FROM THE VICE PRESIDENT
Sidebar: Are oceans becoming acidic?
LOST LEWIS AND CLARK
Sidebar: Neurons get their close-up
Sidebar: Core facility models molecules
A HAZARDOUS WORLD
Sidebar: Genes, the environment and you
Cover: An illustration of UM's Main Hall tower bathed in the glow of a fictitious smoldering Earth.
Vision is published annually by The University of Montana Office of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations. It is printed by UM Printing & Graphic Services.
PUBLISHER: Daniel J. Dwyer. MANAGING EDITOR AND GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Cary Shimek. PHOTOGRAPHER: Todd Goodrich. CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Brianne Burrowes, Brenda Day, Judy Fredenberg, Joan Melcher, Rita Munzenrider, Patia Stephens and Alex Strickland. WEB DESIGN: Patia Stephens. EDITORIAL OFFICE: University Relations, Brantly Hall 330, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-5914. MANAGEMENT: Judy Fredenberg, Office of the Vice President for Research and Development, 116 Main Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, 406-243-6670.
UM tackles climate change questions
By Cary Shimek
Dressed head-to-toe in diving gear designed to protect him from killing cold, University of Montana scientist Art Woods slides into a manhole-sized opening drilled in the Antarctic ice. Flippers first, he submerges and guides himself down through nearly 15 feet of white, emerging under the ice into spectacularly clear water — 500 feet of visibility with all currents dampened by the frozen sheet above. He’s discovered the best diving of his life.
The researcher kicks toward the ocean floor 60 feet below. Closer to the shoreline where anchor ice attaches to land, the floor has been scoured of life, but here in deeper water he finds a profusion of fish, sponges, worms, jellies and sea cucumbers. His quarry: delicate egg masses left by nudibranchs — ornate sea slugs with an odd, otherworldly beauty.
As Woods and fellow divers hunt for the 3-inch masses, they are surprised by a curious 1,200-pound Weddell seal skimming through the 28-degree seawater to watch their work.
The UM scientist studies the effects of temperature on metabolic symptoms, oxygen transport between animals and their environments, and how reproductive structures of different organisms are constructed. He came to Antarctica in search of the most extreme adaptations, and he found a place where cold, oxygen-rich seawater allows many species to grow huge — like his nudibranchs — but metabolic rates slow to a crawl.
Climate models suggest this realm of Antarctic sea slugs will warm several degrees if current trends continue. To test how the creatures may respond, Woods and his research partner, Amy Moran of Clemson University, brought egg masses back to the National Science Foundation’s nearby McMurdo Station and subjected them to simulated climate change.
“We did modest global warming,” he says. “We found they are very susceptible to temperature. The embryos lived faster and their metabolic rates sped up. Even a few degrees were a major change for them. Other researchers have found fish there that actually go into heat shock when the temperature climbs just a few degrees above freezing.
“I mean, these are organisms that have evolved in completely stable, cold conditions. Nobody knows what will happen with rapid warming.”
And most indicators suggest change is coming, even under the ice at the bottom of the world.
There's a horrible story scientists tell about frogs. If you throw one into boiling water, it immediately hops out. But if you put it in water and ever so slowly increase the temperature, it allows itself to boil to death.
“That’s what’s happening with us,” contends UM ecologist Steve Running. “We humans are just kind of slowly boiling. Another tenth of a degree? Nah, it doesn’t really hurt. We are just going to sit here gleefully like nothing is wrong. Because you see, climate change has been a slow-motion crisis all along. It’s a slow, insidious crisis that has just marched up. And now it’s starting to bite us.”
Running, a forestry professor, is one of the nation’s leading experts on climate change. He and his lab, the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group, have written software for environmental satellites in NASA’s Earth Observing System. Billion dollar eyes in the sky with names like Terra and Aqua allow him to take daily snapshots of the planet’s health. Running also helped write the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
The report brims with grim facts. Warming is widespread around the globe. Eleven of the past 12 years to 2006 rank among the warmest on record. Glaciers and mountain snow decreased on both hemispheres, and arctic sea ice has dropped by 2.7 percent per decade since 1978. Running says all these changes are caused by an average 2 degree-Fahrenheit increase during the past 100 years.
“And in no way is this little treadmill we are on slowing down in the slightest,” he says. “In fact, all the data I see shows it’s speeding up.”
In the August 2006 issue of Science, Running wrote about how higher spring and summer temperatures and earlier snowmelt are extending the wildfire season and increasing wildfire intensity in the Western United States. (And as the author writes this, Missoula smolders under 107-degree heat — the hottest daytime temperature ever recorded in this mountain valley.)
How did we get into this hot water? Way back in 1896 a Swedish chemist named Sven Arrhenius suggested that carbon dioxide emissions from Industrial Revolution coal combustion could cause a greenhouse effect. Most scientists of the time, however, thought humans were puny ants who couldn’t impact their giant world. That changed in 1958 when a brash young scientist named Charles David Keeling bucked conventional wisdom to set up a CO2-monitoring station where he could get the cleanest air possible — the top of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano. After a few years he proved humanity’s fossil fuel-fuming vehicles and factories were causing a worldwide CO2 buildup in the atmosphere.
The Mauna Loa data is called the Keeling Curve, and Running says it made its discoverer “the most famous Earth scientist in the world.” Keeling retired to the Bitterroot Valley near Missoula, and Running and Keeling became great friends.
“His dataset was literally the first evidence that humans could have a global impact of any kind at all,” Running says. “Most locals had no idea who he was, but he died right here at a Missoula hospital in 2005.”
Why is CO2 buildup in the atmosphere bad? Running says when light from the sun enters Earth’s atmosphere its wavelength is only about 0.4 microns. But light turns to heat when it hits the surface, changing its wavelength to 12 microns. CO2 and other greenhouse gases help keep this longer-wavelength thermal radiation from bouncing off the Earth back into space.
“It can’t be transmitted back through the atmosphere the same way thermal energy can’t come back through the window of a car,” he says, “so your car gets to be 140 degrees inside in the summer. This is happening to our entire planet.”
Running didn’t start out as a climate change crusader. There always has been climate variability, and his own graph of mean global temperature shows the planet actually went through a cooling trend in the late 1940s and into the ’50s. But since the ’70s the overall trend has been ever warmer.
Pointing to his computer screen, Running says, “Since 1970 the mean global temperature has generally gone up. It all really got going around 1975 or 1980, but at the time we didn’t really see any measurable trends that were alarming. But that curve just gets steeper and steeper. Now we are seeing this exponential acceleration.”
Running joined UM in 1979, and by 1981 — then an untenured assistant professor — he was being flown to Johnson Space Center to help plan NASA’s fleet of Earth-monitoring satellites. He was among the first ecologists to work with the space agency, and his initial NASA projects paid to bring high-speed Internet to UM. “I had the first e-mail account on this campus,” he says.
Sidebar: Are oceans becoming acidic?
The first IPCC report came out in 1990, with others following in 1995, 2001 and 2007. After reading the 1995 report and studying reams of climate data, Running started becoming a believer.
“By then I knew we had moved beyond natural,” he says. “When we study global warming evidence, we study lots and lots of measurements — not just temperature. And when every arrow seems to go in the same direction, you start going, ‘Hmmmm, this is for real.’ If there is anything I feel now in the summer of 2007, it’s this progressive sense of nervousness.”
That uneasiness was reinforced after the launch of Terra in 1999 and Aqua in 2002. Running’s lab used a $7.9 million grant to write software for a primary instrument on both satellites, allowing scientists to measure a host of land and ocean processes — from deforestation, glacial retreat and wildfires to urbanization and desertification. Each day the satellites pump down enough climate data to fill a set of encyclopedias.
With these credentials, Running was asked in May 2004 to be the lead author of the North American ecology section of the current IPCC report. (There are other U.S. authors for topics such as infectious diseases, hurricanes and heat waves.) To this day, Running doesn’t know who nominated him for the honor, but his invitation letter came from an IPCC technical support office in the United Kingdom.
By September 2004, Running was meeting in the United Nations Office in Vienna, Austria, with teams from the 180 IPCC member nations. “It was like the Olympics of Earth science,” he says. Other meetings followed in Australia, Mexico and South Africa.
Running wrote three drafts of his report. “The first, a zero-order draft, they wanted in a matter of weeks,” he says. “They just wanted us to barf our first ideas on a page.” His final section of the phone book-sized IPCC report is 25 pages.
Running wasn’t paid for his three years of IPCC work, but the report continues to keep him busy since its spring release. He has given scores of interviews to media across the nation, and, like Al Gore, he spends a lot of time proselytizing about climate change.
“I gave six talks in six states in one eight-day stretch in April,” he says. “I think the potential for action is way better now than a year ago. But it’s fatiguing to endlessly explain this over and over to these different groups. I hope in five years I’m not giving two or three talks a week. I hope we will be beyond that stage. Right now, though, it’s the right thing to do since we have the public’s attention.”
Speaking of Al Gore, Running watched the former vice president’s climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” for the first time with Keeling’s widow, Louise.
“It was kind of awkward — because of who I was with — that Al didn’t do a great job acknowledging Keeling’s role in discovering climate change,” Running says. “He gave too much credit to Roger Revelle [another important climatologist], which is somewhat understandable since Gore took a class from Revelle and knew him personally. But that spin on the early history taints it for me somewhat.”
However, after watching the film a second time and hunting for inaccuracies, Running was impressed overall. “There are a couple places where Gore stretches things a little farther than I wish he would stretch them, but there is really nothing in there that is inaccurate,” he says. “In fact, a number of the graphs he showed are identical to the graphs I show.”
Running isn’t afraid to debate climate change doubters. It’s fun to throw devil’s-advocate questions his way and hear his responses:
I don’t believe in climate change, so how can you? Running: “I’ve spent a lifetime studying this data, and here are my conclusions. Where is your data? Can you show me your graph?”
Why are some areas getting colder and glaciers growing? Running: “Climate has always been variable and hard to predict. A glacier in Antarctica may be growing or it might be cooler in Choteau or something, but that’s not the case in most of the world. Critics often cherry-pick a few bits of data but ignore the 95 percent that doesn’t support their argument.”
Aren’t other planets in our solar system warming as well right now? Running: “So let’s move there! There is some fluctuation in the solar illuminance, and due to orbital dynamics the Earth and other planets are sometimes a few million miles closer to the sun than at other times. But our climate models, which are millions of lines of computer code, took that all into account decades ago.”
Past volcanic eruptions have shaded the Earth with particles. Noted physicist Lowell Wood has suggested we could burn sulfur and inject massive amounts of the resulting particles into the air to stop climate change. What do you think? Running: “If we had a perfect understanding of how Earth’s climate operated, that might be something to consider. But what if we got it wrong? Yikes! That’s just ludicrous. We had the bright idea to introduce rabbits to Australia and mysis shrimp in Flathead Lake, and look how we did with those small ideas.”
In his techno-thriller “State of Fear,” author Michael Crichton contends climate change is mostly hype — a new boogeyman to frighten the masses into obeying the powers that be. Are you part of the conspiracy? Running: Rolls his eyes.