requests for those data, the diversity of those requests, and the wide range in interests and abilities of the folks asking the questions are also exploding. And not all these data are in convenient bytes and bits. Some are in physical ice cores, carefully preserved in refrigerated facilities, and in other cumbersome, unwieldy forms. And guess what! Although the technical problems are substantial, they are also accompanied by (surprise!) intellectual property concerns.

Lots of issues for all sorts of professionals to think about and act upon here.

From February 4:

A study of climate variability and human susceptibility in Europe over the past 2500 years (pp 578-585). The study finds links between agricultural output, public health, and conflict and climate variability over the period. The authors note two aspects of interest. First are advances in our ability to tease out the actual variations in temperatures, precipitation, etc., from surrogate data sources such as living and relic trees. Second is the suggestion that present-day society might be more sensitive to climate variability than we sometimes think. In fact, it may all hinge upon whether today’s more crowded human populations can readily migrate.

A study comparing mosquitoes that are indoor-resting with similar mosquitoes that are outdoor-resting with regard to their potential for transmitting malaria (pp 596-598).You’re a biologist? Maybe you knew that population subgroups of mosquito differ in this behavioral way. But the rest of us? Probably not. Then the issue becomes, are those mosquitoes spending more time outside (which are therefore less vulnerable to human efforts at eradication) a comparable malarial threat? Turns out that meaningfully sampling and comparing the two subgroups is difficult. It also turns out both groups seem to share a common potential for spreading the disease. Hmm.

From January 28:

Water flowing from the Atlantic Ocean into the Arctic through the strait separating Greenland and Norway is the warmest it’s been over the past 2000 years (pp 450-453). The study uses two techniques to analyze sediments and assess variability in plankton blooms over the past two millennia as a surrogate for temperature. Interesting both for the technique itself and for its implications for Arctic pack ice.

A study of experimental seaweed deposition on a Caribbean island (pp. 461-463) sheds light on how climate change might alter the way predators (in this case, lizards and ants) interact. The work, though rudimentary, suggests that it’ll be a long time before we can confidently rely on ecological modeling to help us assess climate change risks.

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Some subjective conclusions from our impromptu off-the-shelf test? To start, there’s a lot to talk about!. We could have looked through the past four issues of Nature, another premier peer-reviewed journal, and found another bunch of stuff. Or gone to one of the dozens of journals published by the American Meteorological Society or the American Geophysical Union. We’d have found much more material.

Then, there’s the nerdy bit which focuses on just how sophisticated the science and technology of the field are today. Nanotechnology? Biotechnology? Cosmology? None of these fields has anything on the Earth sciences. In fact, they’re all feeding on the same breakthroughs in physics and chemistry, and engineering advances that are propelling progress across every field of human endeavor. None of this work would have been feasible just a few years ago.

Next, each of these individual details, as well as their sum, holds profound questions for the public – you and me – and how we can and should conduct our affairs and work together in our daily lives. This science may well be arcane [you should see the original text of these articles!]. But just the same, it all matters.

So, climate scientists, allow your conversation to sparkle. Let your light shine…it’s dazzling!


[1] My apologies to the authors involved. In an effort to give just a kernel of the paper, I’ve almost certainly made errors, some possibly egregious. The goal here is less about the specifics than to give the reader a feel for the diversity and novelty of the studies.

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