Kolbert Talks Climate Change

Kolbert's lecture was based on her novel, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which was required reading for all first-year students. Photo by Brendan O'Hara.
Kolbert's lecture was based on her novel, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which was required reading for all first-year students. Photo by Brendan O'Hara.

On Wednesday, Oct. 21, reporter Elizabeth Kolbert lectured on the history and future of climate change as revealed by Arctic ice. The lecture was based on her book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, in which she chronicled the stories of scientists researching the arctic.

Kolbert began the lecture with a warning. “Although the story I have to tell is a little bit complicated, it’s a story that I guarantee will affect all of you in this audience tonight,” she said.

While the signs of climate change in most of the world are not obvious, dramatic changes in the Arctic are a bold signal of upcoming problems that cannot be ignored, Kolbert said. “If the message of the book had gotten out, we would have been acting in very different ways.”

When Field Notes was published, the Arctic was predicted to be ice free by 2080 if current trends continued. The Arctic is now predicted to be ice free by 2030 or earlier. “Most of that melt will occur in the next 10 years,” said Kolbert.

The ten hottest years on record were 2005, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2004, 2007, 2001, 1997, and 2008. The 15 hottest years have all occurred since 1990. While most of the world has shown few dramatic changes, the Arctic ice has begun to melt at a faster and faster rate.

The Greenland ice sheet is a localized example of what is happening across the Arctic. “The Greenland ice sheet is a relic of the last ice age…only perpetuated by its own size,” said Kolbert. The rate of melting will increase as the ice sheet loses more of its volume and raise the sea level across the planet.

Kolbert also discussed how the history of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be analyzed by studying the bubbles of trapped air in ice cores. She explained that carbon dioxide notonly acts as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere but is also absorbed by the ocean and changes the water’s pH, making it more difficult for marine life to survive.

“This is all kind of a downer,” Kolbert said, before explaining that, “Just so you don’t think I’ve spent all my time trying to depress people,” some solutions have been found. For example, Kolbert said, she once visited a Danish island that powers itself with wind and is completely carbon neutral.

The change to a sustainable society won’t be an easy one, Kolbert said. “I’m afraid that the simple answer is that there is no simple answer.”  The solution is to, “do everything.”

“There are no silver bullets,” she said. “There is only silver buckshot.”

Some attendees left the lecture early, but those who stayed the entire time said that they enjoyed Kolbert’s talk.

“It was interesting to hear her point of view [outside the book],” said sophomore Jessie Blair.

“She was passionate,” said Professor Kate Norlock. “Plus, in the book she never says, ‘I care, as a mother of children.’”

The message in Kolbert’s book and lecture got across to at least one student. As first-year Matthew McCullen said, “It’s too costly to not know what’s going on.”

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