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Global Warming: Environmental Storm Clouds, or a Lot of Hot Air?


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IN A NOOK of the administration building at Scripps Institution of Oceanography—more like a cozy cottage, really, perched just above the La Jolla Shores surfline—a large color satellite mosaic of Earth hangs against a rough-paneled wall. The picture is all bright blues and greens, pristinely cloudless from pole to pole. Beneath it, a huge dictionary lies open, cradled in its stand like a family Bible. From the skylight directly overhead, the little tableau is bathed serenely in ethereal light. The effect almost gives the impression of some sort of shrine.

“You’d never see the Earth like that, without any clouds,” explains Charlie Kennel, Scripps’ newly arrived director, pausing to consider the perfect, but perfectly misleading, global image. It was created from hundreds of smaller photos shot from space when no clouds obscured the views, and cobbled together by computer to give the big picture. Kennel adds: “You know, it kind of reminds us what we’re all doing here in the first place.”

What Scripps Institution and its ranks of oceanographers, geophysicists, climatologists and other scientists have been doing up there along the beach for most of this century is figuring out the infinite ways the Earth works. How the oceans warm and cool the planet. What causes El Niño and other glitches in Earth’s climate. How the continents formed. What the function of clouds may be. What’s going on beneath the polar ice caps. What the atmosphere was like last week, or 10,000 years ago. In other words, the big picture.

A key focus of that big picture has become the emotionally and politically charged issue of global warming. At the ripe age of 95, Scripps and its flock of Ph.D.s are trying to navigate a reasoned course through this mother of all environmental dilemmas. After years of ever shriller debate, few topics of science and public policy involve greater technical uncertainties, stir more political bluster and create such public befuddlement as global warming and the greenhouse effect.

The issue is expected to be a major theme in the 2000 presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore, who wrote a book on climate change called Earth in the Balance. Gore’s speech at last December’s international global-warming conference in Kyoto, Japan, was credited with jump-starting negotiations that led to an ambitious worldwide plan to clean up pollutants that are seen as heating up the atmosphere. Republicans, not incidentally, argued against the plan, which many regarded as environmental overreaction that would cost the U.S. economy jobs and billions of dollars.

But why should Republicans and Democrats agree on global warming? Even current and former directors of Scripps don’t see eye to eye on the signifigance of the threat.

A plasma physicist by training, Kennel landed here in April after working in NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth program and serving as executive vice chancellor at UCLA. He says the opportunity to play a key role in such a crucial public issue is one reason he accepted the job in the first place. Only the institution’s ninth leader since 1903, 59-year-old Kennel acknowledges that some of Scripps’ longtime local supporters and donors may be uneasy over the institution’s wading so deeply into the global warming bog.

“I perfectly understand that some people are reluctant to even discuss the issue at all at this point,” Kennel observes, glancing out at a sweeping panorama of the Pacific from his office windows. “It’s somewhat threatening ... when a bunch of ‘experts’ in white coats tell you our climate may change as a result of human activity. It’s deeply perturbing, a really tough idea to come to grips with.”

One who has had some trouble coming to believe in the urgency of the issue is a Kennel predecessor, former Scripps director William Nierenberg, who’s outspoken in his view that global warming won’t be a problem for 100 years or more, “and even then it won’t be much of a problem.” At any rate, says Nierenberg—a highly regarded theoretical physicist who ran Scripps for 21 years —mankind has several decades before anyone needs to worry. By then, new technologies may make the whole issue moot.

WHILE SCRIPPS INSTITUTION SITS on the leading edge of the global warming issue, the UCSD satellite is probably better known in the local public’s mind for its bucolic surfside campus, famous aquarium and vast collection of pickled fish. Yet few outfits anywhere may be better equipped. Scripps deputy director Tom Collins estimates at least 60 percent, possibly more, of the institution’s overall research effort and resources is tied to studying global climate change.

The venerable San Diego institution staked out an early niche for itself starting in the 1950s when then-director Roger Revelle made a now famous observation. Revelle, Scripps’ iconic chief from 1951 to 1964, remarked that since the Industrial Age, humanity had embarked on “a great, onetime geophysical experiment,” using the earth as a laboratory, by burning so much fossil fue. The chief result of that activity is additional carbon dioxide (CO2), the major “greenhouse” gas that helps trap the planet’s heat in the atmosphere.

Between Revelle’s tenure and Kennel’s arrival, the institution has pushed into promising new frontiers of earth sciences, especially the fast-changing field of climate research. Scripps and its researchers have contributed to the growing body of important findings about possible causes of global warming and its potentially chaotic side effects in coming decades:

* Scripps atmospheric scientist Charles Keeling invented an instrument to measure atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide. Since he started taking measurements in 1958, Keeling has detected a 10 percent increase in the earth’s CO2 levels, the primary indicator of likely planetary warming. Most of the increase is attributable to manmade sources.

* Using aircraft observations, Scripps researchers have been among the first to quantify the amount of solar radiation absorbed by clouds. Their finding: Clouds have a much more substantial part than was previously believed in regulating the earth’s heat.

* A Scripps team is leading an international, multi-agency effort to track specific ocean currents using a unique chemical “fingerprinting” method. The researchers hope to learn how deep-ocean circulation, the earth’s primary thermostat, transfers heat into the atmosphere.

* Scripps physical oceanographers are using undersea sound transmitters and receivers to precisely measure ocean temperatures over a huge area. Since sound waves travel faster through warmer water, and the ocean warms so gradually, findings could signal an ocean warming trend.

Scripps climate researchers were also among the first to accurately forecast the severity of this year’s El Niño—the periodic natural warming of the western Pacific that alters ocean current patterns—nearly a year in advance, early enough to advise preemptive action to save property and lives. Some computer modeling techniques used in correctly predicting El Niño’s effects can be jiggered to help predict possible impacts from global warming, too.

When it comes to the planetary warming puzzle, Scripps’ marquee scientist (“our superstar,” gushes one admirer)—is clearly Keeling, whose name often pops up as a likely nominee for a Nobel Prize. Keeling’s four decades of study led to his famed Keeling Curve, which plots the steady climb of CO2 levels and now underpins much of the discussion of global warming theories. In 1995, Keeling also reported his findings that spring now arrives about one week earlier in far northern latitudes than it did just 20 years ago.

Another leading light is Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of Scripps’ Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate. Dr. Ram, as his students call him, is the resident expert on clouds and aerosols, tiny airborne particles like dust and pollution circulating in the upper atmosphere. He’s trying to understand the role of aerosols in reflecting sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth and apparently helping moderate the greenhouse effect.

Ramanathan, at the moment, is U.S. coordinator and scientific codirector of a four-year international project called the Indian Ocean Experiment. Using a battery of ships, observation planes and satellites, the ambitious project is designed to gather hard evidence of aerosols’ presumed cooling effect on a particular region.

Like a majority of climate scientists today, he says the preponderance of evidence linking our 100-year love affair with fossil fuels to global warming can no longer be dismissed by industry scoffers, politicians and other skeptics. “People have been trying to make the problem go away for many years,” explains Ramanathan, who was among a select group of U.S. scientists invited before a Senate committee in 1996 to present views on whether global warming is a serious threat. “But it has resisted all efforts to make it disappear.”

Scientists say the term “global warming” is really a misnomer, since a warmer atmosphere could produce a variety of disruptions, including a cooler regional climate in some places. For most reputable climate scientists, the issue is no longer whether the Earth’s climate is becoming warmer; it is, by about 1 degree Fahrenheit so far this century. More critical are the questions: How fast is it changing, and why? Is it due to man’s activities, some natural cycle or a combination of both? And how important is it in the long run?

The study of climate is devilishly complex, with many far-flung interlocking pieces: ocean currents and temperatures, winds, effects of deforestation, the evaporation of seawater, seasonal effects, levels of CO2, water vapor and pollutants, rate of ozone depletion, even clouds and volcanoes. Plus, a changing climate results in “feedback loops”—circular reactions to certain changes—which must be figured into the calculations. A warmer ocean evaporates more water. Since water vapor is a greenhouse gas, it traps more of the Earth’s heat, causing warmer air. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor; thus ocean evaporation increases still more. And so forth.

Much of the work at Scripps and elsewhere now focuses on plugging the many variables, as they are identified, into computer models to help predict impacts from climate change. Although the prediction models are rapidly improving, it’s still basically a crapshoot.

AS THE POLEMICS surrounding global warming have grown so nasty in the past few years, many scientists, Ramanathan included, worry that disagreements within the scientific community over the details have been overblown in the media and exploited by others with political or economic agendas.

“In my mind, it is a serious miscalculation to use the normal uncertainty and squabbling in the scientific community to ignore the fundamental problem,” Ramanathan says.

Richard Somerville, professor of meteorology in Scripps’ Climate Research Division and author of a well-regarded 1996 primer on climate change that was aimed at nonscientists, tends to agree. “Science isn’t a democracy,” he says. “You’re entitled to your own opinion, of course, but you are not entitled to your own facts. In the end, the truth always wins out, regardless of how many people happen to believe it.”

Somerville, a patient, soft-spoken academic, says his book, The Forgiving Air, grew out of his outline for training K-12 schoolteachers in how to teach about climate change. He says he sensed a huge gulf in understanding between the scientists conducting the basic research and the public that picks up the tab for it. Scientists sometimes aren’t very deft at communicating their ideas, he concedes.

Wary of getting sucked into the black hole of controversy, as have some other scientists, Somerville resolved to keep his book “policy-neutral” while presenting the latest thinking on topics like greenhouse warming, ozone depletion and acid rain. But he’s not above penning an op-ed piece for the Sunday paper or dispatching a letter to the editor rebutting a local columnist who butchers the facts about global warming. Somerville sees such small public acts as part of his scientific duty.

Oceanographer Walter Munk, who has spent a half-century at Scripps, still smarts over the unexpected public drubbing meted out to him a few years ago. Environmentalists accused him—falsely, as it turned out—of endangering marine mammals through his proposed experiment to measure ocean temperatures using loud undersea sounds. Munk finds the continuing politicization of science disturbing, if predictable.

“This shouldn’t be a popularity contest, should it?” asks Munk, emeritus professor and one of the world’s leading physical oceanographers. “I think scientists are a sorry lot, just like everyone else ... The only question for us should always be: What exactly is going to happen, and how can we predict it?”

Munk’s advice? “Scientists should stick to doing science, period,” and stay away from politics.

That may not be as easy as it sounds. Scientists live and die by research grants. For the most part, the big grants are doled out mainly by federally funded agencies like the National Science Foundation. Congress controls the checkbook. As they say: Do the math.

And no matter how they try, scientists will find it difficult to avoid politics when dealing with such a politically charged issue. Those who believe the threat from global warming is overblown may take comfort in the position of former Scripps director William Nierenberg, emeritus professor, who’s something of a contrarian on the issue.

“We can easily wait 30 years to decide what we should do, if anything. There’s no urgency,” Nierenberg insists. No need yet to spend untold billions of dollars curtailing energy use and dislocating national economies. He sees the politics of last year’s Kyoto conference agreement to curb greenhouse emissions as “a joke.” (While the powerful nations agreed to cut greenhouse emissions, most Third World countries demanded and got exemptions.)

While Nierenberg’s views may not jibe with those of most climate scientists at this point —certainly not those at Scripps—he is unapologetic. At age 79, Nierenberg, sitting in the primo view office of the big building named for him, is still given to passionate discourse about science. He goes so far as to suggest scientists have a clear financial stake in stoking controversy to keep their particular area of interest—whether global warming, AIDS or cloning—in the limelight.

“Scientists live on a razor’s edge. If a consensus develops that a problem isn’t that urgent, then budgets get cut,” he says. “I’m just telling you the way the world is.”

Unfortunately, the great global warming debate appears likely to spin on for the foreseeable future, fueled by scientific inquiry, gassy rhetoric, political recriminations and continued public confusion.

Several of the scientists interviewed for this story mentioned what happened with the discovery that the ozone layer was disappearing much faster than anyone thought. The chlorine-based compounds doing the damage were identified, and an international agreement 10 years ago banning CFCs was ratified relatively quickly. Maybe something similar could unfold with regard to global warming. Once conclusive data becomes available, the public will demand action. Government and industry will follow. It’s an optimist’s view, certainly, but not an impossible one.

Asks Veerabhadran Ramanathan: “Will we be so lucky again?”

Until then, the unsung heroes at Scripps and similar places around the world will keep plugging away at their computer models and their lab benches. Piece by tiny piece, they will assemble the big picture of global warming. Only then might the rest of us be able to see more clearly where we’re all headed, ready or not.
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