News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in The Weekly Packet, August 28, 2014
‘A sad story but important to know’
Mayewski explains extreme weather, climate change

Climatologist, explorer and glaciologist Paul Mayewski

Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine at Orono, and a Brooklin resident, outlined the rapidly changing face of global climate change at George Stevens Academy on August 12.

Penobscot Bay Press file photo

by Anne Berleant

Paul Mayewski, explorer, glaciologist, climate scientist and director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine at Orono, believes “we have entered the age of climate decision.”

With the “onset of the most dramatic [climate] consequences” occurring since the Industrial Revolution, climate change “is a sad story but important to know.”

Mayewski, a Brooklin resident, spoke to a rapt audience at George Stevens Academy on August 12. He presented his talk, “Journey Into Climate - Adventure, The Golden Age of Climate Research and the Unmasking of Human Innocence,” in the GSA Summer Speaker Series.

“I understand you all understand the issues at hand,” Mayewski began.

The issues are extreme weather, global warming, melting ice caps and their effect on human and other life.

Despite a rough past winter in the northeast United States, the rest of the hemisphere was warm, Mayewski said. “In the Arctic, it was unseasonably warm and…remarkably warm in Antarctica.”

Mayewski is a speaker who interlaces statistics and charts with stories of being trapped by 100 mile winds in a tent for 17 days, discovering a 5,000-year-old seal skull with fur on the side frozen to the ground, and walking “further and further into the interior” of Antarctica to drill for ice cores that measure climate changes over thousands of years.

“It’s not an accident that civilization evolved in the last 10,000 years, because the climate has become milder,” he said.

But now, it is the effect of humans on CO2 and methane gas levels that are behind climate changes that no longer occur slowly over hundreds and thousands of years.

Beginning his scientific research and exploration in the 1960s, Mayewski said “we were all taught the climate was cooling. That was what the data presented.” He and fellow climate scientists went “into the field expecting to fit [their] findings to the data.”

In 1968, he and a team explored the 40-foot ice shelf of Mount Erebus in the Antarctica, where temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius in winter.

“We had a bias that this environment was timeless,” he said, that “nothing ever changes in a place that’s really cold.”

But the shrinking of “little glaciers were telling us something.”

After decades of research into the Arctic, Antarctica, Greenland and the Himalayas, removing ice cores and collecting climate data, Mayewski and fellow international scientists predict CO2 levels will increase dramatically by the year 2100.

“We’re clearly finding ways to demonstrate that what’s happening today is truly unique,” Mayewski said. “The most important part of the story is the [projected] rise levels are 100 times faster than anything we’ve been able to measure.”

Higher CO2 levels result in warmer temperatures that melt glaciers, which changes the flow and moisture of air masses and raises sea levels. Mayewski noted that 20 major cities worldwide are at sea level.

Rather than dwell only on the negative implications of a warming climate, such as drought, global security issues caused by water shortages, “climate refugees,” the movement of disease into new regions, such as Lyme disease into Maine, and extreme weather catastrophes such as floods, storms and droughts, Mayewski put forth some positives.

First, is that reversing the change is possible. The Federal Clean Air Act, adopted in 1970, works, he said. Spikes in sulfur in the air, which rose “higher and higher” in the 1970s, flattened by the 1980s. In the days following September 11, 2001 when air travel was suspended, CO2 levels dropped dramatically. And, he predicted that when health costs rise from climate change effects, “our air will get cleaner.”

Maine, with winds capable of producing the energy of “30 to 40 nuclear power plants,” could move from “importing energy to exporting energy.” As shipping lanes open in the Arctic, Maine, as the “most northern part of the United States,” could act as a seaport. “If we don’t take the seaport, someone else will.”

And because of its geographical position, Maine “will still be a much better part to live than many other parts of the country.”