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Cameron Wake is used to being called “Dr. Doom.” He’s an ice core paleoclimatologist at the University of New Hampshire who’s been studying glaciers and their behavior for more than 30 years. He’s been on the forefront of some of the leading research into climate change, much of which now predicts more than six feet of sea level rise by 2100. That’s not fully accounting for the possible 20-25 additional feet of higher water if all of the earth’s glaciers melt.

So naturally, he does his best to be optimistic.

“Climate change is the innovation opportunity of the 21st century,” he says, whether at a climate summit hosted by MIT Seagrant in 2014, or at an intimate gathering of 200 in Portsmouth, N.H. on March 28. Even though the range of possible sea level rise jumped 2.6 feet from 2014 to 2016, his insistence on the opportunity angle echoes some of the enthusiasm born of the global climate accord reached in Paris in December.

“Climate changes,” he said. “It always has and it always will. The biggest difference today is that there is an extensive and ever-growing body of scientific evidence that shows that humans are the main driver of that change.”

But, we have time to avoid some of the darkest “Dr. Doom” predictions … if we act now, and decisively, he said.

There is an interesting dialectic at play with climate change that can be a bit challenging to grasp. At the Maine Fisherman’s forum last month, NOAA’s John Hare made a striking comment: “Climate change has a long memory.” The next 25-50 years of climate change are already fixed based on what we’ve done up until now. However, the steps we take now to reduce greenhouse gases, widely accepted as the leading culprit causing global warming, will affect our climate after 50 years or so.

In Portsmouth, Wake described why studying the different strata of glaciers yields so much information about what the climate has done in the past. “Glaciers are great archives,” he said. “We can look at oxygen isotopes to see what has happened.” One fairly constant measure is that when CO2 levels are high, the temperatures are higher, when they are low, temperatures are low.

Wake put some of the need to act immediately and globally in context with some recent data:

  • Within the past 18,000 years, massive ice sheets that once covered North America and Northern Europe have melted;
  • To slow long-term climate change effects, we need to keep global CO2 at 400 parts per million. We are now on a path toward 1,000 parts per million;
  • Arctic sea ice is the air conditioner for the northern hemisphere, reflecting UV rays back into the atmosphere. If that ice melts, it will lead to warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, accelerating global warming;
  • We’ve seen a significant reduction in Arctic sea ice in the summer since 1975. Sea ice is likely going to disappear in the Arctic Ocean this summer;
  • The rate of the Greenland ice sheet moving toward the ocean where it melts has doubled in the past decade. One particular glacier, the size of Mount Washington in N.H., has doubled its rate toward the Atlantic;
  • We may not fully understand the physics of glacial movement and melting in light of global warming for another decade;
  • There will be no shortage of fresh water in New England. The number of rain events in Southern N.H. with more than four inches in 48 hours is projected to jump from four between 1980-2009 to nearly 12 between 2070 to 2099. This means we’ll have more water falling in fewer events, making coastal and flood plain areas more vulnerable;
  • “It’s a challenge to talk about future on climate because we don’t know what humans are going to do,” said Wake, explaining why climatologists now use two scenarios representing high and low carbon emissions. While there is little variability between the two scenarios until 2050 because the pattern is locked, potential temperature ranges for New Hampshire vary widely afterward. If we drastically cut greenhouse gases, the average number of summer days hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit would be 20-25. If we continue on our current path of greenhouse gas emissions, New Hampshire could experience 50-60 days above 90 degrees;

“We can’t wait until 2050 or 2080 to address this challenge,” he said. “We won’t have enough money in one year to adapt. We need to keep checking back in with the science. Where there is little tolerance for risk, communities should commit to 4 feet of sea level of rise, but be flexible to manage to 6.6 feet.”

Solutions

To begin with, we need to at least meet the emissions goals set at the Paris accord. It was a significant achievement to get nearly 200 nations to commit to do something to reduce carbon emissions, with a goal of limiting global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. But even with those commitments, we’d only keep the global temperature rise to 3 degrees Celsius, many scientists say. We have to get the largest polluters, China, the U.S., India and other countries to cut more.

“We must decouple economic growth from greenhouse emissions,” said Wake. That means leaving a lot of fossil fuels in the ground. To prevent global temperature increases of more than 2 degrees Celsius, we must not burn 82% of the coal, 49% of the gas and 33% of the oil global reserves. We also need to increase annual global renewable energy investments to at least $1 trillion, he said. That kind of investment will likely yield innovations that make renewable energy more affordable and accessible on a global scale.

Most importantly, he said, we need to make personal commitments to reduce our carbon footprints. “I think every home should be its own powerhouse,” he said. Solar panels, efficient heating systems, better insulation, efficient windows, etc. are all some of the ways to reduce the carbon footprint of our homes.

“Think about what you can do. Your family. Your community.”

Resources

 Cameron Wake’s slide presentation in Portsmouth

Chasing ice: Incredible video of largest ice calving event (Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland) ever captured on film.

New York Times article on new research showing how quickly the West Antarctic ice sheet could melt

photo: Thin sea ice and a few floating ice bergs near the Denmark Strait off of eastern Greenland. Credit: NASA/Jefferson Beck