Clark researchers meet the challenge of global climate change

May 5, 2013

For centuries, human beings — from poets to religious leaders to scientists — have speculated about the end of the world. Will it conclude with a whimper or a bang? Will we be consumed by fire or slowly freeze to death? These fatal visions reflect our instinctive fear of a climate that's either "too hot" or "too cold" for survival.

When President Obama stated in his 2013 inaugural address that "We will respond to the threat of climate change," many listeners were taken aback. Despite the looming presence of extreme weather events occurring across the United States and around the world in 2012, any mention of climate change had been conspicuously absent from the presidential campaign. That Obama and Mitt Romney chose to ignore the elephant in the room starkly illustrated how the debate over climate change has pushed many of us — whether politician, policy-maker or citizen — out of our comfort zones.

Contributing to that discomfort is the difficulty of reaching consensus on climate change. While climate scientists agree almost unanimously that the earth's atmosphere is warming and is the result, at least in part, of human activity, many people refuse to accept that assessment. And those who do believe the evidence frequently disagree, often vehemently, on how best to address the problem.

Why is it so hard to find agreement? Conversations with the many Clark faculty investigating how atmospheric warming is playing out in diverse ecosystems and human populations reveal the mind-boggling complexity of climate change. And whether they are involved in the monitoring, management or mitigation of this global event, these scientists also recognize the need to bridge the significant communication gap between the scientific and lay communities before research can be put into practice. They've found the rhetoric can be fiery, the public's reception icy, and a solution more necessary than ever.

What's fueling the fires?

When John Rogan unpacks his suitcase after returning from Mexico's Yucatan, his clothes reek of smoke. Annually since 2008, the Clark geography professor has painstakingly monitored the same plots in a subtropical rainforest where wildfires are so prevalent that members of his research team emerge gray with char after swimming in a nearby lagoon. The team's research shows that while the number of wildfires has decreased thanks to a rigorous, government-imposed system of burn-permitting, the actual area of scorched forest has widened dramatically. The markers of climate change in this region — declining rainfall and frequent and damaging hurricanes — are increasing the likelihood that small fires set by local farmers as part of their traditional agricultural practices will rage out of control.

Rogan and his Clark colleagues Dominik Kulakowski and Christopher Williams are trying to understand why wildfires, and the resulting degradation or destruction of forests, are on the rise around the world. Natural to the life cycle of any forest are what scientists call "disturbances" — avalanches, insect infestations, storms that down trees and branches, fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, human activities, and even fire itself. A healthy forest can adapt to small variations in normal disturbance patterns, but if the frequency and severity of disturbances increase too much, or occur in concert, the effect on forests may be much more severe. Forest ecologists are carefully monitoring patterns of disturbance over time and across different ecosystems in order to correctly identify to what degree climate change or other factors contribute to larger and more frequent wildfires.

Beetle infestation, which has been unusually intense and widespread in western U.S. forests over the past few years, provides a good case study. When Kulakowski was a graduate student, it was accepted fact that forests affected by beetle infestation were more susceptible to wildfires. But when his research contradicted that conventional wisdom, he experienced not so much an "A-ha!" moment as a "What the hell is going on?" moment. Kulakowski recalls his mingled anxiety and excitement when his analysis of the data showed no increase in fire after insect outbreaks.

"Needless to say, I lost a lot of sleep over this," he says. "This was absolutely contrary to everything that had been published up to that point. But since then, our own research and that of a number of other research groups have time and again drawn similar conclusions in different ecosystems, and the scientific community is now looking at this issue in a different way."

Prof. Karen Frey conducting sea ice research in the Chukchi Sea - Clark University

Prof. Karen Frey conducting sea ice research in the Chukchi Sea

Kulakowski's recognized expertise positioned him to testify at a 2010 Senate subcommittee hearing regarding a proposed bill to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire by treating insect outbreaks. In his statement, Kulakowski cited research pointing to climate change-induced drought, rather than insect infestation, as the driver of increased wildfires in the western United States. He cautioned against targeting insect infestation, saying that to do so "would be like beginning surgery on a patient before first having the correct diagnosis." The bill later died in committee.

When wildfires take hold, more than nearby homes and livelihoods are at risk. Fires also have the potential to release large amounts of carbon stored in ecosystems, fueling further climate change as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere rise even higher.

As a researcher with the federally funded North American Carbon Program, Williams is part of a group of scientists tasked with quantifying fire-induced carbon emissions for the whole of North America. The team uses satellite imagery, field data from forest plots, and models to determine the net carbon impact of fires.

At the fall 2012 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Williams presented related research targeting the drought-stricken western United States, and he participated in a NASA-sponsored media briefing on "Fire in a Changing Climate and What We Can Do About It." According to Williams, carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires in the western U.S. have more than doubled since the 1980s. Drought is partly to blame, having become more frequent in recent years. And, Williams notes, "with the climate change forecast for the region, this trend likely will continue as the western U.S. gets warmer and drier on average. If this comes to pass, we can anticipate increased fire severity and an even greater area burned annually, causing a further rise in the release of carbon dioxide."

Last August, Williams co-authored a New York Times editorial that warned of a multidecade "megadrought" in the American West if fossil-fuel emissions go unchecked. He wrote, "[T]here can be little doubt that what was once thought to be a future threat is suddenly, catastrophically upon us."

Treading on thin ice

The relationship between a warming atmosphere and wildfire outbreaks is just one example of climate-change impacts. Global warming is contributing to a very different, but equally complex response in the cryosphere — regions of the globe normally characterized by snow, ice and extreme cold.

While Clark geographer Karen Frey developed an interest in climate change at an early age, colleague Alex Gardner had already completed his training as a civil engineer before he became fascinated with glaciers during a hiking trip to the ice fields of Patagonia in South America. A desire to assess the rate and volume of melt from glaciers and ice caps in polar and mountainous regions has spurred Gardner to camp out on remote, ice-covered islands in northern Canada; Frey undertakes much of her field research on melting sea ice aboard U.S. and Canadian icebreakers, and on thawing permafrost from remote field stations in East Siberia and the Alaskan North Slope.

Global warming is having its greatest impact in the far northern latitudes, and understanding where and how rapidly ice is melting there, and in other frigid regions, is critical to predicting the magnitude of future environmental change across the globe. Using computer programs he writes himself, along with remotely sensed data from two satellites, Gardner can determine the amount of ice lost to melting.

A Canadian by birth, Gardner is especially interested in ice melt in the Canadian Archipelago. This cluster of islands northwest of Greenland had received little attention, but a study led by Gardner found that, outside of Greenland and Antarctica, it was the largest contributor to sea-level rise from 2007 through 2009. Results of the study were published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2011. Frey calls permafrost, which covers approximately one quarter of Northern Hemisphere land areas, "a ticking time bomb," because of the carbon locked inside. Defined as soil or rock whose temperature remains below 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least two consecutive years, permafrost can extend several hundred meters below the earth's surface. When permafrost thaws, it provides food for bacteria, which in the feasting process release carbon into the atmosphere as either carbon dioxide or methane. Thawing permafrost also enables the leaching of soil carbon into local streams and beyond, ultimately making its way to the coastal Arctic Ocean and impacting biophysical processes in the marine realm.

Frey and Gardner also study how ice and snow function as the earth's thermostat by reflecting the sun's rays, thus keeping the earth from getting too hot. But as snow and ice cover contracts, and that vast whiteness is replaced by the darker, less reflective surfaces of soil, vegetation and open water, the earth absorbs more heat, which leads to more melting.

"When sea ice melts," Frey explains, "it effectively replaces some of the brightest surfaces on the planet with some of the darkest. And that amplifies the warming. It's like standing in the middle of a black asphalt parking lot. It's hot. But if you stand in the middle of a bright white surface, sunlight is reflected rather than absorbed and that surface stays cool. That's the difference between a sea ice-covered ocean and open ocean."

Last year witnessed record lows for sea ice coverage in the Arctic — and as the relative balance between ice and open water shifts in favor of the latter, increased availability of the sunlight needed for photosynthesis spurs the growth of algae. Scientists once thought that algae could not flourish under ice for lack of sunlight, but Frey was among a group of NASA scientists making recent headlines with their discovery of a huge bloom of algae doing just that. Publishing in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters, they found that as air warms, small pools of meltwater form atop the ice, acting as skylights to channel sunlight to the underside.

"Sea ice is the huge story for these [polar] ecosystems," Frey says. "Everything is so tightly linked in the food chain, from microscopic algae all the way to the seal, walrus, whale, and polar bear."

People living in Arctic regions are part of that ecosystem, too, and must scramble to adapt.

"Indigenous communities in these regions are experiencing climate change and certainly know far more about climate warming firsthand than we do down here," she notes. "It's impacting their safety. For generations, people have understood the way to navigate sea ice in safe ways. Now environmental conditions have become incredibly unpredictable."

Frey characterizes the earth's varied responses to climate change as an intriguing scientific experiment.

"People think, ‘Oh, climate change, you've got it all figured out,'" she says. "But the more you learn, the more measurements you take, and the more you study, the more you realize how incredibly complicated these systems are, mainly because of all the interacting complexities that occur and all the interesting feedbacks that are so globally significant."

On the front lines ... and the front lawn

Clark geographers like Robert Kates, Billie Lee Turner II, Roger Kasperson, Jody Emel, and Sam Ratick were in the national forefront of scientists studying the impact of human action on the natural environment, and in assessing human vulnerability to both environmental and man-made hazards. They remain engaged in their research areas, while colleagues like Ron Eastman, Robert "Gil" Pontius and Colin Polsky have also taken up the challenge of identifying and quantifying risks posed to humans and ecosystems by a warming atmosphere. Eastman earned worldwide recognition two decades ago with the introduction of IDRISI, one of the world's first geographic information systems.

Prof. Jennie Stephens says Hurricane Sandy "highlighted our vulnerability to climate change."

Since creating IDRISI in 1987, Eastman and his team at Clark Labs have continued to augment the software with modules of special interest to researchers in such fields as conservation, ecosystem management, and land-use and land-cover change, including the ability to incorporate climate determinants such as temperature and precipitation into their analyses. His team's primary focus is working with ecology organizations that want to identify regions where climate change may threaten biodiversity and species survival.

"We have very close partnerships — the strongest would be with Conservation International, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Society," says Eastman. "Actually, we're in communication with most [ecological] agencies worldwide. We let it be known that we're here to make this suite of tools do what they need, and they're free to make suggestions and give us feedback."

Polsky and Pontius have employed IDRISI to aid their research on how climate change will impact the way people use land and water resources. Focusing initially on the Ipswich River watershed north of Boston, Polsky and Pontius have been using a combined social science/high-resolution-mapping approach to examine lawn-care strategies of suburban homeowners and spatial patterns of lawns by household and neighborhood. Alongside colleagues at the University of New Hampshire, they are also studying ways that lawn-watering practices and fertilizer run-off affect municipal water supplies and the ecology of local rivers and streams.

"Notions about what's causing the water problem have not used a high-resolution geographic perspective, and we have been received with a lot of enthusiasm," Polsky says of their work in the Boston-area towns. "One of the priorities of sustainability science is that you engage with the stakeholder at the beginning, middle and end of the project, otherwise the work is likely to just gather dust on a shelf."

Lawn-watering makes for a contentious issue in many towns, and the stress it can place on local water resources in times of drought often results in restrictions or even bans. By modeling the process of suburban expansion in combination with expected water usage, Polsky and Pontius can create a picture of future water demand when average summer temperatures are expected to increase. They plan to expand the focus of their research to other metropolitan areas in the United States, where nature's ability to produce water will almost certainly clash with the homeowner's quest for the perfect lawn.

Seeing REDD

Several Clark scientists are exploring ways to adapt to or impede climate change here and abroad.

Geography Department Chair Anthony Bebbington, for instance, has been advising El Salvador's Ministry of the Environment regarding legislation that would temporarily ban all mining in that country until conditions are in place to protect water resources and vulnerable landscapes, both of which are under increasing pressures due to climate change and patterns of development.

Clark Professor Jennie Stephens, whose focus is on energy technology innovation, traveled to the Society for Social Studies of Science Conference in Copenhagen last October to present her research on competing visions of a smarter power grid, perhaps one less vulnerable to damage by storms like Hurricane Sandy. She's now conducting research for a book about how electricity in different U.S. regions is generated and distributed, with an eye to decreasing dependence on fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources, making energy delivery more efficient, and raising people's awareness of their personal energyconsumption habits.

"Hurricane Sandy highlighted our vulnerability to climate change," Stephens says, "and made this connection between energy and climate change more explicit. Our energy systems are vulnerable to climate change, and our energy systems and energy dependence are causing climate change."

Climate-change mitigation faces a herculean challenge when it comes to persuading developing countries to invest in forest-loss prevention. A strategy known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) offers countries financial incentives to reduce their forest loss, and the attendant carbon emissions, through payments from wealthier nations. IDRISI provides tools that facilitate the planning and management of REDD projects by allowing users to estimate and map the impacts of alternative policies regarding deforestation, emission reductions, and revenue generation. Eastman and Pontius are consulting with REDD programs to establish the criteria by which mitigation programs can be certified effective in preventing forest loss.

"All of a sudden, the output from these models that we're making right here at Clark is going to help determine how millions of dollars are going to change hands," Pontius says. "Clark is playing a major role in this very controversial topic."

Prof. Christopher Williams tracks drought and wildfires - Clark University

Prof. Christopher Williams tracks drought and wildfires.

Communications, trust, and that four-letter word

We all remember the childhood game of "telephone," where a whispered message is passed from one person to the next until the last person in line bursts out laughing at the now garbled dispatch. As any professional communicator knows, information delivery is a tricky business. Messages and media must be carefully targeted to individual audiences characterized by diverse needs, learning styles, intellectual abilities and attention spans.

Jim Gomes, director of the Mosakowski Institute at Clark University and former Massachusetts Undersecretary for Environmental Affairs, notes that science, by its very nature, is a work in progress, which can hamper the consensus-building needed to translate knowledge into action. In a presentation he gave last year at Clark titled "Yes We Can?? American Politics and Climate Change in 2012," Gomes pointed out the scientist's "commitment to the open-ended nature of science; that is, that conclusions are always to some degree tentative and subject to revision should we acquire information." Any uncertainty can play into the hands of people wanting to discredit the existence of climate change, he said.

Increasingly, climate-change scientists have become aware of the need to improve their communication strategies with nonscientists, a need that is being addressed by Clark faculty on a variety of fronts. Stephens has been examining how media outlets talk about climate change, noting their critical role in conveying scientific research to the lay community. In some circles, climate change has become the equivalent of a four-letter word, and Stephens explains that resistance to discussing the subject is sometimes overcome by reframing the conversation as a discourse about energy — a topic more widely accepted and less politically charged.

In 2010, Polsky introduced an on-campus workshop led by the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea, titled "Communicating Clearly: Opportunities and Challenges for Scientists in a Changing World," sponsored by the Marsh and Mosakowski institutes, and Clark's HERO program. More recently, as co-convening lead author for the land-use and land-cover change chapter of the National Climate Assessment, one of his responsibilities is to make sure information is understandable to a lay audience. Ron Eastman says one of his goals is to make IDRISI's analytical tools usable by policy makers who are not experts on climate change.

"To begin to look at the impact of future climate change on the natural resources of a region, you almost have to become a climate scientist," he says. "We see our role as providing a more readily accessible set of tools that allows people to do this kind of analysis."

Clark also assumes responsibility for communicating awareness of climate change issues to its students, and Gomes emphasizes that all students, not just those planning to become scientists, should be informed.

"I think it's important that we train both the next generation of scientists, and, more broadly, the next generation of citizens," he says. "Most of our students will not go on to become climate researchers, but all of our students will go on to live in this 21st century, and to be the people who are making decisions about who our leaders are, and, through them, what policies we will be pursuing."

Susanne Moser, Ph.D. '97, was instrumental in launching the field of climate-change communications. She is the former staff scientist for climate change for the Union of Concerned Scientists, and later a researcher studying communication and facilitating better interactions between scientists and nongovernmental organizations at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at Boulder, Co. Her training has allowed her to "translate and broker between people who speak English and people who speak science." It's a skill that is even more critical today.

"I think this is a crucial moment for climate change communication," she says. "It's important not just to tell people that the sky is falling, but what they can do about it. And it better be commensurate with the problem. It's not enough to tell people to change a light bulb. You need to make them feel that the action they take is making an important difference."

Does it matter how clear the message is if the messenger is not trusted? Senior research scientist Roger Kasperson co-authored "The Public Acceptance of New Energy Technologies," published this year in Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

"Social trust provides the essential lubricant" needed to effect change, he writes. The article notes that "public attitudes toward technology have shifted in the United States. ... In previous decades and during the past century, public sentiment favored technology," but now the public is "increasingly suspicious and hypercritical."

The nerdy scientists on the popular TV show "The Big Bang Theory" give credence to Moser's observation that the stereotype of the scientist as odd and/or out of touch still persists. The non-scientist may not understand the process of scientific inquiry, or may favor other ways of understanding the natural world. For those unfamiliar with the scientific process, belief in scientific research can require the same leap of faith that belief in a supreme being requires from others. Stephens' research highlights the need to consider regional differences in attitudes to energy and climate change.

"A lot of policy analysis is about technology feasibility and economics," Stephens says, "but actually there are a lot of cultural, political and social aspects that have a huge influence on our decisions."

NeXt steps

Many U.S. citizens and scientists have expressed frustration with the federal government's inability to formulate timely, robust responses to what they see as an imminent threat posed by climate change. But Polsky observes that while action at the national level may stall, attempts to address climate-change events are taking place closer to home. Town officials in his lawn-care study, for example, are anxious to learn the conclusions of his research so they can better manage municipal water supplies.

"They're taking their policies and mitigation and adaptation activities into their own hands at the state and local levels," he says. "Even if Congress can't seem to move forward very much, the rest of the country is doing it without Congress."

As part of the research for her new book, Stephens and her team are interviewing energy-sector employees influenced by Hurricane Sandy to determine how connections between climate change and energy use are being made. It may be that climate change is viewed differently when one is personally impacted by drought, floods, crippling heat or storm damage, or when insurance companies no longer offer protection against weather events.

Moser sums up the motivational potential of personal exposure to extreme weather: "Watching the water lap at your doorstep is different from watching polar bears far away." The research continues apace. Clark scientists and observers will continue working on solutions and looking for change on the horizon — before the horizon itself is permanently altered.

From the spring 2013 CLARK magazine