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Interviewee: Susan Solomon, NOAA
The Next Nuclear Waste
Writing in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” a group of scientists from all over the world found that the resulting climate change from carbon dioxide emissions will be essentially irreversible for a thousand years or more, even after emissions are halted.
“We have to think about it much more like nuclear waste than, like say, smog or acid rain,” explains one of the world’s top atmospheric scientists, Susan Solomon, Senior Scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Solomon is leading the research team. She adds, “What we’re doing with carbon dioxide is forever.”
Key to their findings is the already-known role oceans play both for cooling the atmosphere and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Their research shows that the two processes work against each other so that the warming lasts, even after emissions stop. Says Solomon, “It’s the cancellation between those two terms that keeps the temperature constant for a thousand years in our calculations.”
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“It evokes, I think, clearly what really is at stake here,” says Solomon, “Which is the future of the planet in the long, long term. Changes that this generation could make, choose to make, or not to make, which will affect the world for a thousand years or more.”
Presently carbon dioxide is at 385 parts per million. The team looked at several peak concentrations above that level and used computer models to see what the consequences were. They found that several things would happen and that they would be essentially irreversible.
They found that the oceans themselves would expand and raise sea levels. While there’s been much debate over what melting ice might do to sea levels, Solomon’s team stuck to a basic premise of physics: that when heated, things generally expand. As she says, “When the ocean gets hot it expands, just like the water in your teakettle.” They found that the average rise would be a minimum of 1.3 to 3.2 feet by the year 3000.
While rising seas due to melting ice has been the subject of much discussion, Solomon’s team saw those impact as too uncertain to measure at this time. Instead, by concentrating upon physics and the phenomenon of expanding sea water, they could limit their discussion to processes that are well understood by scientists and subject to little debate. Says Solomon, “There’s no beating physics.”
They also saw that in and near the Earth’s tropics, many areas will become 10% to 20% drier. Says Solomon, “Twenty percent might not sound like a lot, but actually, the “Dust Bowl” that hit North America…was about a 10% reduction in rainfall that lasted about 10 years.” Here, she notes, the drop would be much greater and last for hundreds of years.
A New Way of Thinking
Solomon says the research shows that we can’t think of carbon dioxide emissions like other pollution problems. When considering something like smog, she notes, “It’s a problem where if you decide you’ve done too much you can make a change to your patterns of behavior and you can reverse it.” But for this she says, “This is more like a legacy for the future which simply is forever.”
Solomon is experienced in solving the mysteries of our atmosphere. In Antarctica, she confirmed the Earth’s Ozone hole was growing and that chlorofluorocarbons, commonly called CFC’s, were the cause. In 2007 NOAA listed her as one of their “Top Ten History Makers.” As a co-chair of one of the three working groups of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) she played a key role in the committee that shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice-President Al Gore.
This paper was published online the week of January 26, 2009 by the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” and was supported by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, ETH, Zurich, and IPSL, France.
Elsewhere on the Web:
World Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2005-2030