In January 2017, the SciFlix film was John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’. I considered using this film to discuss questions of exobiology, but decided that a more terrestrial topic was a propos. That evening we invited the regional director of NOAA, a scientist who did her PhD work in Antarctica, and a state legislator to talk about arctic science, climate science, and how policy is influenced (or not) by science.
The lands of Antarctica were first charted in 1820 by Captain Thaddeus
Bellingshausen. Over the following decades, the continent was aggressively explored, including the first landing on the continent by Capt. John Davis in the Cecilia at Hughes Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Sir James Clark Ross’ expedition aboard the ships Erebus and Terror occurred in the early 1840s.
In 1853, the first documented landing on the vast East Antarctica was at Victoria Land by the American sealer Mercator Cooper on 26 January 1853. (Antarctic Circle—Antarctic First. Antarctic-circle.org)
In a similar spirit of adventure, Radhanath Sikdar was the first to identify Mt. Everest as the world’s highest peak in 1852.
Prior to 1852, what mountain was the world’s highest?
Questions like these are designed to fool the hasty who will rack their brain for some other highest mountain. Perhaps Denali in Alaska; Aconcagua in the Andes; Matterhorn in Switzerland?
Of course, the answer is …
Reality didn’t change, only our awareness and acceptance of it.
Similarly, the reality of the world’s climate doesn’t change simply because we don’t make ourselves aware of the best data describing it. The March for Science, no matter what you think of it, is a response to the science community’s feeling that policy maker no longer concern themselves with evidence when making decisions that affect us all.
The 2016 NOAA report card for Arctic contains the most reliable data for knowing what is really happening at the Earth’s poles. And Frankly, it’s startling.
Included are a few highlights from the Executive Summary:
The mean annual surface air temperature (SAT) anomaly (+2.0° C relative to the 1981-2010 mean value) for October 2015-September 2016 for land stations north of 60° N is the highest value in the record starting in 1900. These data show the artic temperature change as even more drastic than the global averages, which are also increasing over the same period. (Changes of ~1.5 degrees C globally vs 3.5 degrees in the arctic)
University of Washington – Department of Atmospheric Sciences – Dennis L. Hartmann
Data for the recent era post industrial revolution
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center
These are not political postures, they are data collected around the world and presented in good faith to represent the best picture of reality that we can assemble. They don’t tell us why things are the way they are, but they do paint a reasonably clear picture.
A worst case scenario would place a planet at risk of a runaway greenhouse effect similar to what has happened on Venus, although this is unlikely to happen given the Earth’s position relative to the sun and its current brightness – something we can rely on for about another billion years.
Images of the Venus surface, temperature a balmy 462 degrees C collected by the Soviet Union’s Venera missions, which remain the only missions to ever land on Venus.
A different question that may be more important to us in the short term (only hundreds or thousands of years) is what will the changes in climate mean for farming and its support of a rather large global population. Of value in learning to take control of a changing climate is understanding what contributes to it, and presently the best models are that we are doing this through the release of fossil CO2 into the atmosphere.
Everest was the Earth’s highest peak, even prior to 1852. We’re pumping a lot of CO2 from the ground into the air and the climate is changing.
So, what do we do about it?