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Hurricane Gustav
Photo Credit: NASA
Hurricane Gustav lashes Louisiana on Sept. 1 in this satellite-based image from NASA. Scientists are still debating whether human-induced climate change is responsible for fiercer storms, but elsewhere evidence is mounting that ecosystems are changing.

Is anybody listening?

Climate change evidence mounts but public perception still unclear

Is anybody listening?

That was the subject for a panel of science writers who recently participated in an energy and climate change symposium External Non-U.S. government site at the University of Colorado at Boulder External Non-U.S. government site. By nature, journalists are a cynical lot, though this group had a somewhat optimistic spin, despite statistics the moderator presented showing the general public is still confused and undecided about climate change science.

This isn’t really surprising. Climate change is a vastly complicated subject, and we can’t simply boil it down to the familiar Keeling Curve popularized by Al Gore that shows the upward trend of carbon dioxide levels since measurements began in 1958. There are other greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which could prove to be just as important, particularly if thawing permafrost starts releasing it in vast quantities (along with carbon), as some predict.

The past year has been somewhat mild, according to some reports, which is any easy way for cynics to discount global warming. But such year-to-year variability is misleading. It would be like assuming that a slugging first baseman who happens to get three hits out of four in one game would have a .750 batting average at the end of the season when in reality he’s a career .250 hitter over the course of hundreds of games.

Antarctica is just as complicated to understand, especially for those who only experience it through armchair travel — documentaries and computer-animated penguins with happy feet. Larger than the continental United States, Antarctica is similarly varied in its climate and not just one giant ice cube.

Antarctica temperature map from satellite data.
Image Credit: NASA
This image illustrates long-term changes in yearly surface temperature in and around Antarctica between 1981 and 2007 based on satellite data. Places where it warmed over time are red, places where it cooled are blue, and places where there was no change are white.

The high-altitude interior seems inviolate to today’s warming, but its edges are chipping away like a finger scraping at peeling paint. A new ecosystem is creeping across the jutting Antarctic Peninsula, destroying old ecological niches and creating new ones, giving us a glimpse into what will happen in a warmer world as new deserts swallow former temperate regions while agricultural belts move into formerly arctic climes.

These stories have been told in the Antarctic Sun External U.S. government site and by innumerable news organizations. Just about every magazine on the newsstand has produced its own “green” issue, whether targeting parents or geeks or rock climbers.

But is anybody listening?

CU Boulder is one of many research universities in the country funded by the National Science Foundation External U.S. government site, and a recent CU Boulder-led study calculated that sea level rise by the end of the century may “only” hit about two meters or about six feet. This is good news for those who fear “A Day After Tomorrow” movie scenario that sees the Statue of Liberty drowned.

But this is particularly bad new for the people of Bangladesh, a populous, low-lying country whose rich agricultural delta would likely be swamped by saltwater with a rise of just one meter.

Closer to home, the eastern seaboard of the United States would be at risk. Two meters and a storm with a little muscle could turn New York into Venice. We’ve already seen what happened to New Orleans. Even the most recent storm, Hurricane Gustav, which packed considerably less punch than Katrina did three years ago, still caused considerable damage.

In July, we featured a story about a penpal relationship that developed between some U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site participants at South Pole External U.S. government site and McMurdo External U.S. government site stations and an adult literacy class in New Orleans, all people who had been affected by Katrina in one way or another. I interviewed Adrian McGrath, a teacher with Literacy*AmeriCorps External Non-U.S. government site in New Orleans, part of the national service program AmeriCorps External Non-U.S. government site, over the phone for the article. [See related story: Long-distance correspondence.]

Adrian told me about the class and the penpal program, as well as what life was like “after the storm,” as New Orleans residents now mark time. He recalled his own harrowing escape, when a helicopter plucked him and his mother from the family home after nine days under siege by floodwaters.

I recently e-mailed Adrian, concerned about how he and his friends, family and co-workers fared after Gustav hit the coast. He and everyone else are safe, already returned from their latest “exile.” Adrian said this time Baton Rouge was severely damaged, possibly the worst in the city’s history.

Tired and sounding frustrated, Adrian reported back on the downed trees, power outages and fuel scarcity. He promised to write more, a full recounting on his school's blog External Non-U.S. government site and to his new friends in Antarctica, a handful of support staff at the two stations. His last paragraph seemed to me a powerful answer to the question posed by the media experts in Boulder.

“It is getting really, really stressful living in Old New Orleans and the whole Gulf Coast. This is why we appreciate the research being done in Antarctica about climate change and global warming and reporting about this in the Antarctic Sun,” he wrote. “To us it is not a lofty scientific theory; it is something very, very real and dangerous. Our only hope is increased knowledge on the subject and then positive action.”

Somebody is listening.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs