On Monday, November 25, Dr. Michael Wysession, a professor of geophysics and the executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington University in St. Louis, spoke in assembly about the science of climate change. Introduced by Maya Kaslow '20 (see end), Wysession appeared as part of the JBS STEM Speaker Series. Here is a summary of his remarks:
I will start by telling you a story about Earth’s past before I talk to you about the future.
What year did Missouri become a state? Yes, 1821! Does anyone know why? Suppose I told you it’s because of a geologic event that happened on the other side of the planet. I’ll come back to that. So, 1816 was known as a year without a summer. It’s so cold that it snows in New England, and not just in January but June, July and August. Crops fail, whole towns in New England pack up and leave the town. The town of Granby, Vermont says, ‘That’s it! We’ve had it.’ They disincorporated, and everyone packed up and left. The whole east coast of the United States was freezing and starving. That summer, Europe, there were much colder-than-usual temperatures, and much higher precipitation rates. Those cold rains actually created the first weather and meteorology departments in many countries in Europe. It was so miserable a certain young woman named Mary Shelley, who was vacationing in Switzerland, who was holed up with her friends in this freezing weather, stayed indoors all summer and wrote horror stories. And that’s when the book Frankenstein was written.
The reason was a volcano in Indonesia, Mount Tamoura, which was the largest volcanic eruption in the past 200 years. To give you a sense, the eruption of Mount St. Helens blew up about a cubic kilometer’s of ash and dust into the atmosphere. Mount Tamboura erupted about 100 cubic kilometers. The aerosols and the dust from that eruption blocked out the sun, and global temperatures dropped a couple of degrees. And all the climate patterns changed. You can now look back in things like ice cores to find out when volcanic eruptions happened in the past. These are hundreds of millions of metric tons of sulfur aerosols in the atmosphere. That brought what was usually warm weather in the eastern U.S. cold and snowy weather instead. And people moved west. As you know, 1803 was the Louisiana Purchase. But people weren’t all that excited to move, because there were plenty of people who didn’t want the eastern colonists to move out that way. And when the earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 happened, there were 5,000 people in St. Louis. It was a small fur-trading outpost. But following that year without a summer, people moved out in droves. Indiana became a state in 1816, Illinois in 1818, and of course Missouri in 1820.
So it was that collapse of agriculture from the volcano that moved people out. Interestingly, it was also the reason why the first large cemetery was built — Bellefontaine Cemetery in North St. Louis. You’ll notice that it’s several years later, in 1849. But another thing that came from that volcano was that it caused the first global outbreak of cholera. It turns out global pandemics are usually triggered by climate change events as well. Cholera is endemic to the Ganges Delta. It’s very flat. The enormous rains flooded this region. The mass flood of people carried cholera with them. And as they fled throughout Africa, Asia and Europe and eventually to the United States, it came with them. First to the port city of New Orleans, and then it came up the Mississippi River and reached St. Louis in 1849 and killed 5 percent of St. Louisans, including those who had moved here from the east coast when their agriculture collapsed due to the same volcano. This story is meant to give you a sense of how interconnected all of this is. And by the way, you can go through a history course and the rise and fall of civilizations, the mass migrations of people, they’re almost always triggered by climate change events. The start of the little ice age was in part triggered by a volcanic eruption in 1258, which was the biggest spike of the last thousand years.
The other thing that’s important to know is that you are the biggest part of geological change on this planet, by far. We are a supervolcano. Humans have now paved over so much of the earth the area of parking lots and roads in the U.S. is now larger than the state of Georgia. The total area of the towns and cities we live in is larger than the state of California. Now, humans use 40 percent of the total land area to feed ourselves with crops and grazing livestock. Fifty percent of the U.S., because we have very fertile lands. What’s the other sixty percent? Well, it’s Antarctica, the Sahara desert, places where it’s not so easy to grow crops. Pretty much everywhere you can grow food, we do. Every one of us needs 50,000 pounds — or 25 metric tons of stuff — mined out of the ground for cell phones, cars, roads and buildings and everything in our world. Human-caused erosion is now six times greater than all other causes of erosion combined. And, of course, there is our insatiable addiction to energy. At a rate of 20 terawatts, which is 20 millijoules per second. If every man, woman and child were required to generate their own energy, by pushing a weight up, we would need to be weightlifting 580 pounds, every second, 365 days a year. And in America, we use a lot more energy. We’d need to bench-press almost 2,000 pounds every second, 24 hours a day, to provide our energy.
There isn’t any human alive who can do this. We know the consequences. We know that rising global temperatures have happened over the last century, and are going up at a nearly unprecedented rate. We experience it here. In my lifetime – I was born in 1961 — the average St. Louis temperature has gone up four and a half degrees. It’s going up at the rate of seven and a half degrees Fahrenheit per century. It’s real stuff that affects everything we do, and, of course, it’s all that carbon dioxide from generating all of that energy. You probably know this. What you might not know is that this is happening at a nearly unprecedented rate in geologic history. We were gradually cooling until we kicked ourselves out of it. We’re like a supervolcano or a meteor impact. We are now melting ice at the rate of half a trillion tons per year from Greenland and Antarctica. And the sea level is going up. I just read an article yesterday that noted there are towns in Florida that have now been flooded for 82 consecutive days. There are no storms. It’s just sea levels rising. The gulf stream has been backed up, and their streets are flooded 24 hours a day.
The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, more than 400 parts per million, sea levels were about 100 feet higher. That’s where the earth system wants to go. Why isn’t New York flooded? It takes a lot of energy to melt ice. It takes a lot of energy to heat up water. We have some time before we get here. This is where we’ll go if we don’t do anything. But we have time. A big issue is that there are now over 7.5 billion people. When I was born there were 3 billion. It’s more than doubled in my lifetime. I’m old, but I’m not that old! Every day the world adds another 200,000 people. So we’re kind of moving in the wrong direction, to the point that 8 percent of every human being that has ever walked on the planet is alive today. It’s sort of staggering that our population has gone up that fast. And because most humans died as children, more than 20 percent of any human your size and larger that has ever existed on our planet is walking around today. We are in uncharted territory.
Now, there’s good news to go along with this. One thing I want to say about some of the information that’s out now — you may have heard, if we don’t do something in 12 years, we’re all doomed. This is an unfortunate and inaccurate message. Stuff is heading in a wrong direction, the sooner we do something, the better it will be, the later we do something the worse it will be. It’s a spectrum. We’re not going to suddenly drop off a cliff. That message is dangerous because I know that if I’m a mile away from a bus stop and a bus is coming in a minute and I’m running, I might as well stop running because I’m not going to catch that bus. But if I know that the bus comes every five minutes, then it’s worth me hustling over there. We have time to do stuff, and we’re doing a lot that’s in the right direction.
Engineering and technology are helping tremendously. Energy is a really fabulous area. If you look at the incredible, rapid rate of let’s say wind turbines, the cost per turbine has dropped the amount has gone up. And wind and solar are now cheaper than coal-powered, and even gas-powered electricity in some parts of the country. So that transition is going to happen, driven by the market. And the staggering thing to remember here is that we get so much sunlight on earth. Do you know how much one year’s worth of sunlight we need to supply all of that 20 terawatts of power? An hour. Sixty minutes. One hour’s worth of sunlight reaching Earth is the total amount of energy humans consume in an entire year. The sun provides 173,000 terawatts. Humans are 20 terawatts. We don’t need to have to have the most efficient turbines or solar panels. We’re already well on the way to doing that.
If you look at what government regulations have done, if you go from 1970 to 2013, we’ve driven more miles, we have more people, we’ve consumed more energy, we’ve emitted more carbon. But our air pollution has plummeted in the U.S. by more than two-thirds. There are many things we can do. NASA scientists predicted that the destruction of the ozone layer from chlorofluorocarbons from refrigerators was going to totally remove the ozone by 2060. Well, as a world, we took action. We stopped emitting chlorofluorocarbons. Unfortunately, these gasses have a resonance time in the atmosphere of about 80 or 100 years, so it won’t go away immediately but it reached its bottom in the 90s and then it started to come up, that hole is starting to heal. And perhaps most importantly, this curve is starting to taper off. Countries are paying attention. We’re changing our practices. We’re moving into renewable energy.
And I’ll just say one last thing that gives me tremendous hope. And that is that word is getting out. It was mentioned in the introduction that I was involved in writing a national set of environmental earth and space science standards. They have now been fully adopted by 20 states and D.C. Adapted by another 24 states, including ours, and when you add up the students who will now be learning these standards, which include a year’s worth of earth and space science with a strong emphasis on things like climate change and human impact, we have 37 percent of America’s students in the adopted states, 35 percent in the adapted states, and then in a couple of states like Pennsylvania that are in discussion, that’s in total about 80 percent of students. Traditionally, most students in high school got zero amount of education in things like environmental science, climate change and earth systems. Now, nearly all students will be getting this as part of their general education. And this gives me tremendous hope for the future. Again, we’re not going to fall off a cliff in 12 years. We have time. And we’re clever. We have figured out a lot of things. But we can’t ignore it, that’s neurosis. And countries can be neurotic. We don’t want to get obsessed and paralyzed about it. Countries can become depressed as well. That’s not very helpful. But we need to be realistic and put our efforts toward this and be clever...It’s solvable, and very do-able.
Maya Kaslow's introduction: Michael Wysession is a leader in the areas of seismology and geophysical education. He has authored or co-authored over 100 papers and reports in geophysics and science education, and over 30 textbooks ranging from grade school to graduate school. Dr. Wysession is a leader in re-thinking Earth and space science education. He was one of the lead architects of the Next Generation Science Standards, which have transformed science education in a majority of states. His awards include the Packard Foundation’s Science and Engineering Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellowship, the Innovation Award from the St. Louis Science Academy, the inaugural Ambassador Award from the American Geophysical Union, for which he is a Fellow, and the Frank Press Award from the Seismological Society of America. He is the author of four video lecture courses with the Teaching Company’s Great Courses series, watched by millions of people: including How the Earth Works, and The Science of Energy: Resources and Power Explained.