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Climate Change From Poland To The Poles
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Climate Change From Poland To The Poles

Science

IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, Physics 101 for President-elect Obama. But first, gray murky flood water sacked Venice earlier this week. The water rose higher than they have in nearly a generation. The city floods several times a year when tides and southern winds pushed lagoon waters into the sinking city. But experts say Venice could be the first to go if and when a hotter planet brings rising sea levels. And that's not the worst of the climate forecast this week, now comes news that climate change to be much worse than the latest IPCC estimates.

So, what are we going to do about it? Thousands of delegates from all over the world are now gathered in Poland for the U.N. climate talks to figure that out. At this meeting, they need to lay the ground work for the real haggling which is going to happen in Copenhagen next year. It's inconvenient timing for the U.S. with President Bush packing boxes and President-elect Obama furiously assembling his White House staff and Congress is in recess.

So what if anything might we expect from the talks? Did U.S. sign any agreement following its failure to do so in Kyoto? And will these decisions be bold enough to halt scenarios of distant climate catastrophes like rising seas? My next guest is here to talk about some of those questions. Elliot Diringer is the vice president for international studies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington Virginia. Welcome back to Science Friday.

Mr. ELLIOT DIRINGER (Vice President for International Strategies, Pew Center for Global Climate Change): Thanks Ira. Good to be with you.

FLATOW: Give us a little road map here of how this Poland Summit fits in with Kyoto, and Copenhagen and all the others

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, the Poland meeting really is the midpoint in a two year process. Last year in Bali, governments adopted the Bali action plan which kicked off a new round of negotiations to try to come up with another agreement beyond Kyoto. And they set themselves a deadline of next year in Copenhagen, December 2009 in Copenhagen to wrap up that agreement. So, this post then is a chance really for the governments to take a look back and assess how far they've gotten this year and fine tune their work program for the next year. There are not really any major substantive decisions on the agenda. And I think really it's more a final round of positioning by governments before they head into what everyone's hoping will be a very intense period of negotiation. Up 'till know, it's really been enough more of a pre-negotiation mode.

FLATOW: Is everyone still looking toward the United States to play a leadership role here?

Mr. DIRINGER: Absolutely, number one. I think this whole process has pretty much been in a holding pattern waiting for the United States. And there are very high expectations that with President-elect Obama taking office, that the U.S. is back at the table and ready to deal. And I think that's true but I am hoping that the expectations can be tempered somewhat because I think it will take a little while for the U.S. to be able to actually cut that deal.

FLATOW: But won't the counter arguments still be the same - being that even if the U.S. comes on board this time, we're still thinking that the greatest threats to pollution or green house gases come from China and India?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I don't think that you would see the U.S. enter into a new climate agreement unless it included some kind of reasonable commitments by countries like China and India. And that's been really the political reality in this country for some time, which is why Kyoto was never sent up to the Senate for ratification. So, I mean I think we're at a stage with the United States is prepared to move forward domestically with mandatory limits on emissions here at home. I think we've seen that consensus emerge and that's a top priority for President-elect Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress, getting that cap-and-trade bill enacted. But whether the U.S. would then go the next step and take on a binding international commitment - that will depend on what other countries are prepared to do it as well.

FLATOW: Isn't the U.S. in a position of almost catch-up now? Where the other countries are going to move a step forward, we haven't gotten to where they've been yet?

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, unfortunately not too many countries have really taken vigorous steps forward. The European Union has shown some real strong political leadership putting in place the kinds of regulations and mechanisms you need to start reducing emissions and has had some success at that so far, and really they've stood out as the leaders internationally on the issue. But by in large, most of the other developed counties have not really begun to put in place any significant measures.

FLATOW: What kinds of levels would we all be aiming out there? We meaning the county's present at the Copenhagen meeting.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, I mean just to give you a sense of how the numbers appear to be lining up at the moment, the EU having adopted that leadership role, they've said already that they are prepared to reduced their emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels in the year 2020, and that's something they'll do with or without an agreement and they're prepared to go even deeper with an agreement. And they think that all developed countries should agree to reduce 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels, really significant cuts. But if you look at the debate here in Washington, the kinds of numbers that have been in bills brought before Congress, the number that President Obama articulated just a couple of weeks ago, President-elect Obama, excuse me. Those numbers are all lining up at about 1990 levels in 2020, so a pretty significant gap between where the EU would like us to be and what appears to be politically plausible here in the U.S.

FLATOW: The IPCC estimates relied on older data and we keep hearing new estimates coming out from scientists who were saying that the climate change is happening a lot faster than we even predicted back then.

Mr. DIRINGER: I hear the same reports and I think the bottom line message here is the absolute urgency with getting on with the job, doing as much as we possibly can as quickly as we possibly can.

FLATOW: Do you any idea who might be heading a team that would go to Copenhagen for the U.S.?

Mr. DIRINGER: You know, I have actually not heard any speculation and rephrase that, I won't bother sharing what little I've had heard. That's not clear at this point. I mean typically the head of delegation from the U.S. is the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. And I have not heard names in that regard.

FLATOW: But whoever is chosen might signal the kind of seriousness.

Mr. DIRINGER: Oh, I expect that this administration will definitely express some seriousness, and they already have. I mean, the President-elect issued an statement on climate changes a couple of weeks ago, where he indicated they're probably wouldn't be anybody from the incoming administration going to Poland then but he said that cap-and-trade is the priority for this administration and included in that number 1990 by 2020, which I think was a very important signal.

FLATOW: So if we don't see anything dramatic coming out of Poland, that as you say, this is just an exploratory meeting or a get to know you for Copenhagen.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, no. They know each other pretty well at this point. But it's to be, countries are laying down their position and sizing up the positions of others. They're setting their expectations for an agreement in Copenhagen, what they want to see in it. I mean, I think at this stage those expectations are rather widely divergent and to actually get to an agreement is going to be a real challenge. And we wouldn't actually expect to see a full and final agreement in Copenhagen. There isn't the time and to some degree this process is going to hinge on how quickly legislation can move here in our Congress. And it may move. We hopefully will see the legislations start moving. But I don't think it's likely that we'll see cap-and-trade legislation enacted by the time of Copenhagen, which will make it very difficult for the administration to be agreeing to a specific target level. And if the U.S. isn't ready, other countries won't be ready either.

FLATOW: But you think the U.S. will move independently on things like cap-and-trade, no matter what comes out of Copenhagen?

Mr. DIRINGER: I think we're at that stage. I think that the movement will happen even before Copenhagen. It may not be finalized before Copenhagen, but everything is lining up in that direction. I think in the longer term, our ability to sustain an ambitious program will depend, in part, on what we see in other countries. And that's why an international agreement is so important. Once the U.S. is committed to action, it needs to leverage that action into action by others.

FLATOW: So, we're going - as you say, we're going to see some sort of intermediary agreement probably.

Mr. DIRINGER: Well, that would be - that would be our assessment of a realistic outcome or the best plausible outcome in Copenhagen. You could hopefully get agreement on the basic architecture of this new international framework, but probably not on the specific commitment levels that different countries would be taking. And just an agreement on architecture, we think, would be a huge step forward and would make Copenhagen a success, but it would still fall short of what many hope to see, which is a full final agreement that can be signed by countries and taken home and ratified.

FLATOW: No one will really think that the Kyoto agreements were very terribly successful, I mean, as you say, many of the EU countries couldn't live up to, even though they wanted to, couldn't live up - live up to the terms of those themselves.

Mr. DIRINGER: So, I mean, Kyoto's had a positive effect. I mean, we would not have in place in Europe right now, the kind of regulatory system they've established, the emissions trading scheme were it not for the drive of Kyoto. And Kyoto symbolically, I think has had an important effect even here in the United States. You know, if you're a multinational business operating around the world, you're beginning to feel the effects of Kyoto, and you understand that there's an inevitability for carbon restrictions here in the United States as well. So, I mean, in terms of actual impact on global emissions, very, very limited.

FLATOW: You write it yourself in your own column online, the world can ill afford a replay of Kyoto with Europe demanding more than can be delivered, and the U.S. ultimately walking away. We need realism, not brinksmanship.

Mr. DIRINGER: Yeah. Well, we've head down - headed down that road once before, and we are at the stage where we need an agreement among countries so we can get moving with what really is going to be very challenging transformation. And it's important that we narrow the gap first between developed countries, the Europe and the United States on our level of efforts, so that we can then show that to developing countries and get them to come to the table with significant level of effort as well.

FLATOW: Do you think that the fact that there is a change in the administration is going to make the - may loosen the gears a bit on the other countries?

Mr. DIRINGER: Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, the biggest thing that's been that's been holding up process is demonstration of real action by the world's largest historic emitter. You know, China has recently surpassed the U.S. as the largest annual emitter of greenhouse gases, but you know, really what matters to the atmosphere and what matters to the rest of the world is how much countries have emitted over time. Those gases stay up there a long time. And the warming we feel today is the result of a century of more emissions. And the U.S. is responsible for the lion's share of those emissions.

FLATOW: And so we might not say - China might not say we're to jump in and be the world leader, but they might want to see first what the U.S. does.

Mr. DIRINGER: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time to talk with us. And I'm sure you'll be following it and maybe we'll get back to you for a summary for us.

Mr. DIRINGER: OK. Always a pleasure.

FLATOW: Have a good holiday.

Mr. DIRINGER: Thank you. You too.

FLATOW: Elliot Diringer is the vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia. We're going to take a short break. Change gears so we're going to come back and talk about Antarctica and the Arctic - the Arctic regions both spanning the globe in search of moving glaciers. Nice fact, so stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We've been talking this hour about climate change, and now, we're going to shift gears a bit and talk about some basic research that may give climatologists better tools to predict the effects of global warming. My next guest has traveled to opposite poles over the earth to do their research. One journeyed to a strip of land wedged between the Greenland ice sheet and flows of heavy packed ice from the Arctic Ocean, and he may have solved the mystery of some poorly understood greenhouse gas emissions up there in the tundra. He's going to tell us more about that.

My other guest is down in the Antarctica where she is doing some slew thing with ice penetrating radars to map mountains and lakes hidden under the ice. Remember, Antarctica is covered with ice sheets up to two miles deep. So, there's a lot of stuff under there, and the measurements may give us more clues as to how these giant ice sheets glide over the continent. Let me introduce my guests, Torben Christensen is a professor at the GeoBiosphere Science Centre at Lund University in Sweden. He joins us on the phone from Sweden about the Science Friday.

Professor TORBEN CHRISTENSEN (GeoBiosphere Science Center, Lund University, Sweden): Hi there.

FLATOW: Thanks for staying up late with us this evening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. CHRISTENSEN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Robin Bell is a senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, that's of Columbia University here in Palisades, New York. And she's on the phone from Antarctica's McMurdo Station. Welcome to the show, Dr. Bell.

Dr. ROBIN BELL (Senior Scientist, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory): Oh, thank you very much for having me.

FLATOW: Oh, thank you for staying up late or the next day with us for being there.

Dr. BELL: That's morning here.

FLATOW: Yeah. Are you heading out to - from the base station, where are you going? What are you working on?

Dr. BELL: We're part of an international (unintelligible) project involving six nations, who are heading to the middle of the East Antarctica ice sheet, just the biggest ice sheet on our planet, trying to understand simply how big it is, explore the hidden mountain range underneath it.

FLATOW: When I was there at McMurdo 30 years ago, we went out and visited scientists on the western, the smaller ice sheet, because that seemed to be the one that was most endanger of collapsing first if there was a global warming. Why - now you're trying to learn as much as you can about the Eastern sheet?

Dr. BELL: The Eastern ice sheet is seems compared to the U.S., if we drop it on top of the U.S. would cover the entire 48 - lower 48, and be nothing but a couple of peaks, maybe Mt. Rainer sticking out, little else. It's the birth place of all the ice sheets on the earth and we even, at this point, don't know how much ice is there. And what we're trying to understand is again births of mountains, which is sort of the birth place of the ice sheet. We can't make good ice sheet models because we don't how much ice is there and what's at the bottom. It's kind of like we don't know what's greasing the bottom of the ice sheets until we can know what's underneath them.

FLATOW: Now we've heard - that's interesting that you put it that way, because we've heard research recently from Greenland, which is in the North - the North Pole area. Their ice sheets are being greased by huge flows of water that seep out from underneath the ice sheets. Do you know if that is happening in the Antarctica also?

Dr. BELL: Well, there are two different ways you can get water to the bottom of ice sheets. One is melt the top and then kind of crack it and deliver the water into the water in to the - water to the bottom that way. The other way is if you have a bottom of an ice sheet, you actually - it's thick enough that you melt the bottom, and East Antarctica is thick enough that there's melting over much of the bottom of it, and you make big lakes, lakes the size of New Jersey or Lake Ontario. And it looks like these lakes can make the ice sheet flow faster. That's one of the questions we're looking at is how water in this lake can make the ice sheet flow faster.

FLATOW: Do we know what effects that global warming maybe having on that flow?

Dr. BELL: Global warming probably is playing a big part of the changes we're seeing in Greenland, that process where you melt the top of the ice sheet and deliver that solarly-warmed water down to the bottom. In the Antarctica, the ice is so thick. It doesn't even know that the last Ice Age ended, so global warming isn't changing these processes much.

FLATOW: Dr. Christensen, let's talk about the wetlands in the tundra that you're studying. How did the wetlands like the tundra contribute to grown - greenhouse gas emissions compare to man-made emissions? We hear a lot about man-made emissions, but not about the tundra.

Prof. CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think the - that they have. They are contributing in the sense that in the margin of the Arctic, there are thermafrost areas that are melting as a consequence of climate change. And in these areas, we have quite solid documentation now for that the emissions of green house gases, like me saying, are increasing both in salt lakes in Siberia and in areas where the thermafrost is disappearing and leaving behind very wet conditions that are leading to more methane formation in the ground as the accumulated organic material is being decomposed without any oxygen present. So, we are getting more methane coming out of the Arctic in the margins of the Arctic. That's not what, I guess, the story that we have now from the high Arctic really is about. It's more about the redistribution of the emissions from the summer to a very unexpected part of the year.

FLATOW: Yeah. Are you saying that you're finding emissions happening in the autumn and in the winter time, where you did - do you would think that the cold would not allowed for those emission?

Mr. CHRISTENSE: Yeah. That's what the real big surprises for us in our ground-based observations that we reported in nature just yesterday. That's the emissions that happen right as the whole system is freezing in and we are believing or we have been believing before that this is when the system goes asleep and it stops, so to say, being active in terms of exchanges of greenhouse gases with the atmosphere. As it turns out as it goes into this, so to say, seemingly sleepy mode, that's where a lot of things happens, and you get this massive emission of a very powerful greenhouse gas. And this is an observation that to us from the ground-based measurements point of view where extremely surprising.

FLATOW: Why would we have an increase in the cold time? I know we could understand maybe in our minds the spring, but why in the cold weather?

Prof. CHRISTENSEN: Well, in the cold we think that what's happening is that the wind you have in a permafrost environment, you have a kind of very solid bottom on the soil and the processes that are happening in the soil. And as the soil starts freezing from top, you get a pressure that builds up towards this frozen bottom, which is not really to be moved anywhere. And as you, sort of say, push this top freezing layer down towards the frozen bottom, you get - you simply pressurize the area in between and that's where you have a lot of gases as bubbles. And these are then kind of like pushed out or squeezed out through whatever cracks and whatever (unintelligible) that may still be there in the system that can act as conduits, and can act as kind of chimneys for the squeezing out of the gas.

That's what we believe just now, but we're not sure of the mechanism, and this is where, you know, we hope that a lot, you know, new studies and many other people will start looking into this question because it is a basic research finding that, I think, has huge implications for how we understand the natural impact on the climate and the atmospheric dynamics.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Torben Christensen and Robin Bell. Torben, when you say this has a great impact, are you saying that we need to put this into our equation and to the balance of the carbon balance that has been missing before, that there might be more release of these greenhouse gases than we thought?

Prof. CHRISTENSEN: No. I mean, the, so to say, the extra emissions that we have measured during this freezing period is well within the uncertainty of the global the estimates for emission from this region, if you like, also that the certain pole north as a whole. So, it's not like we're adding a major new source, but what we're doing is that we are redistributing it through the year, and as it turns out it does actually help some of the understanding of how the atmospheric dynamics are in terms of how atmospheric methane at high northern latitudes are varying over the year.

FLATOW: Let me go - let me get back to Robin Bell in McMurdo station in the Antarctica. This week, the European Space Agency, Dr. Bell, reported new rips in the Wilkins Ice Shelf. Please describe where that is and what that means.

Dr. BELL: Well, the Wilkins Ice Shelf is one of the large ice shelves around the edge of Antarctica. And what that means is that more of these big pieces of floating ice that rim the continent are beginning to fracture. And the importance of this isn't that there's more ice going in the ocean because this ice is already in the ocean. It's floating. But - and so what it probably reflects is warmer temperatures in the ocean kind of like if you had some ice cubes in your cup and there's warm water in the bottom, they'd start to melt and maybe crack. What the importance is that we start to lose more and more of these large ice shelves that we made eventually see acceleration of the flow of the inland ice into the global oceans. And that's what will cause global sea level to rise at a faster rate.

FLATOW: And how fast is the melting occurring in the Western ice sheets compared to the Eastern, or don't you know yet and that's what you're trying to find out?

Dr. BELL: Let's see. The ice sheets that we know are changing quickly are Greenland and West Antarctica. East Antarctica is still - it's so difficult to study and so remote that we actually don't know what it signal is. It looks like it might be imbalanced. There still tremendous disagreement. So...

FLATOW: And it's so huge. I mean you said you could drop it on the top of the whole U.S. and cover the whole continental U.S. It's like saying where would you start in the United States to look?

Dr. BELL: Right, and that's why it's such a challenge to study it, and why it's taking six nations really just to be able to try and characterize the simple size and the nature of the topography. It's kind of like we're trying to figure out what the Rocky Mountains are and how the ice started to grow on the Rocky Mountains.

FLATOW: Mmhmm.

Dr. BELL: But - so we just at this point don't know how East Antarctica is changing and what the mechanisms are to have changed in the past.

FLATOW: What kind of effort? What's the size of the team like that's studying this?

Dr. BELL: So, it's six nations. There'll be 30 scientists on the ground operating three science aircraft covering the size about the area twice the California. These mountain ranges are - that were - or after are bigger than the Alps or about the same size of the Alps. But the logistics to get into this place are tremendous, it's two tractors traversed trains, one from the Chinese and one from the U.S., with the Australians building a camp and the British providing planes. So it's a real international pull your effort that wouldn't be possible without the cooperation of all these nations.

FLATOW: So are you - do you have one central base or you've scattered about the ice sheet there?

Dr. BELL: We have two bases. We have one that - it looks like just the weather has broken on the Australian side of the continent and they're about to get it in. The U.S. has been delivering fuel for us to work with. And then so another about 400 miles away to the south is the base we'll work out of, sort of run the other side of the peak of the ice sheet, and we have two big bases to work from.

FLATOW: Talking about the research in the Arctic's, Antarctica and Arctic regions this hour, Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News. Question for you, Torben from a viewer in Second Life Cannes Luming(ph) says is there evidence of past plant life at the bottom of the sheet?

Prof. CHRISTENSEN: Wow, that's a question that may really be more put towards the hour of the guest speaker here. But I do know that there are in areas of northern Greenland, where there's been advances of glaciers, that there are really very important tools for understanding how the freezing conditions were from actually fossil plants that has been so to say covered by the expanding ice sheets. And from looking at how they grew just before the ice sheet came in and sort to say lay down on top of them that you can actually see how the climate conditions were just before the advance of the ice sheet. But this is kind of beyond what the study areas that I guess representing here is. So maybe we should put the question down to the Antarctic.

FLATOW: Well Dr. Bell, how old is that ice at the bottom of the ice sheet?

Dr. BELL: Well the ice sheet itself started 35 million years ago. But one of the other things we're after us to see if we can find the oldest ice on the planet. Something that's older than a million years so we can get a climate record that goes past the 800,000 record that we have. Some place we can really get the atmospheric gasses.

FLATOW: How deeply you have to drill for that?

Dr. BELL: Close to four kilometers.

FLATOW: That'll get you that - back about a million years?

Dr. BELL: Yeah that will get it - and what you have to is a find a place where the conditions are just right to preserve that ice.

FLATOW: And where would that be?

Dr. BELL: Well it would be on the flanks of the Gambertus(ph) Mountains is where we're looking. The Chinese hoped to drill right on top of Belmay which is the absolute highest point in the East Antarctic ice sheet but we're going to be looking to see whether or not that's the best place and whether or not their other sites would all by surround.

FLATOW: How is deep is the deepest ice there?

Dr. BELL: It's a little more than two miles depending on what unit you'd like. And that's where you start to see the large lakes before ice gets very thick.

FLATOW: Is one of the problems with drilling that deep that the ice is moving, to stop the drill through?

Dr. BELL: No, the ice in East Antarctica's mostly fairly stagnant. It's you know - it's frozen to the bed. It's - and moving relatively slowly until you get to these big rivers of ice where it moves. It goes from moving one to two meters a year to moving a hundreds of meters a year, half to a kilometer a year.

FLATOW: So what is it...

Dr. BELL: Not the...

FLATOW: I'm sorry. I was just trying to figure out what the limitation of how deep you can drill is?

Dr. BELL: Oh, you can get to the bottom of the ice sheet it just - if you're trying to preserve the core so you can make geochemical measurements on it, it takes a long time to drill, pull off all of those pieces of ice and drill again. It's just a very slow process. And in these places where it's so cold, your window of opportunity at work it's really narrow. You can get into these places when the temperatures get above minus 50 and leaves you sort of at most a couple of months a year to work in.

FLATOW: Well we wish you and Dr. Christensen a very good luck. Thank you for taking time to be with us up early and then good luck on your research. Robin Bell, senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia. And Torben Christensen is a professor at GeoBiosphere Science Centre at Lund University in Sweden. We're going to take a short break and change gears, and we're going to come back and talk about - what would - what does President-elect Obama need to know about science and physics. What does the president need to know? See what you guess on what he needs to know. So stay with us, we'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

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