(Editor's note: Full-length version of story.)
Paul Mayewski first set foot on the driest continent on Earth
four decades ago. At that time, the world knew Antarctica has an
unchanging, frozen expanse that lured adventurers like him to explore
Since then, so much has changed.
Now in remote polar and high-elevation regions, the bellwethers for
greenhouse gas warming, landscapes once considered stable and invariable
are being altered. Even in Antarctica, which has not experienced the
dramatic melting recently seen in the Arctic and Greenland, the effects
of climate change are evident on the continent's outer edges.
"In a matter of decades in some parts of Antarctica, we'll probably see
changes thought in the past as taking hundreds of thousands of years,"
says Mayewski, who this spring returned from Antarctica having led the
final leg of an 8,000-kilometer, six-season International Trans
Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE).
Since that first trip to Antarctica as a student researcher helping
reconstruct the history of the ice sheet, Mayewski has led nearly
50 expeditions to such remote regions as the Arctic, Tibet, Himalayas,
Greenland and Tierra del Fuego. As a scientist, he has pioneered the use
of ice core records to reconstruct past atmospheric conditions, document
changes in atmospheric chemistry produced naturally and by humans, and
correlate associations between climate change and disruptions to
It's the current implications of human-induced climate change,
particularly in the past 20 years, that have internationally renowned
researchers like Mayewski speaking out.
"Since the 1980s, the warming rate has been large enough to push us to
the possibility of abrupt climate change," says Mayewski, who directs
the University of Maine Climate Change Institute, a multidisciplinary
research unit focused on understanding past climate and how to use a
variety of research tools, like ice cores, to predict change. Primary
study areas for institute researchers are Antarctica; Tibet and the
Himalayas; New Zealand and North and South America; Greenland and the
"Until now, climate change occurred by natural processes. Today, we're
overpowering the greenhouse gas system at a rate 100 times faster than
nature. With stresses — from sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere to
freshwater injection into the oceans from melting sea ice — the climate
system can't be expected to respond in a smooth way."
For Mayewski, who has made 100 first descents in Antarctica and
traversed more of the ice sheet than anyone else in the world, this
crossroads for the planet is epitomized by his years exploring the
bottom of the Earth.
"There you can experience the way nature has been for millions of
years," he says. "In Antarctica, you can see for such long distances
that you can see the curvature of the Earth. It's so quiet, the only
sound is your own heartbeat. And you breathe more deeply because the air
is so clean.
"That reoccurring experience is a constant reminder of what we've traded
for our current existence. I enjoy our current existence as much as
anyone, but I believe there's a better combination of the natural system
and our involvement in it."
Before leaving this summer to join a research expedition in Greenland,
Mayewski sat down with UMaine Today magazine to talk about climate
What is climate change?
Climate change is natural, constant and has happened for as long as the
Earth has been around. A better term for what's happening now might be
human controls on climate change or perhaps destabilization of climate
beyond natural levels. The question is how much of the climate change
we're introducing. Humans can't do anything about the natural part. It's
the human-induced change that is gradually going to eat away at the way
we live, both physically through sea level rise, through storms, through
warming, but also through increased incidence of disease in warmer and
What are the biggest misconceptions about climate change?
One of the biggest is that one person can't make a difference. The
climate system is very big and it can toss us around, but we each have
the capability of impacting it. Another misconception is that everything
that's happening eventually will be taken care of by the Earth's system.
It will, a few hundred to thousands of years from now, and by then, if
we continue the way we are, we probably will have mutated into something
different in order to survive. People also think that the current
climate change is just part of a natural cycle. But this change is not
natural and our impact on it is very, very great.
What is science telling us about the state of climate change?
It's absolutely undeniable that humans have had a very dramatic impact
on both physical and chemical climate throughout the world. There's
evidence of warming in the Arctic. Almost all of the mountain glaciers
around the world are melting back, and even in Antarctica, despite being
a very large place, there's dramatic melting around the edges. In
addition, we're seeing very big changes in the atmosphere with
increasing greenhouse gases — the cause of much of the recent warming —
and increasing levels of toxic metals and acid rain. A lot of these
toxic metals and chemicals in the atmosphere have very detrimental
impacts on human and ecosystem health.
What are the most important factors influencing climate change?
In addition to greenhouse gases, a primary factor in climate change is
the relationship between the Earth and Sun. How the Earth handles energy
output from the sun changes with the Earth's surface whiteness —
expansion and contraction of everything from ice sheets and glaciers to
snowpack and sea ice. It changes with ocean circulation — how long the
ocean holds chemicals, affecting its capture or release of heat. Along
with the ocean, atmospheric circulation transports heat and moisture. If
we didn't have a change in greenhouse gases, what we would be most
concerned about is atmospheric circulation.
How do we know which climate changes are natural and which are
To make that determination, you need records that are long enough to
help you understand how the natural system operates. Records for the
northern hemisphere demonstrate that temperatures for the last couple of
decades are warmer than for the last thousand years at least, but there
have also been times between the 1940s and the 1970s when the climate
was cooler. However, the farther you go back in time, the more it's
clear that what's happening today with greenhouse gases and changes in
other chemistries in the atmosphere haven't happened at any other time
in the past few thousand years. That's how you understand that we're
From looking at the past, what have we learned about the
predictability of the climate system?
We have learned that there is a lot of predictability in the climate
system. If it were left alone to take its natural course for the next
few hundred or thousand years, there would be a lot of predictability.
On the other hand, while looking for predictability, we discovered
something that we never imagined — abrupt climate change events with
massive reorganizations in the ocean atmosphere system. I believe those
abrupt climate change events involved a convergence of factors, with
some small trigger actually pushing to make them happen. That's why I am
so concerned about where we are right now. We're pushing ourselves way
out of the natural system and we're pushing so fast out of the natural
system that even the predictions for where we're going — the reality —
could be very different to the point at which we could have significant
cooling in some parts of the world that we would have never, certainly
today or in the last hundred years, expected. So, we've learned a lot.
We've learned that the climate system is far more dynamic than we ever
thought it was, that the natural, I emphasize natural, climate system is
more predictable than we thought it was, and that it can also be changed
by very small things.
What is abrupt climate change?
The Climate Change Institute pioneered the understanding of abrupt
climate change. It happens naturally in the environment and can be very,
very large, yet triggered by very, very small changes. The climate shift
that is coming because of greenhouse gas warming will clearly not be a
naturally occurring event. I believe that there may be an abrupt change
within coming decades, occurring over a period of possibly 2-10 years.
Once it happens the change will shift climate into a new state – perhaps
significantly warmer seasons with notably higher frequency of storms in
a place like Maine. We can't make 100 percent predictions, but we need
to get to the point of making significantly better predictions for the
As an explorer, how do see the world?
My type of physical exploration takes me to very remote areas
indifferent parts of the world. In my 40 years of exploration, what
strikes me most is how close you can get in these remote areas to the
natural climate system. You actually get to see the way humans lived up
until a few short centuries ago. It was completely different than the
world we live in now. The air was significantly cleaner so that you
could breathe far more deeply. The only noises were the wind and
animals. Experiencing that has made me much more passionate about
understanding our impact on the environment. I know that we will never
turn the environment around so that it will be absolutely natural.
That's unrealistic. I like being in a warm house and driving my car as
much as anybody, but the closer that we can get to the way things used
to be, the better off we will be. We allowed ourselves to change the
atmosphere, to change the climate. But now we need to be smart enough to
know that where we will have the best quality of life will under
conditions as close to the natural environment as possible.
How has your understanding of climate change evolved throughout your
From the time I first worked in Antarctica until the early 1980s, we
assumed the continent to be remote and unchangeable, particularly in our
lifetimes. We assumed that if you wanted to see change, you probably
would have to go back or forward hundreds, if not thousands of years.
That view now has changed completely. We now realize that Antarctica, as
well as the planet, for that matter, is a very fragile place and that
the potential for change is far, far faster than we ever thought.
Has the role of scientists changed to include more of a public
Absolutely. Twenty to 30 years ago, many of the things that we did were
purely academic and experimental. Today it's very clear that for the
survival of the environment, scientists need to become better tuned in
to the value of what they do and disciplines in general have begun to
blend together. For example, it's important for scientists to come
closer to engineers and scientists to come closer to social scientists.
Scientists need to become better at applying what they do and
understanding what it is that the public needs. About 10 years ago,
there was a big push by the National Science Foundation, which provides
a significant portion of the funding for our research, to do more and
more applied research.
Is it too late to make changes that will have any effect?
We can't assume that we're too late, because if we do, it's nothing but
gloom and doom ahead of us. However, the longer we wait, the more likely
there will be more serious consequences. We have already begun to alter
the natural climate system quite dramatically. We need to begin to
respond quickly. There is giant momentum in the climate system. Even if
we were to shutoff all the greenhouse gas emissions from humans right
now, it would take decades to centuries, if not longer, to recover from
What can we do to begin to address climate change?
How much warming we have will be determined by how much higher we let
greenhouse gases go. However, many of the toxic chemicals in the
atmosphere can actually be reduced very quickly. When 9-11 occurred,
they shut the aircraft flights off over the United States and the air
cleaned up dramatically. It was related to a very sad situation, but it
was a demonstration that, in fact, we can have a much cleaner
atmosphere. We have to think about how we can reduce the emissions of
toxic chemicals. Some of it is from factories; some of it is simply the
way we live, using fertilizers to excess, using chemicals for cleaning.
In addition, state and federal governments need to develop policies to
legislate reductions and set benchmarks for greenhouse gases and toxic
metals, acid rain, organic acids and humanly engineered chemicals. There
also need to be incentives for individuals to become more energy
self-sufficient. In the longer term, reductions of greenhouse gases will
require a very big change in the way we live. We tend to think of change
as being uncomfortable, but this is really going to be a change for the
better — a better economy, a healthier life and a more predictable
What is the basic science underlying all the multidisciplinary
research at the Climate Change Institute?
All of our researchers are interested in learning about the past. We
want to know what happened from one second ago to a hundred thousand
years ago — the whole continuum. The value of doing that is that it
allows you, like any person studying history, to garner perspective. The
Climate Change Institute provides perspective in order to make better
predictions for the future.
Why are ice cores so important? What do they tell us?
Evidence of past climate change can be found in tree rings, glacial
deposits, caves and corals. But ice cores are the most robust archive of
past climate, providing a baseline of how the climate system has
changed. The ice has actually captured atmosphere, precipitation,
temperature, wind speeds, chemistry providing more data than even the
best human records, which focused for decades primarily on temperature.
Cores from around the world allow us to correlate data from different
time periods. Year-by-year comparisons allow us to find out whether, for
instance, an abrupt climate change event in Antarctica occurred before
or after an event in the Arctic. That's very important, because it helps
determine what actually triggered the event, what we might call a
precursor. Then if we start to see change happening in that location, it
means we may expect that sequence of events to continue.
Is global warming increasing the urgency to retrieve ice cores?
Absolutely. It's the equivalent of having a library out there and trying
to scramble to get the books. It's a library of the environment and
those libraries exist in all of the high mountain and polar regions in
the world. As temperatures warm they are becoming a very scarce
resource. There are places that we went 20 years ago where we couldn't
collect records today. So we are trying to go to as many places as we
can, collect these records, get them into the freezers, and ideally
analyze and preserve them. The science of analyzing these things changes
every five or 10 years. We're hoping to develop new systems in the next
couple of years that will allow us to look at smaller samples, do more
measurements and disturb the ice core less allowing us to archive piece
for future research.
How do you predict the world will look in half a century?
I'm an optimist. It will still be warming and climate will still be
unstable because of what we've done, BUT I see no reason why we won't be
living primarily on renewable energy. I think we'll be a lot smarter
about recycling. I think we will be healthier. I think we will be able
to travel as well as we can now or more easily, but I think we will
become more self-subsistent.
What changes are in store for Maine?
The Northeast Regional Assessment suggests that in the next century,
Maine will get warmer. In the last century, we have already experienced
an increase of a little more than 1 degree Fahrenheit. The expectation
is that there will be an increase of several degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
In the process, the state will get wetter, have less snow and probably
will be stormier. The climate will become less stable because, whenever
you warm up the ocean, there is the increased likelihood of storms. The
analogy used in the Northeast Regional Assessment is that we should
expect by 2100 a climate similar to West Virginia. We also now know that
the North Atlantic is one of the most sensitive regions on the planet.
Climate in the North Atlantic changes more abruptly and more
dramatically in terms of magnitude than in other parts of the world.
How do you respond to climate change skeptics?
The first thing I say to them is, "thank you," because they forced the
science to be better than it would have been had they not been naysayers.
The second thing I say to them is, "Now you need to get out of the way,"
because they're no longer talking about the science; they're simply
talking about things that serve as blockades. In some cases, these are
the same naysayers who tried to convince people that acid rain didn't
occur, and that tobacco was not a problem. At some stage, if you're
going to be critical, you've got to come up with a solution and the
solution can no longer be that it's not a problem, because it is a
by Margaret Nagle
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