06 AugRaphael Sbarge Audioblog: Jess Adkins Q&A Part 1

Raphael Sbarge, actor and founder of Green Wish, chats with CalTech climatologist Jess Adkins. In part 1, they discuss the politics of climate change.

Raphael Sbarge: Hey, this is Raphael Sbarge, and today I’m having the wonderful opportunity to talk to Jess Adkins from CalTech. … And Jess, are you on the line?

Jess: I am; I’m right here, Raphael.

Raphael: Hey, Jess. Thank you for doing this; thank you for jumping in. I’m excited to get a chance to talk to you about this.

Jess: No problem; I’m excited, too.

Raphael: Great. You know, just so I can, essentially–if you don’t mind, I mean, I know it’s odd to sort of introduce one’s self, but I know you to be a scientist at CalTech. I know that you work particularly in the area of climatology, and I wonder if you might, for someone–because I can’t speak in a fully informed way, as to what you’re doing, I guess, from a non-scientist point of view: Could you just sort of explain to me, kind of, the work you’re doing.

Jess: Sure, no problem. I am an oceanographer, and a chemist by training. That can mean a variety of different things, but my research really focuses on the history of the earth’s climate. We will kind of measure anything, or run any sort of model that we can that helps us understand how is it that the ocean, atmosphere, ice, systems interact with each other to form a climate at equilibrium, or as they might change very quickly—which is why it has particular relevance, I think, to our possible futures.

Raphael: That’s great—and you currently work at CalTech, and you’re doing research and teaching at the same time?

Jess: That’s right; I’m a professor here at CalTech, so all of those standard things that professors do, right? We teach classes, we raise money, we do research, grow ear hair … like, all that stuff, I suppose—wear jackets with patches, that kind of thing. CalTech is a particularly funny version of this, in that we’re very research-focused, and so we have a somewhat small undergraduate and graduate program, and we have a relatively large research emphasis. And so most of what I do every day is about trying to figure out how the Earth works, or, specifically, how the climate works.

And I do that in conjunction with students—that’s a great part of it. But, basically, [I’m] a university professor at kind of a funny university that’s more like science camp than anything else.

Raphael: That’s exciting.

Jess: Yeah, it’s a great job.

Raphael: Wonderful. Well, let me go right to the heart of the matter … From your point of view as a scientist, is global warming a political issue?

Jess: There are certainly parts of it that are a political issue, there’s no doubt. There are also large chunks of it that are just scientific fact. And that makes it simultaneously really fun and really frustrating to be in this field. I mean, everybody wants to get out of bed in the morning working on something that matters; I think that’s pretty clear if we’re working on climate change that that’s true. It matters.

It’s also quite frustrating because of the politicized aspect. That who delivers the facts can matter as much as what facts are delivered. As a scientist, that’s incredibly frustrating. What do I mean by that? I mean that if you heard the same piece of information about some new satellite measurement on the ice distribution around Antarctica from Fox News, vs. hearing it from The New York Times, you’re inherently biased to think one way or the other, almost just from who’s delivering you that piece of information.

Raphael: It’s crazy-making, right? I mean, almost to the point that they’re … to the reference point, right?

Jess: Yeah, exactly. That part is very frustrating, but at the same time, I think that there are things about global warming that we just know, and it would be easy to agree upon.

Raphael: What are the facts, then, as a scientist? Taking it, being as you’re not promoting one side or the other, but you’re really in the trenches, in the research, dealing with the facts day to day—what does the data indicate?

Jess: Yeah, so, it’s quite obvious that we are changing the composition of the atmosphere—we being humans. Very specifically, we’re increasing the CO2 concentration, we’re increasing the methane concentration in the atmosphere. And it is beyond a shadow of a doubt that that is from human activities, that those two are going up.

It also is just very basic physics that if you add more CO2 to the atmosphere, that will increase this thing we call the greenhouse effect, which is sometimes described as a blanket. That’s not such a bad description—which is that we will trap more of the heat that the earth releases itself, which, in turn, it came from the sun in the first place, in the atmosphere as the CO2 concentration goes up. There’s no getting around that.

Raphael: This is something that you can literally create—re-create in a lab, I guess.

Jess: Yeah, you can re-create this in a lab. Arrhenius knew this in the late 1800s; this is a noncontroversial statement, believe it or not, in the scientific world.

What happens to a climate system, that you increase its greenhouse effect? Now, that, is a very interesting question, and of course one that matters a lot. And there can be a lot of disagreement about that. That is one of the reasons that I get out of bed in the morning, and where you can quickly see things politicized.

I think one thing that is important in a discussion about climate change and about politics, or politicized fields, is that if someone says that we should be trying to understand how much of the current warming that we see—sorry, that’s another just total observable; the earth has gotten hotter over the last 100 years …

Raphael: I keep hearing reports, like “the hottest spring ever,” but “good for business, sales are up!”

Jess: Well, it is interesting—there might be climate winners and losers, I guess. I think Time magazine had a whole issue about that a couple of years ago. But, yeah, it’s just incontrovertible that the planet is getting warmer. There were some interesting disagreements about institute data vs. satellite data, order, 10, 15 years ago; those are basically solved. The planet is getting warmer—it’s getting warmer in an interesting way. I think this question of whether that’s related to the human-induced CO2 rise or not—if people are saying that’s the important question, they’re actually making a political statement right there, because there is so much CO2 in the atmosphere right now that in 50 years, we’ll be warmer because it’s there.

Raphael: If we stopped today, driving any car doing anything, we would be warming just from what we’ve already done.

Jess: Yes.

Raphael: From a point of view of just scientists in a room, talking about global warming, what do they say to each other?

Jess: Yeah, well, so, we just take it as fact that the planet is getting warmer, that that’s observed and that there’s more coming. And we take it as fact that a big part of that is because we’ve changed the CO2–which is to say, when scientists say it, we say we’ve changed the radiation budget (that’s just so that no one understands what we’re talking about). And then we ask the question: Why? Sorry, not why. We ask the question: What next?

So, what’s going to happen to the system? And that really begins to push our understanding of the basic physics and chemistry and biology of the system. There are a number of different directions we can go at this point, but one is that we tend to, the field right now is very much headed towards warming being much less important as an overall metric of the health of the planet, right, or the effects of global warming as some other things that might matter much more to humans.

Those are sea level change and changes in where and how much it rains. Some parts of those are quite certain—for instance, we know how much sea level will go up just because it gets warmer (that’s just because if you heat a fluid, it expands, and so that’s what’s happening to the ocean. That’s an observable—that’s sort of incontrovertible.

And then things that are much harder to understand, like will ice sheets that are currently on land suddenly put water into the ocean, and how much and what does suddenly mean? Those are really exciting, and hotly debated topics.

Raphael: Why would that be debated? What’s the debate on that? Isn’t that again, just sort of, essentially, physics? Isn’t that, y’know, water melts, and it creates more … ice, water, it becomes more water, right?

Jess: Yeah, absolutely. … If you knew how much ice was going to melt, then you could easily know how much the sea level was going up. But we don’t know how much ice is going to melt. And that seems kind of funny, right, because the sun just shines on the ice sheet, and so it gets warmer, and we must know about that, right, because it happens to the ice water that sits on your table every day.

Raphael: Right.

Jess: Except the ice water isn’t a glacier. And that turns out to be really important. So, a glacier is a big, solid mass of ice, but it is flowing under its own weight. And some glaciers stick to the ground that they are on, and some flow very quickly over the ground that they are on, and some flip back and forth between that. It’s become a really interesting question in glacial physics and in climate physics: What are the rules for how glaciers stick to the bottom?

Raphael: Is that because of how big they are? Is it relative to their mass?

Jess: So it matters how much you have piled up on top of you. But what really matters is what temperature it is right there–are you at the melting point? And that’s at high pressure, right, so are you at the high-pressure melting point. If you have a couple kilometers of ice on top of you, it’s very different than just having it right out on your table. And what other materials are there? Are you just on granite, or are you on loose sediment? We don’t understand the way that glaciers stick and unstick at these high pressures, and in these heterogeneous environments–heterogeneous meaning it’s a mixture of water and rock–well enough to understand what the flow law is going to be.

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