Five questions for James White

CU-Boulder prof: ‘When it comes to climate change, speed kills’
Five questions for James White

James White hiking in the Alps.

Humans and ecosystems can adapt to a slowly changing climate, but what happens when these changes happen abruptly? “When it comes to climate change, speed kills,” says James White, a Fellow and Director of INSTAAR (Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research) and a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.

White headed a panel of the National Research Council of the National Academies (NRC) that recently released a study warning of the impact of sudden variations in the climate, including rising sea levels, extinctions of land and sea animals, and the loss of valuable agricultural land.

“History is littered with examples of relatively sophisticated societies being caught short by sudden changes in precipitation or climate in other ways. Those civilizations had to move or they didn’t make it,” says White, who has spent the past 25 years at CU researching the effects of climate change. He has worked with scientists from around the globe, drilling ice core samples to find details of historic climate issues, and he also examines the Earth’s carbon cycle, determining what happens to the vast amounts of CO2 that get released into the atmosphere.

At INSTAAR, where he has been director for four years, scientists team to study environmental issues such as nitrogen cycling in the tropics, carbon uptake and release by oceans, and the impacts of estuaries and river ecosystems. White calls INSTAAR a “fun place,” where everyone “works across disciplinary lines easily” in a family-like atmosphere. The research institute, the university’s oldest, was founded in 1951, but its mission to communicate issues that affect the environment is never more urgent.

White wasn’t always interested in climate change; he originally wanted to be an oceanographer.

“I wanted to go to a college where I could study oceanography. That’s why I went to Florida State University. Turns out you couldn’t major in oceanography there. When I went to Columbia University, I was still interested and I could become an oceanographer. My adviser lined us all up in the hallway -- he had five students the year I came – alphabetically, I might point out. So White, the last one in line, got a project looking at stable isotopes and tree rings. The guy in front of me, Robbie Toggweiler, became a really excellent oceanographer, by the way.”

His thesis work centered on reconstructing past climates using the chemical composition of trees. From there, he decided to turn his focus to climate change.

“We knew climate change would be an important issue for the future, but at the time, nobody thought there would 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere in 2013,” he says. “Everybody thought we would do something about it before it became a real problem.”

1. The “abrupt change” study was a warning about possible surprise climate changes. Why was this study done now? 

The subject of abrupt climate change is relatively new. Some of the first papers on that subject only date back to the late 1980s. When I was a graduate student, the notion of climate change was one of gradually changing systems, responding to slowly changing things like changes in the Earth’s orbit. But we started to find in ocean sediment and ice core research that there have been some really huge changes happening in far less than a human lifetime, and even in less time than it takes to get through college. Imagine enrolling in a Montreal climate and by the time you graduate, it’s more like Miami. That’s the scale of change that has happened frequently in Earth history.

What it tells us is that many of the earth’s systems, including the climate system, are capable of crossing tipping points or thresholds, and then the system goes very rapidly to a new state. In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences commissioned the first report on the subject, and the organization thought it was time to take a look at the subject again. We expanded our concept in this report, understanding that even a slowly changing climate may push some part of our systems into abrupt change. For example, sea level has risen by about 1 foot in the New York area over the last 100 years. We’ve seen storms and surges, but in Superstorm Sandy, the surge was higher than the height of the entrance to the New York subway system. That has never happened, and that’s a tangible example of threshold. Once this threshold is reached, then billions of dollars are at risk.

What’s happening is that the climate is changing faster than the systems can be maintained. We are in the midst of one of the largest extinctions, primarily due to human competition with plants and animals around the planet, but it’s made even worse by changes in the climate.

What we looked at in our report is where the new sensitive points are. For instance, in some places, the base of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is thousands of feet below sea level. That’s an inherently unstable ice sheet, so when the warming ocean eats away at the ice sheet, sea level could rise much faster than today. Currently, we’re looking at 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Imagine if this was three times faster: 3 feet in 30 years. Then it would be a game-changer.

We’re also concerned about ground water. We know from a pair of gravity-measuring satellites that in many parts of the U.S. and around the globe, ground water is being depleted. Ground water is how farmers ride out droughts. Now we recognize this is a sensitive point.

We’ve called for an early warning system to catalog what is at risk because ignorance is never really bliss. And the cost of such a system is not high relative to what is at stake. We have security systems that watch banks. We’re willing to pay for the cost of the system because we know the value of what is in the bank is much higher in value than the security system. Arguably, the environment is the most precious thing we have: It provides us with food, clean water, minerals and energy – everything we need to have a modern society. Think about it: We don’t monitor well our most valuable asset, and to compound the problem, we are largely ignorant of what is at risk through climate change.

2. Would it be more prudent to invest in attempting to slow down climate change rather than adjust to possible rapid change?

The reality is that we are changing things on the planet at a very rapid pace. Combine that with the fact that the climate system is capable of rapid changes itself and what you get is a shortened time between when we recognize we have a problem and the time it takes to do something about it.

We haven’t responded to what we know is happening. The last time we had 400 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere was 3 million to 5 million years ago. It was a different planet then: Sea level was 20 meters higher and that means the state of Delaware doesn’t exist anymore. While there’s every reason to be smart about what we do to try to mitigate the problems and avoid them in the future, we also have to be smart about adapting and being resilient because that’s part of our future as well. What the report calls for is intelligent adaptation and intelligent resilience.

3. What are some of the things you’ve uncovered in your ice core and carbon cycle research?

Five questions for James White

White and some of his colleagues celebrate hitting bedrock while drilling the NEEM ice core.

My lab has been affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since I’ve been at CU (1989). Together, we have made some great scientific breakthroughs. One was recognizing and understanding that plants, even though we cut down forests with great gusto, still remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. When we burn 4 gallons of gas, 2 gallons’ worth of CO2 stays in the atmosphere and a gallon’s worth is taken each by the ocean and trees. That’s pretty remarkable and we continue to watch that. But we are nervous about these two removal mechanisms. Plants can’t continue this, particularly since we cut down forests. We’re also nervous about the ocean. At some point, these mechanisms will decline if not fail. That will mean greenhouse gases will rise even faster than they are today. And we’ve already talked about how there is not a whole lot of time between when you see a problem and the time you have to react. To further compound the problem, there are large supplies of carbon frozen in the Arctic that will be released as the planet warms. The carbon locked in permafrost equals more than what is found in all coal, oil and gas put together. It’s not likely to melt abruptly, but over time, a staggering amount of carbon dioxide will be released.

I’ve also been involved with a number of ice core studies in Greenland and Antarctica. One called the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling project, or NEEM, looks at the last interglacial period 130,000 years ago. It was as warm as it is today and is our most recent analog for where we are going in the future. We were surprised to find that there was quite a bit of ice in Greenland even though the sea level was considerably higher, by about 15 to 20 feet or so. That finding also focuses our attention on West Antarctica as a source of that sea level rise.

The ice sheets we study are 2 and 3 kilometers thick, and it typically takes us three summers to drill to the core. I measure the ratios of stable isotopes (oxygen, and hydrogen). Ice cores are an excellent way to gather information about the Earth’s history because ice traps air. It’s a great paleo-archive because there is information there that you can’t get from other places, say lake or ocean sediments, for instance.

The coolest thing about study at NEEM is that 14 countries are involved. At dinnertime, you sit down with your co-workers and there are 12 different nationalities there. We’re all trying to understand our collective future.

4. As a climate change scientist, do you ever feel frustrated by governments’ and others’ unwillingness to effect change? What can citizens do to help?

It’s no secret that climate scientists are frustrated because we know how out-of-whack the climate system is given everything we have at stake. It’s frustrating that we don’t have leaders who recognize the scale and scope of the problem and the need to take action long before the crisis hits. You can’t turn back the clock on sea level rise, for example. Once it gets going, it’s like a big freight train. You can’t put your foot on the brake and turn this lumbering thing around.

Scientists need to take the idea of interdisciplinarity very seriously, particularly in this area. We need folks who can study the physical workings of the environment and also communicate with social scientists who study how people respond to warnings. We need to put our whole weight and expertise behind this, which is something we didn’t know 25 years ago, or if we did know it, we didn’t do it very well. We have changed that. Our environment studies program is a model of interdisciplinary education. CU-Boulder is the top university in the world if you want to do environmental research.

As for citizens, I think it’s important to recognize that individual actions add up. It may seem that you aren’t doing enough by recycling, turning off the lights, buying LED lights, or upgrading to more fuel-efficient cars, but when you multiply that by hundreds of millions – if not billions – of people, then you know it makes a difference. The No. 1 thing to do is educate yourself so you know the problems and where the most effective solutions are. Then you employ those solutions whenever you can. It’s also very important to take that concern into the voting booth. If sustainability, climate change, and resilience to climate change is important to you, then find out how candidates feel on the subject and vote based on this. It’s important to have people ready to take action and who are willing to follow, but unless you have a leader who wants to lead, then there’s no one to follow. That’s the frustration we have today. There’s no one out there saying, “We need to deal with this and deal with it now. I’m willing to put my political career on the line.”

5. What are some activities you enjoy when you’re not studying the climate?

I love to garden; there’s something therapeutic about pulling weeds out of the ground. You can put little faces on them, and take out your aggressions in a positive way. I love being outdoors. I grew up in east Tennessee and spent lots of my youth hiking the Great Smokey Mountains. I’m a big fan of what nature is capable of and what it has accomplished. I’ve lived in New York City and in Paris and I’m very aware of what humans have accomplished, but I’m more impressed by what nature can do.

I love to hike, play golf (but not well) and I enjoy the opportunity to hang out with people. Over the last 10 years, I’ve been asked to speak in public about climate change and I’ll go wherever I’m asked. I love to travel. For years my wife was convinced that airplanes didn’t belong in the air, but now she flies, so we like to see the world and new and different things.

One of the great benefits of being a scientist, particularly in areas where research is international, is that some of my best friends are in Europe, New Zealand and Japan, and I can not only go to these wonderful places but also learn about new cultures while I hang out with friends.


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