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Climate Scientist Speaks in New Weissberg Auditorium

On the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 7, the Weissberg Auditorium inside of the newly opened Powerhouse (covered elsewhere in this issue of the Round Table) filled to the brim with Beloit College students, faculty and donors for its inaugural public speaker event. Dr. Maureen Raymo delivered the keynote address, titled “Climate, CO₂, and Sea Level: Past is Prologue,” for the Woodard Distinguished Lecture on Climate Change series. Dr. Raymo is the Bruce C. Heezen/Lamont Research Professor and the Director of the Lamont-Doherty Core Repository at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

Raymo met with Geology majors and visited classes throughout the day before delivering the keynote. She was introduced by Professor of Geology Sue Swanson, who pointed out that some of Raymo’s work built on theories proposed by geologist T. C. Chamberlin, who graduated from Beloit College in 1866.

Raymo explained that her work—and Friday’s lecture—attempted to answer the question, “What can the geologic record tell us about the stability of the polar ice sheets?” In other words, she uses data collected from ancient sources such as fossils and bubbles in ice sheets to determine patterns connected to periods of climate change throughout the Earth’s history.

She began by presenting evidence for the existence and severity of anthropogenic climate change, including the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in our planet’s atmosphere, the accelerating rate of sea-level rise, and steadily warming temperatures worldwide, particularly at the Earth’s poles. Much of her data extended into prehistory thanks to observations in the geologic record.

If carbon dioxide was visible, Raymo speculated, and it was possible to observe with the naked eye how quickly it was accumulating in the atmosphere, “we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Raymo’s own research seeks to answer four questions, which she called “our challenge:” How much will seas rise? How fast will they rise? How will the rise manifest regionally? And, how can communities best respond?

To approach those answers, Raymo works with a team of environmental scientists on the Pliocene Maximum Sea Level project, known as the PLIOMAX project. During the Pliocene Epoch for which the project was named, which ended about 3 million years ago, global temperatures were two to three degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels.

Our atmosphere has already reached Pliocene temperatures, Raymo explained, but our climate is very unlike the one that can be observed in the geologic record from that epoch. To illustrate the reason for that, she asked the audience to imagine a frozen lasagna thawing on a kitchen countertop: the dish would take time to reach the temperature of its surrounding environment.

However, at Pliocene temperatures, the environment will eventually develop characteristics like the ones in the record from that time period, including a much higher sea level. The projected four-meter sea level rise would be “an unfathomable disaster” for coastal communities, and therefore for the rest of the world, said Raymo. “Every coastline community in the world is going to experience unique challenges” no matter the pattern of glacial melt, she continued, adding those communities’ fates are inseparable from those of inland communities: “we’re all in it together.”

However, sea-level rise isn’t quite that simple, Raymo clarified. The land under the sea is always changing and deforming, and the surface of the water is never flat. Seawater clings to the glaciers that it surrounds, for example, meaning that which glaciers melt first will affect the rates at which different shorelines will experience sea-level rise.

Raymo told the audience that when delivering the same lecture, she used to end on a similarly bleak note, but that she had begun closing with a brief manual for “helping out.” She encouraged those in attendance to consume less, especially products from the cattle industry; to educate themselves using sources like NASA and the National Academy of Science, and then to use what they learned to educate others, and to effect change by voting.

Emphasizing the importance of education and communication, she mentioned an elderly man who had approached her after a similar lecture and told her that she had changed his mind after years of skepticism about the evidence for climate change. Raymo also said she was optimistic. “How great is it that I’m giving this talk in a reimagined coal power plant?” she asked.

The Woodard Distinguished Lecture on Climate Change is named for former Beloit College Geology and Environmental Science Professor Hank Woodard.

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