Online Extra: Ten Questions for Paul Mayewski
A University of Maine professor is at the forefront of climate studies. Here he offers his opinions on the changes taking place
- By: Jeff Clark
Did you become a scientist so that you could be an adventurer, or did you become an adventurer so you could be a scientist?
They evolved together. I was in college, and I got interested in the science, but I was driven to the type of science I do because of the adventure. I wanted to be in remote places. And there is obviously a lot of adventure exploration in science itself, but in our particular field of science, what we do in the climate group, we pride ourselves with every graduate student having the opportunity to work in a remote area at least once, if not many times if they choose to. These are people who have a really good understanding of what is going on out there in the world, different cultures, and have a certain amount of self confidence in being able to take care of themselves in remote places that modern humans have no particular reason to have, but is not a bad thing to have.
What did the ice core program you brought to the University of Maine contribute to climate studies?
What our ice core program was able to do was to provide another method by which we could reconstruct past climate. It’s a particularly robust method that allows you to literally, at least annually if not down to seasons and in some cases storm events, understand past temperature, precipitation, atmospheric chemistry, atmospheric circulation. We now typically do fifty to sixty measurements in a sample of ice that allows us to go off in all sorts of different directions. So that was a completely new expertise for the institute.
How has scientists’ view of climate change shifted over the years?
Our understanding of the polar regions, in particular Antarctica, was that it basically didn’t change over thousands of years. But then by the late 70s I was beginning to expand my research from just Antarctica into Asia, primarily the Himalayas. By then I had already started working with ice cores, and I was interested in finding ways in which you could expand the value of ice cores, so one of the things I did was to do various measurements on fresh snow at very, very high elevations right after storms. I realized that it was possible to tell the difference between air masses that had come from dry, cold, dusty sources like the Tibetan plateau versus air masses that had come off warmer, more biologically productive regions like the Indo-Gangeatic plain. That demonstration, with a very simple set of fresh snow samples, that there were tracers for air masses, chemical tracers, was very very important to me and something that I’ve never stopped doing since then.
When did you first discover the ice sheets melting in Antarctica?
I ran the first expedition into a large region of Antarctica called Northern Victorialand, and I noticed some of the first evidence of what appeared to be very recent changes in ice extent, which was pretty contrary to what we thought would probably be happening. Again, this was in the mid to late 70s, and glaciers had been retreating since the turn of the century, 1900, but we were beginning to see some accelerated changes, even in the mid to late 70s. But it was the very beginning of those accelerated changes, so it was a little bit hard to tell what that really meant.
How did that work take you to Greenland?
The next thing that I got involved in by the early 80s was the acid rain issue. It turns out that in the Himalayas we brought some ice cores back, typically we work between about 18 and 24 thousand feet in the Himalayas, and we published a paper which was picked up by the press, which demonstrated that in the remote atmosphere you could actually have moderately acidic values in the snow. That was a time when there was a big controversy as to whether or not acid rain was related to human activity and whether or not it was traveling very far.
That tiny article hit the press and was very popular, and on almost a daily basis I would get a call from one group of people who said ‘this is great, you’ve proven that acidity is natural in the atmosphere and therefore there is no acid rain.’ And I said ‘No, I didn’t say that, I said there is some natural acidity, I didn’t say there isn’t any human-source acidity.’ And then I would get phone calls from more environmental groups, which I tend to lean more towards myself, significantly more, who were upset with what I found. And I said ‘Well, I didn’t say that, I just said there’s natural acidity, I didn’t say that humans can’t impact it.’
Eventually I got a call from the EPA, and they said ‘Well, what’s going on here.’ I said all I did was report a relatively small number of data points from the Himalayas, but if we could get funding to go to Greenland, we could actually prove, I think, that the remote atmosphere is impacted by human activity and how much it’s changed.
Did you get the funding?
Sure enough, we got money from EPA. So we worked with some Danish colleagues, and it was quite an adventure getting into the site. We made our way to south Greenland with help from friends and we drilled a record that went back about 350 years. We were particularly interested in resolving this problem of acid rain, so we didn’t use generators for drilling, we used solar panels so that there would be no local pollutants. And sure enough we came up with a record that showed what the levels were like prior to the Industrial Revolution. So we showed that [acid rain] went long distances, and then we showed that by the late 1970s the levels of sulphuric acid were actually beginning to flatten out a little bit because the Clean Air Act was successful.
Yikes. But seriously, is your work all doom and gloom?
I’m also an optimist, and I’m a great believer in the fact that if you understand something, you have a better chance of using that understanding to come up with a better conclusion. So I’ve gone on the road not just to talk about how gloomy this whole situation is, but how the realization of it can help to deter how gloomy it could be in the future, and how the realization of this could be extremely valuable in developing a new economy, a new way of life, and how the fact that we have not just increased levels of greenhouse gases, which take a long time before they go out of the atmosphere, but we’ve also done a pretty good job of poisoning ourselves with increased levels of lead, acid rain, mercury, copper. Some things are legislated, some are not. We could do a better job with all of these, but the exciting thing about those, as opposed to greenhouse gases, is that once you begin to put controls on those — legislative or engineering or whatever — you can clean the atmosphere up very quickly. And they are directly related to respiratory, neurological diseases in humans and in the ecosystem.
What about the argument that becoming more environmentally friendly will destroy our economy?
I don’t believe that’s true at all. First of all, any transition into a greener economy isn’t going to happen in one year. It’s going to happen in ten to twenty years. That’s plenty of time for people who are getting close to the end of their careers to finish off what they’re doing. We will not be getting rid of our gasoline powered cars for a long long time, so that entire network of oil involvement and all the people who are hired and employed by that, they’re not going to disappear. I think if anything, what’s going to happen is that there will be the opportunity for either some of them, and new younger people who are getting trained, to emerge in a whole new series of businesses, ranging from renewable energy to widgets.
Do you think wind-farms could help Maine’s economy?
If we develop offshore windpower for the state of Maine, there are going to be thousands and thousands of people employed in that process. We will never run out of wind; if we ever run out of wind we’re going to have much bigger problem than figuring out how to power electricity.
The wind isn’t going to stop in the gulf of Maine. It may change, and that’s important for us to understand which direction it might change, but it’s not going to stop. Tidal power is not going to stop. But we need to understand where to put these systems in, how to develop them the very best way, and as we go through this process in ideally the next 10-15 years of putting these things in place, we clearly need the old system that we had. And even in the transition once we get the new system up, those systems will not work under every single situation necessarily, you need backup systems. There’s going to be a transition that will occur in the next 10 to 30 years I think that will accommodate this issue of unemployment, of potential unemployment. I don’t think the issue of people losing their jobs because we changed from oil into a more renewable energy resource is going to be that critical. Easy for me to say, I have a job.
What worries you most in terms of climate change?
There are three things that are in my mind of immense concern in our future. One is abrupt climate change, the other is sea level rise, and the other is health. Health, sea level, and abrupt climate change are the three things that people in my field can contribute the most to an understanding of and I think are the big potential surprises waiting for us in the future.
- By: Jeff Clark