The Morning Report
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Friday, April 29, 2005 | Chris Charles’ cramped third-story office overlooks a dizzying expanse of blue Pacific Ocean. As a researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the past 13 years, however, Charles has spent more time exploring its deep-held secrets than admiring its tranquil surface. Accompanied by a huge stack of papers and leftovers from lunch, Charles spends his afternoons compiling evidence of climate change from a thousand years before the arrival of the SUV. He pauses for a half-hour to translate the jargon of science into a humbling prophecy about heat that is still to come.
What must one do in life to get such a spectacular view?
Well, I started at the bottom of the faculty ranks. I came here more or less directly after graduate school and never left the ivory tower of academia. As jobs go, I couldn’t have been much luckier.
The title of your recent publication reads “Tropical cooling and the isotopic composition of precipitation in general circulation model simulations of the ice age climate.” Can you translate that into terms that make sense to an art student?
My research is aimed at knowing how the surface of the earth has evolved to how it is now and how we can use the record of the past to understand where we might be headed.
There are a variety of tools that we use to make reconstructions. One of my main analytical tools involves the stable isotopes of oxygen that most physical processes on earth separate in some way that can tell us about the earth’s characteristics in the past. A simple example is that a coral will incorporate more oxygen-18 into its skeleton when water is colder – so we have a thermometer that is frozen into coral skeletons that date back hundreds, maybe thousands of years.
What do the isotopes have to say about climate change?
For one thing, they can help establish a precedent for a global warming phenomenon. The record in the last thousand years suggests that temperatures in the tropical pacific never approached the average temperatures that are observed today.
The near consensus, except for a few extremists and crackpots that tend to always dominate the headlines or bylines in the press, is that no other explanation aside from rising greenhouse gases in the twentieth century can account for the rising temperatures of the ocean.
Have we made any real accomplishments in warding off climate change?
I hate to be a complete pessimist, but if you look at the balance between the rate of carbon dioxide emission and the rate by which it’s being taken up by the ocean, currently we are putting 7 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere every year and the ocean only takes up about 2 gigatons of carbon per year. Right now the imbalance is so large that it is hard to imagine seeing anything but an acceleration of the current trend.
Is this situation spiraling out of our control or is there still room for remedy?
From any perspective you might want to take – the point of view of climate change, national security, preserving resources – ways to moderate fossil fuel burning have to be found. It is abundantly clear that we can’t stall around any longer. Forward thinking, as opposed to reactionary policy, is desperately needed. It’s somewhat ironic that I’m saying that, because my strategy in science is to look backward.
Why hasn’t the outcry over global warming been louder?
The global warming issue is really an intractable one for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s hard for most people to imagine making an investment to address a problem that is seemingly far off and perhaps abstract. Secondly, everything that we know tells us that the effects are going to be very heterogeneously distributed around the world – so not every region will experience the same costs.
Do scientists and government communicate effectively on these issues?
There has been a lot of effort to make those connections, but it often seems that the disconnects prevail.
Is there an explanation for why San Diego was more like Seattle this past winter?
It was certainly one of the rainiest winters on records, which go back about 120 years. This past year there was a slight warming of the central Pacific which looked like the start of an El Niño warming event. A full-fledged El Niño never really developed. Even in a globally warmer earth we can expect to experience occasional years like this.
Do you ever feel like Jack Hall in “The Day After Tomorrow”?
I saw that movie on an airplane and very nearly fell asleep when the plot drifted away from science … It’s funny, though, because his job is almost exactly analogous to what I do, so I can imagine feeling his sense of responsibility. I think one of the main keys is how to break through and communicate a legitimate and honest sense of what it is we know about the science to people who are in a position to make decisions.
– JESSICA L. HORTON, Voice Contributing Writer