Lawmakers Warned of Brain Drain in Climate Science

The satellite image, captured by Sentinel-2A on July 9, 2018, shows a huge iceberg perilously close to the village of Innaarsuit on the west coast of Greenland. If the berg breaks apart, waves resulting from the falling ice could wash away parts of the village. (Image via European Space Agency)

WASHINGTON (CN) – An iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from the continent of Antarctica in June. Greenland, around the same time, experienced the country’s largest ice melt event on record with temperatures 40 degrees above normal. And, in the past 40 years, the Himalayan glaciers have lost 25% of their ice – the equivalent to 8 billion tons of water each year.

According to a 2014 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body for assessing climate change science, global ice melting caused by greenhouse gas emissions is a big contributor to such phenomena. Without significant emission reductions, mountain glaciers could continue losing ice, and 35% to 85% of ice in mountain glaciers could vanish by the end of the century.

Ice melting plays a large role in rising sea levels. Of the 8 inches of sea-level rise the Earth has seen in the past 200 years, two-thirds of the water comes directly from glacial and ice-sheet melt. The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet, thought by researchers to be the most susceptible to climate change, could add another 11 feet to the current sea level.

A panel of five climate researchers talked about the implications of these events, the effect of pollutants and their research barriers, on Thursday morning at a hearing of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Twila Moon, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, told lawmakers that it is reasonable to expect 2 1/2 feet of sea-level rise in the next 80 years if carbon dioxide emissions continue at today’s rates.

“The cause of ice loss is clear,” Moon said. “Greenland and glaciers around the world are melting and more rapidly spilling their ice into the sea as a direct result of warming air and warming ocean water, due to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.”

In some ways, global glacier melt benefits environments and communities: they help regulate water temperatures and provide water for drinking, irrigation and energy. During times of drought, less geopolitically stable regions including Pakistan, India and Afghanistan depend on glaciers and the glacial melt to sustain their water supply. In Glacier National Park, glacier melt maintains cooler water for native fish species and invertebrates. 

To monitor these changes, however, research facilities need adequate staffing. Robin Bell, a research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, noted that interest in climate research as a profession is waning.

There are just 1,492 members, Bell noted, at the American Geophysical Union’s Cryosphere section, which studies the earth’s solid water. For comparison, 140,000 people enrolled in law school in the country in 2010 alone. Bell said people could become more interested in climate science research if the politicization of the science ends.

“What can we do? I think it’s partially making it so everybody can talk about the science,” Bell said. “I think we’re driving some of the young talent from the field because it seems like it’s a hard place to be. … I think embracing science, so we have within our communities, science based, evidence based planning for the future, I think will attract more people because young people want to make a difference in the world.”

Richard Alley, an Evan Pugh University professor studying geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, said making the field more monetarily attractive to students could would help as well. The need for new added enrollment and interest was paramount to gaining data, and informing policy makers, he said.

 “If those students look at our world and see there isn’t funding, there isn’t a reliable idea that you can make a career … they all will go elsewhere,” Alley said. “It is people and we need a few of them to help students.”

W. Tad Pfeffer, a glaciologist and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Gabriel Wolkon, a research scientist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, also testified at Thursday’s hearing.

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