Forum Post: Former NASA Chief Scientist: "We're Effectively Taking a Sledgehammer to the Climate System"
Posted 2 years ago on June 30, 2014, 11:18 p.m. EST by LeoYo
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Former NASA Chief Scientist: "We're Effectively Taking a Sledgehammer to the Climate System"
Monday, 30 June 2014 11:01
By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Interview
"You really have to work to not believe it," Dr. Waleed Abdalati says of anthropomorphic climate disruption (ACD, also known as climate change). He should know: More than 20 years ago, Abdalati began observing ACD firsthand in Greenland, as a scientist working on his doctoral thesis, for which he created an algorithm used to remotely detect changes in the spatial extent of the Greenland ice sheet experiencing melt each year.
Abdalati, previously NASA's chief scientist,is now an associate professor of geography, director of the Earth Science and Observation Center, and a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His research interests are in the use of satellite and airborne remote sensing techniques, integrated with in situ observations and modeling, to understand how and why the earth's ice cover is changing.
In particular, his research focuses on the contributions of ice sheets and high-latitude glaciers to sea level rise, and their relationship to the changing climate. Toward that end, he has been heavily involved in the development of NASA's Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) and its successor, ICESat-II, (the benchmark Earth Observing System mission for measuring ice sheet mass balance, cloud and aerosol heights, as well as land topography and vegetation characteristics) and has worked on cryospheric applications of various other satellites and aircraft instruments. Most of his research is supported by NASA, where he worked as a scientist for 12 years before joining the department of geography at the University of Colorado.
During his tenure at NASA, Abdalati was appointed to the post of chief scientist, where he advised Administrator Charles Bolden on NASA science programs and strategic planning. He also served NASA as head of cryospheric sciences at Goddard Space Flight Center between January 2004 and June 2008, was awarded the NASA Office of Earth Science Award three times, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal and the NASA Space Systems Award, among other recognitions.
Truthout interviewed Abdalati about what he saw while working on the Greenland ice sheet during the 1990s, his observations about the indisputable evidence of the reality of ACD, and the urgent need for an honest, society-wide conversation about the future that we are facing.
Truthout: You've spent a lot of time in the Arctic studying what is happening to the ice and the climate there. Given that the Arctic is known as the canary in the coalmine regarding climate change, talk about what you saw there, and why we should be concerned.
Dr. Waleed Abdalati: More relevant than what I saw when I was physically there is what we've been seeing on the satellite data. But I'll start with when I was physically there. It's hard to ascertain from one or two spots on an ice sheet what is going on Arctic wide, but one of the things I did when I was in the field was some ground truth to support the development for a method for detecting melts on the Greenland ice sheet. And then once those satellite observations' data were validated by the ground truth measurements I made, we then applied it to the whole ice sheet. Over time we've seen this very steady marked increase in the melting. You probably saw or even wrote some stories about the excessive melt in 2012 . . . this melting was all observed by satellites, not by sitting on the ice itself. That was only part of the method of understanding what is happening.
Things are different now. The place I used to go where I did these measurements was called the equilibrium line, where the balance between accumulation and melts is realized on the ice sheet. There's a certain altitude where above it the ice gains mass, below it the ice loses mass, where melting exceeds accumulation below it, and above it melting is less than accumulation. This equilibrium line was set up in 1991, and camp was placed there.
That line has now moved quite a bit further up slope. So now that camp I used to go to that was situated so that it wouldn't be buried or that it wouldn't stick way out of the ice after next years melt had to be reinforced. It had to be secured with these long steel poles put into the ice because it's now above the ice. Rather than sitting on it, you have to take a ladder up to it. So that's just one change in one area. But in terms of the equilibrium line, its crept up slope progressively year after year so that it's far higher than it was at the time I was there. I don't know exactly how far or how high it is, but it's tens of kilometers inland.
What I saw, and I started going in 1993, the Arctic was beautiful and we were trying to figure out what was happening. There were some hints that ice sheet was melting, the sea ice might be shrinking, but the time series of the satellite record was so short that we couldn't draw substantive conclusions at the time. And now, all of those things that were hinted at back then have been realized.
When I got to the village that we used to fly into, before we would fly onto the ice in a helicopter we used to take a hike in the evening, because it's light until midnight, out to the ice edge. We could walk to one part of the town and look across the ice edge right in front of us. Now that ice edge is 10 miles back from where it was. So this is one place over one short period of time, but it's an indication or symptomatic of a retreating ice cover.
The Arctic Ocean is leading the way in acidification. Just as there is a long lag time between increasing greenhouse gas emissions and increased temperature, changes in ocean acidity lag very far behind alterations in atmospheric carbon dioxide, according to the February 2014 issue of Environmental Research Letters. What does an increasingly acidic Arctic Ocean mean for that part of the globe?
I'm not an expert on this. But the ecosystems have evolved under a certain pH structure. And once you change that pH, once you make it more acidic, these systems are vulnerable. And once you make it more acidic, it starts with coral. Not so much in the Arctic, but it starts with elements low on the food chain that have ripple effects all the way up the food chain. So if the smallest creatures are most vulnerable creatures and find themselves in an environment that they can't survive in, it's got ripple effects throughout the food chain and ultimately reaches humans as well.