Monday, August 18, 2008

Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson on the Implications of Retreating Glaciers

Dr. Lonnie G. Thompson, keynote speaker at the Green Energy Expo this past weekend in Akron, has been studying ice cores for decades. Over the years, he has spent months at a time living at the highest altitudes where he has observed glaciers retreating at alarming rates. And he had the photographs to prove it.

An adviser to Al Gore during the making of An Inconvenient Truth, Dr. Thompson shared his own perspectives on climate change in the words of a scientist rather than a politician attempting to interpret science. With evident passion, he described his life's work as a paleoclimatologist, work that involves drilling for ice cores, the study of which allow scientists to study the trapped bubbles of atmosphere from over 800,000 years ago. These ice cores contain rings that like tree trunks give us scientific data as to amounts of carbon in the air.

Like Al Gore's presentation, Dr Thompson's also included charts that showed the steady ebb and flow of carbon in the atmosphere across the eons, forming along an unchanging horizontal line. Until the age of the Industrial Revolution, at which point the line begins its relentless rise upwards. The implications are profound and growing more urgent as each year passes.

As we looked at the images of glaciers retreating, we see that we are not only losing essential sources of water for vast swaths of the earth, we are also losing our planet's history. Dr Thompson's specialty are tropical mountain glaciers, which are melting at such a rate that Dr Thompson says in fifteen years, ice cores will only be found in the archives of the Ohio State University.

One example he gave -- nuclear tests by the US and Soviet Russia were captured in the rings of ice cores, and were routinely used as a dating tool in studying ice cores. The radiation rings once so evident are no longer found in the ice cores, indicating that the last 50+ years of snow and ice have melted away completely. In less than 30 years, there will be no more glaciers at Glacier Park.

In the dispassionate tones of a scientist, Dr Thompson described where our planet is heading in the next few years. We are fast approaching a climate change that will be unlike any climate on earth before us. Never has so much carbon been released into the atmosphere, but as he stated, you can "take it to the US Senate and get glazed eyes." Nobody in charge wants to face the facts that we are fast approaching a tipping point that will bring huge losses of life, both flora and fauna, not to mention the loss of human life from lack of drinking water and the raising of oceans from glacier melts.

But Dr Thompson did not leave us to wallow in despair. He seems to think that we can effect change from the ground up. He has high hopes for alternative fuels that will lead to cleaner air and water, economic development and good jobs. The big problem, as I see it, is that most people do not have a clue what's at stake and what to do about it. We are still living as if nothing is wrong other than, "gee whiz, gas prices are going up. We better start some off shore drilling so we don't run out of fossil fuels during our life time."

In truth, there were several dozen people listening to Dr Thompson's message this past Saturday in Akron. The rest of our citizenry were out driving their SUVs, mindlessly buying and consuming stuff that will end up in a landfill before too long. I fear we will not take action until some catastrophe strikes when it might be too late.

The residents of Greensburg, Kansas, were struck by a tornado and decided to rebuild according to green specifications. Will we have to wait for a tornado to hit Akron before we come to our senses here? Building codes need to be re-written. Every Community Learning Center being built in our city should be designed for energy conservation and out of sustainable materials. Our schools and universities should be gearing up training for the green collar jobs everybody keeps talking about.

Tomorrow: Green Collar Jobs -- how to attract and keep them.


KevinBBG said...

Interesting story and an interesting man. How frustrating must it be for a scientist like him to fully understand the problem but not be able to get anyone to listen.

My own personal opinion is that it is already too late. Every bit of news I read says all the indicators are advancing far faster than was previously estimated. Like the Artic Ice almost completely disappearing in the summer, they didn't expect that for another 30 years.

I think we are going to see global changes that won't be pleasant and beyond what we can imagine. And I think our generation will be reviled as the worst in history and the destroyers of the world. And it will be a title we deserve.

Village Green said...

Kevin, some days I feel exactly the same, and the chill of despair takes over. I think that is why lately I had to find some ways to take action and seek out others who are as well. The monthly E4S meetings in Akron are filled with people who are intent on finding ways out of this mess we are in -- listening to them I get a glimmer that some way we may muddle our way through it.

KevinBBG said...

Too little too late, I'm afraid.

But this is one time I really hope I'm wrong, especially when I think about my 2 granddaughters, ages 7 & 8.

Anonymous said...

What can we do close to the big mountains like Kilimanjaro's? Is florestation an answer?


Nuno FRaz√£o (form a portuguese NGO)