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10 Facts About Being a Climate Scientist—From Climate Scientists

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Climate scientists bring us important news about our rapidly changing world and what we might do to stave off the worst consequences of melting ice sheets, rising seas, and rapidly increasing global temperatures. But what exactly is a climate scientist, and how do they make sense of the complicated systems that rule our lives on this fragile planet? What kind of guidance can they give us about preparing for an imperiled future?

1. THE CLIMATE IS COMPLEX, SO THEY NEED A RANGE OF EXPERTISE.

When scientists talk about the climate, they’re actually referring to several interrelated systems: the Earth’s atmosphere; land surfaces (lithosphere); oceans, rivers and lakes (hydrosphere); snow and ice (cryosphere); and the layer of the planet where life exists (biosphere). Understanding the climate requires people with backgrounds in physics, math, chemistry, geology, biology, and other scientific disciplines to analyze all these different systems and how they interact. Climate scientists tend to specialize in a particular field, but they often work in interdisciplinary teams and typically have broad working knowledge of all these systems.

“Up until 20 years ago, no one was a climate scientist—people were just meteorologists, oceanographers, ecologists, geologists, or biologists, or chemists,” says Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “The reason why there are now climate scientists is that we realized these things are all coupled. What happens in the ocean is not independent of what’s happening with the weather, not independent of what’s happening in forests.”

2. THEY’D LIKE TO REMIND EVERYONE THAT CLIMATE AND WEATHER ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS.

If Minneapolis is enjoying a string of February days warm enough for flip flops and t-shirts, it’s tempting to blame climate change. But that’s weather, not climate. If average temperatures in Minneapolis stay higher over a period of years, however, then we're talking climate change.

What matters to climate scientists is whether average temperatures and other conditions are changing over years and decades, and if that’s part of a larger regional or global trend. And that trend definitely exists: The past three years have been the warmest since record-keeping began in the 1880s, and 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, according to NASA.

But temperature is just one piece of an enormous climate puzzle. Climate science must also analyze many other pieces of data to unravel complicated mysteries: How does ocean warming in the tropics set off a chain reaction that affects sea ice melt in the Arctic? How quickly is melting permafrost in Siberia releasing methane into the atmosphere? To what extent is climate change driving more severe droughts and bigger hurricanes? These are among the vast constellation of questions that climate scientists explore.

3. CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT A NEW PHENOMENON, BUT WE’RE IN UNCHARTED TERRITORY.

The climate system has always been in a state of flux, cycling between glacial periods—ice ages—and interglacial periods during which the Earth slowly warmed again over thousands of years. But there’s something unique about what’s happening on Earth right now.

Data show that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (C02) are higher than they’ve been for at least 800,000 years, thanks to human-generated emissions from things like power plants and cars and the effects of deforestation. (Trees and plants are carbon "sinks"—they store enormous amounts of carbon that gets released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide when forests are cut down and burned.) At the same time, the rate of warming in the past century has been 10 times faster than what took place between past ice ages.

Scientists know that higher concentrations of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in the past led to enormous changes on Earth. But there’s no precedent for the rate at which humans are now emitting greenhouse gases. Already global temperatures are increasing, ice sheets are melting, seas are rising and acidifying, and species are vanishing. The basic questions climate scientists are racing to understand are: How much faster might these things happen in the future, and what will this mean for life on Earth as we know it?

“The climate has always changed, but we’re seeing now rapid change, very quick, and that’s the thing that species have a hard time adapting to,” says Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “We’re now talking about something big happening in less than a century.”

4. NOT ALL CARBON DIOXIDE GOES INTO THE AIR—PLENTY GOES INTO THE OCEAN, TOO.

At least a quarter of all C02 released from burning fossil fuels ends up dissolved in the ocean. That might seem like a good thing—oceans acting like a “sink” that captures carbon, much the way forests and soils do. But scientists have discovered that carbon dioxide is changing ocean chemistry by making it more acidic.

Sarah Cooley spent seven years researching ocean acidification at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s chemistry lab, including looking at how shellfish are affected when exposed to highly acidic waters. She now directs the ocean acidification program at the environmental organization Ocean Conservancy, using her expertise to advocate for scientifically rigorous state, national, and international policy and communicate the science to coastal communities whose livelihoods may hang in the balance.

Cooley can cite plenty of evidence for how acidification affects ocean life: spiny sea urchins that have trouble growing; mollusks that can’t form strong shells; oyster populations in the Pacific Northwest diminishing during periods of upwelling (when more acidic waters are pushed up to the surface). Acidification is becoming a big concern for fisheries, too, since it dramatically impacts coral reef ecosystems on which many commercial fish depend.

“Ocean acidification is happening at a rate way faster than anything ocean life has seen in its evolutionary history,” Cooley says. “Conditions are changing much faster than they are evolutionarily equipped to handle.”

5. FIELD WORK CAN BE DANGEROUS (AND SOMETIMES ROMANTIC).

Sure, most climate scientists spend a fair amount of time hunched over a computer screen in an office engaged in relatively mundane tasks like reviewing data, responding to emails, and writing grant proposals. But the concept of an office gets completely redefined during field research.

In that case, work might involve a cramped nook onboard a tiny, wave-tossed research boat navigating stormy seas, or a sweaty, mosquito-besieged tent in the middle of the rainforest. The “commute” could necessitate a snowmobile, bush plane, or a mule. Researchers must survive hungry polar bears, storms at sea, venomous snakes, and, increasingly, treacherously thin ice.

Serreze recalls a few touch-and-go situations while conducting research in the Canadian Arctic. In one instance, he and his colleagues had to beat a hasty retreat to escape an aggressive muskox family. And as warmer temperatures thin the ice, researchers must be alert to melt ponds hidden just below the snowy surface.

“You might take a snow machine out and suddenly find yourself up to your chest in ice water,” he says. “You have to be careful, but it’s so much fun, too. It’s all in the attitude of the group.”

Cooley knows from experience how good teammates can forge close bonds. She met her husband while on a research vessel that traveled from Florida to the central North Atlantic to the northern coast of South America, and says working in close quarters with colleagues for months strips away all pretense. “If you can stand someone after seeing the worst of them and smelling their seawater-soaked shoes for 50 days, you’ve probably got a solid basis for relationship.”

6. SUPERCOMPUTERS HELP SCIENTISTS PUT ALL THE PIECES TOGETHER.

Climate modeling, a sub-specialty of climate science, may not come with the glory afforded, say, a researcher who evades poisonous snakes to retrieve tree ring specimens in the Amazon. But modelers’ work is essential. They employ mathematical equations based on laws of physics and chemistry, and feed enormous quantities of complex data into supercomputers to illuminate how the Earth’s systems interact to influence climate.

In the past half-century, climate models have become ever more complex. They can incorporate information about specific physical and chemical processes—how ice reflects sunlight, how quickly a cloud forms, how water passes through leaves—to simulate real-world effects. They can predict how a big external force, such as a volcanic eruption, impacts temperature, rainfall, and wind. Recently, models suggested that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may melt much faster than previously believed, potentially leading to catastrophic sea level rise by the end of this century.

But even the best models can’t capture everything. “No model is as complicated as the real world,” says Schmidt, a climate modeler himself. What’s important, he adds, is that models are skillful: They get us ever closer to what’s actually going on in the system.

7. SCIENTISTS HAVE SUSPECTED GREENHOUSE GASES FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY.

During the 19th century, the world was just becoming aware of past ice ages, and scientists were trying to understand what had caused these long periods of cooling and warming. Serious air pollution caused by the coal-fired Industrial Revolution was an increasing cause for concern, but we were only beginning to understand the impacts of fossil fuels on our atmosphere. In 1861, Irish physicist John Tyndall showed how water vapor and atmospheric gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide, trapped heat in Earth’s atmosphere. By the end of the century, other scientists, like Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, had started to recognize the burning of fossil fuels as a factor in this “greenhouse effect.”

But it was an amateur—a British steam engineer named Guy Stewart Callendar—who in the 1930s began systematically documenting rising global temperatures and connecting this to rising levels of greenhouse gases.

At first, Callendar’s findings were mostly disregarded. Then World War II and the Cold War prompted more government funding for atmospheric science and technology, and early computer models validated his conclusions. Starting in the late 1950s, official measurements taken in Antarctica and atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii began showing unequivocally that concentrations of C02, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, were rising.

8. PALEOCLIMATOLOGISTS CAN PEER INTO THE PAST.

Hannes Grobe/AWI via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Scientists need to understand climate patterns over thousands and millions of years. Data from modern technology like satellites and high-tech instruments only go back a few decades; weather records from ships can fill in some of the blanks going back another hundred years or so, and other historic records can peer a little deeper into the past. But for the long-term view, you need paleoclimatology. This branch of climate science uses clues from the natural environment—things like coral, tree rings, ice cores, and fossils—to reconstruct how Earth’s climate has changed over eons.

One important tool for paleoclimatologists is a sediment core, extracted from the ocean floor or lake beds. These sediment samples contain layer upon layer of dust, pollen, minerals, shells, and other particles. They hold information about air and water temperature, ocean currents, winds, and the chemical composition of sea water at different points in geologic time.

An incredible amount of data is also trapped in ice, including air bubbles, dust, volcanic ash, and soot from forest fires. From ice cores extracted in polar regions, scientists can actually get year-by-year snapshots of atmospheric gases, air and water temperature, and past episodes of massive ice sheet melt. Patterns in such data—higher sea levels or global temperatures during periods when the Earth's atmosphere contained high carbon dioxide concentrations similar to today, for example—may be useful in understanding what we face in a rapidly warming world.

9. SCIENCE AT THE ENDS OF THE EARTH IS NO WALK IN THE PARK, BUT IT HAS SOME PERKS.

Jim White, who directs the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, has made many trips to Greenland in his career as a paleoclimatologist. He says that back in the 1950s and ’60s (before his time as a researcher), scientific expeditions were brought to Greenland by ship: “They’d get dropped off and told, ‘We’ll see you in two months.’”

As transportation options like airplanes and helicopters became more widely used, travel and communication got easier. But scientific teams are still at the mercy of the weather. Even in summertime, supply flights can be delayed for days or weeks because of extreme weather conditions.

“We have to have a lot of Plan Bs,” White says. “The summer I was getting married, I told my wife-to-be that I may get stuck up there. She thought I was kidding. Later she realized it really could have happened.”

But there’s an upside to spending weeks camping in frigid weather while extracting ice cores from a mile and a half deep in a glacier: “It’s almost impossible to gain weight,” White says. “You’re breathing negative 30-degree air, your body is fighting to stay warm, and so you burn calories and you can eat like a horse.”

10. THEY THINK ABOUT TIME DIFFERENTLY.

Teaching university students about climate, White says he’s reminded on a daily basis of the fact that he thinks about time differently than most. “When I talk with my students about timeframes of interest, theirs may be Thursday night. But I have multiple ones because of what I do. I’m trained to think in tens of thousands of years. And I think quite a bit about the next 50, 100, 200 years.”

White says he and his international colleagues spend time on research expeditions talking about their children and grandchildren, pondering how the world can get beyond short-term thinking in order to be better prepared for the enormous global changes that will affect future generations.

“Human beings are capable of altering the planet long before we’re capable of understanding the ramifications of that," he says. "We say we love our kids, but do we show it? We will never deal with climate change until we learn to value our children and grandchildren at the 50-year timescale.”

All photos via iStock except where noted.

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Arctic Temperatures are Rising So Fast, They're Confusing the Hell Out of Computers
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This past year was a brutal one for northern Alaska, which saw temperatures that soared above what was normal month after month. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the numbers from the weather station at Utqiaġvik, Alaska. That's because the recent heat was so unusual for the area that computers marked the data as incorrect and failed to report it for the entirety of 2017, leaving a hole in the records of the Climate Monitoring group at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), according to the Huffington Post.

The weather station in the northernmost tip of Alaska has been measuring temperatures for nearly a century. A computer system there is programed to recognize if the data has been influenced by artificial forces: Perhaps one of the instruments isn't working correctly, or something is making the immediate area unnaturally hot or cold. In these cases, the computer edits out the anomalies so they don't affect the rest of the data.

But climate change has complicated this failsafe. Temperatures have been so abnormally high that the Utqiaġvik station erroneously removed all its data for 2017 and part of 2016. A look at the region's weather history explains why the computers might have sensed a mistake: The average yearly temperature for the era between 2000 and 2017 has gone up by 1.9°F from that of the era between 1979 and 1999. Break it down by month and the numbers are even more alarming: The average temperature increase is 7.8°F for October, 6.9°F for November, and 4.7°F for December.

"In the context of a changing climate, the Arctic is changing more rapidly than the rest of the planet," Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA's Climate Monitoring Branch, wrote for climate.gov. The higher temperatures rise, the faster Arctic sea ice melts. Arctic sea ice acts as a mirror that reflects the Sun's rays back into space, and without that barrier, the sea absorbs more heat from the Sun and speeds up the warming process. “Utqiaġvik, as one of a precious few fairly long-term observing sites in the American Arctic, is often referenced as an embodiment of rapid Arctic change,” Arndt wrote.

As temperatures continue to grow faster than computers are used to, scientists will have to adjust their algorithms in response. The team at NCEI plans to have the Utqiaġvik station ready to record our changing climate once again within the next few months.

[h/t Huffington Post]

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9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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