Hot (a science blog)

It’s a hot, smoggy day in London and I’m sitting on an overcrowded

train. It’s too hot for this many people to be in one space. In fact,

it’s too hot for this many people to be in one place: London. The city

feels unnecessarily full. And all these people so abstracted from what I would

call the real world.

Our culture consumes us. All that energy that goes into simply existing,- what

to wear (will I get sweat patches, would make-up run), how to get about, packed

diaries of events planned weeks in advance still being juggled on the day, mobile

phones ringing and bleeping, news to digest, scheduled exercise.. and that’s

not to mention buying food, washing, sleeping, eating and having fun. The world

I care so much about feels very far away despite being right under my feet.

It would be difficult to convince anyone right now to not travel in an air-conditioned

car for 45 minutes instead of this 2 hour commute although it probably matters

even more on a day like today. Really truly, will that one journey make any

difference? Really truly, in the grand scheme of things? No. Will any of it

make a difference? I don’t know. Is it too late? Maybe. These aren’t

the answers you want to hear from a committed environmentalist and they aren’t

the answers I want to give. In many ways, the whole field of climate research

is incredibly dissatisfying: the more we convince ourselves that climate change

is real, the more we are doomed. I do believe it, most definitely, and not only

because I want to and that the science I have studied is convincing. The thing

that has probably persuaded me most is meeting well respected, senior, eminent

scientists who have been convinced by the data. Unlike me, these people didn’t

enter the field as idealists and environmentalists hoping to find a solution

to the world’s problems. These men (mainly) were pure scientists, kineticists,

physicists, chemists, biologists and mathematicians whose expertise was called

upon about 30 years ago to try and figure out if the climate was changing and,

if so, how. They had no vested interest in the result: moral, political or economic.

The application of pure and applied sciences to climate research first grew

within the individual disciplines. Then, more recently, a whole new interdisciplinary

field grew, commonly known as Earth System Science. Applied science has always

existed but the focus shifted from trying to understand the intricacies of a

particular field, now, to trying to predict what may happen in the future.

I am an atmospheric chemist: we look at chemical processes happening in the

air. Because it’s only possible to know so much, we generally represent

the air as a box with arrows in and arrows out and the stuff we are really interested

in happening in the middle. Often chemicals leave our theoretical box and are

deposited to leaves (hand over to biologists), water (oceanographers), the ground

(earth scientists) and the ice (glaciologists). To figure out how the chemicals

are entering our box, we need to know about wind (meteorologists), radiation

(physicists) and emissions from the cryosphere, biosphere and oceans.

Every other discipline does the same but only in the last few years have we

reached the stage where we can stack these boxes, in all dimensions necessary

to overlaps sides with everyone, and see what happens when you try and simulate

the whole world. We have also only recently had the computer power required

to run simulations of this world into the future and back to the past. Inevitably,

the models often go wrong at the interfaces of the boxes since these areas have

had less attention in the past: we know less about what happens here.

This is where interface studies come in, like the one that sent me to Halley.

We were studying the interface between the snow and air (cryosphere and atmosphere).

Understanding these processes should help the big picture in lots of ways, from

interpretation of ice cores (a common record for past climates) to better guesses

at processes occurring in high clouds that are made of ice particles. Similarly,

there are people studying the interface between the air and oceans, forests,

cities, deserts and rock. All of this information is incorporated into models

that simulate the world, try to reproduce the past and present and predict the

future. And the more data comes in from a wide range of areas, the more certain

we become that our climate is rapidly changing and is doing so due to man-made

influences. But sitting on this overcrowded train on the hottest day of the

year, I don’t feel the relevance of any of this to me.. or of me on it.

I don’t care. There are more important things to worry about, like what

I’m going to have for dinner tonight or when I can see my friends.

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3 Responses to Hot (a science blog)

  1. simon says:

    Interesting stuff Rhian. With so much at stake and world leaders putting their own spin on things it’s really hard for the general public to know what to believe. I think part of the problem is that there isn’t really a clear picture in the average person’s mind on what it all means. The best explanation I’ve seen was from a couple of graphs I saw on a poster at BAS while I was there:

    The first one shows how closely linked carbon dioxide levels are to temperature, the second how humans have affected the carbon dioxide levels over the last couple of centuries.

    I hadn’t seen that information before then and I still remember how amazed I was that I’d somehow missed what should really be common knowledge. I reckon if everyone in the world was sat down and had those graphs explained to them people might start taking it all a bit more seriously!

  2. Rhian says:

    You’re absolutely right, Simon, those are always the first things I refer to when folk ask ‘so, is the climate really warming or is it just natural variation?’. I mean, we’re talking recent warming on a scale that hasn’t happened ‘naturally’ for 400 thousand years.

    In scientific circles, those two graphs are often on the ‘I know you all know this but this is where we’re starting from..’ intro slide but really, if you appreciate them, you appreciate why so many scientists aare truly concerned, and convinced, about the reality of climate change.

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