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September 21, 2014
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NASA scientist on climate change


As part of the ongoing Weather Project, Tannis Kowalchuk and the NACL Theatre brought Elaine Matthews of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) to speak about climate change at the NACL Theatre on October 7.

Matthews began by stating that she was there as a private citizen because of the government furlough. She also stated that we are approaching the warmest temperature in 1 million years and that if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions immediately, the earth would still heat up for another 60 years. She said, “We need to make a change, and quite soon.”

Going back to the rise in temperature, Matthews pointed out that this is not merely a random variability. Although the earth has gone through temperature changes that rise and fall, the temperature, and the levels of methane and carbon dioxide (CO2) are much higher than they have been for hundreds of thousands of years. She showed a chart that went back about 650,000 years that measured temperature, methane and CO2. One could see that the chart went up and down in about equal increments. However, when it came to present day and going back about 100 years ago to the Industrial Revolution, the levels of methane and CO2 were literally off the charts. She said that, “Climate has been changing for a long time, but we didn’t have 7 billion people, we didn’t have cities.” The earth has changed, and she said 90% of species are now extinct.

Although the temperature in the chart did not rise drastically, Matthews said that the mean global temperature has warmed by 1.2 degrees F, and there has been radical warming in the north, by about 3.4 degrees C.

She went on to talk about the impacts of climate change. She said that with warmer temperatures, the surface ice in Greenland melts, causing the sea levels to rise. When the sea levels rise, it erodes the coastline (she showed pictures of deteriorating coastlines and glaciers falling apart). In 2012, the amount of sea ice was at its lowest. She also talked about thawing permafrost in the arctic. Permafrost is soil at or below the freezing point of water 0 °C (32 °F) for two or more years. Thawing permafrost causes the coastline to fall off and can shift the ground. For example, she showed a picture of a house sitting on permafrost that fell down. She also mentioned that the Alaska pipeline sits on permafrost.

So, what can we do to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions? First, we have to realize that the United States has the highest per person emission of fossil fuels, making us responsible for one third of the warming. We are followed by Canada and Australia. Matthews said one way to reduce our emissions is to not “continue to supply the endless U.S. demand.”