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Future is in our hands, says UM Nobel Laureate Running

Dr. Steve Running listens to a question following his talk on global climate change in Hamilton last week. Dr. Running received a Ph.D. (1979) in Forest Ecology from Colorado State University. He has been with the University of Montana, Missoula since 1979, where he is a University Regents Professor of Ecology. His primary research interest is the development of global and regional ecosystem biogeochemical models integrating remote sensing with bioclimatology and terrestrial ecology. He is a Team Member for the NASA Earth Observing System, Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, and he is responsible for the EOS global terrestrial net primary production and evapotranspiration datasets. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a chapter Lead Author for the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Among his many awards is the Burk/Brandborg Award in 2006, a local award for conservation achievements. Michael Howell photo.

By Michael Howell

Dr. Steve Running, University Regents Professor of Global Ecology at the University of Montana, spoke in Hamilton last week at the invitation of Bitterrooters for Planning. He is an expert in global ecosystem monitoring and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a chapter Lead Author for the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He started out by emphasizing a couple of basic principles. Number one, the difference between weather and climate. Weather is what you experience at a certain time, it is windy, hot, dry, etc. But studying climate is studying trends over time and whether its hot or cold today doesn’t tell us anything about climate trends. And when you are talking about global climate, then you are talking on a global scale, looking at trends over multiple decades.
The second basic thing to understand is the fundamental components of the global climate system which are atmosphere, ocean, land and ice. Dr. Running said that it was hard for some people to imagine that the sky could be filling up with anything. It seems so big. But if you look at some of the latest photos of the earth from space you can see how thin the atmosphere really is. It is only about ten miles thick.
“The atmosphere is only one tiny part of the global climate system,” said Dr. Running. And that tiny part is filling up with carbon dioxide.
Running said that most people probably don’t realize that the “Father of Climate Science”, Charles David Keeling, was a Bitterrooter. His grandfather homesteaded on land at the top of Dutch Hill Road around the turn of the century and his family farmed here for decades. Although he worked for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, he would spend most summers and falls here in the Bitterroot.
But it was at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii that Keeling first started taking the frequent and regular measurements of carbon dioxide in the air in 1958. Within ten years his measurements yielded a graph, now called the Keeling Curve, showing a dramatically rising curve in the amount of carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere.
Dr. Running said that these measurements are now being taken all over the world and all confirm the same trend. He called it “an inescapable fact. It’s not an alternative fact, it’s a fact fact.” He said this matters because carbon dioxide is a “greenhouse gas molecule,” meaning that it traps solar heat like a greenhouse window, or like a car sitting in the sun.
“I’ve heard climate deniers claim it is a mysterious new theory,” said Dr. Running. “It was Svante Arrhenius, a Nobel Prize winner, who in 1896 figured this out.”  He was the first to use basic principles of physical chemistry to calculate estimates of the extent to which increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide increase Earth’s surface temperature through the greenhouse effect, leading him to conclude that human-caused carbon dioxide emissions are large enough to cause global warming.
According to Dr. Running, the math has been done and when you add and subtract the variables it turns out we are gaining about 2.3 watts per square meter in additional energy that is being trapped. The other thing worth noting is that this heat is not being trapped in all the components of the system equally. 95% is being trapped in the oceans. The other components – the atmosphere, the land mass, and the ice – are only holding about 5% of that extra heat. Warming water temperature can kill certain biota and is blamed for the bleaching of coral reefs around the world, but the growing acidification of the water by dissolved carbon dioxide also has catastrophic repercussions for shellfish by preventing shell development.
Perhaps the most serious effect of the warming will be rising sea levels, according to Dr. Running. He said sea levels have been predicted to rise from two to three feet by the end of the century. He said the arctic ice cap shrank 40% this year and the first cruise ship went over the top, cutting the distance from Tokyo to Amsterdam by 1,000 miles compared to the Panama Canal.
“I guess if you are a shipping company there is some good news in all this,” he said jokingly.
But it is the melting of ice on land that is going to raise the sea levels. The loss of the glaciers and ice on Greenland and Antarctica. He said no matter where he goes in the world, when people find out he is from Montana they all mention Glacier National Park “where the glaciers are melting.”
“I don’t think we understand how iconic that is,” he said. He said the global temperature has hit all-time world records three years in a row now, in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He said if you look at the data that’s been collected it is clear that rapid global warning began in a major way dramatically around 1980.
One very interesting way to look at trends is to look at trends in the extremes in what you are monitoring. For instance, in Missoula, look at the trend in the number of extreme cold days such as the ones below zero. Or look at the trend in the number of extremely hot days each year, say over 100 degrees. In the decade of the 1950s, it only went over 100 degrees twice in the whole decade. It hit one hundred degrees 11 times in one month in 2007. According to Dr. Running, there are over 10 times as many days over 95 degrees than there used to be. In the 1950s, temperatures of minus 30 degrees and minus 35 degrees were common. Now every once in a while it gets to minus 10.
Dr. Running said that as things warm up we will be experiencing hotter and drier summers in Montana, but we may actually receive increased precipitation. But the problem will not be the hot temperatures in summer so much as drought because even though there may be a little more precipitation it will be in the form of rain and we will lose the storage capacity of our snow pack earlier and earlier.
“Imagine Missoula slipping down to the area around Salt Lake City,” said Dr. Running. “That’s the move I think is on in terms of climate.”
Dr. Running sees the current times as the Anthropocene Era, an era in which the works of mankind are beginning to have global repercussions. He, like Arrhenius, attributes most of the global warning we are experiencing today to measured amounts of carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.
But what’s driving all the energy production is the energy use and that is driven by the ever-increasing human population on the earth.
“In my lifetime,” said Dr. Running, “the global population has tripled.” He said the demand for food is increasing faster than the supply.
Dr. Running said that he did have credentials supporting his scientific remarks that evening, but he also wanted to make a few remarks about the future for which he has no credentials, that is, where the future is headed. He said he had some faith that many of the coming problems like world famine can be tackled. There are ways to change food consumption and production to adapt to the growing needs.
He said the idea of making ethanol from corn was a disaster. He said it made more sense to convert biomass directly to electricity which can drive an engine without the waste involved in combustion engines.
We also have to radically reduce the inevitable impact of the climate changes already under way, he said. To stay the course on our fossil fuel consumption would raise the earth’s temperature by 8 degrees. This is without doubt unsurvivable. To keep it down to two degrees, which we might still be able to adapt to, would require leaving 50% of our oil reserves and 80% of our coal reserves in the ground.
“The answers are there but we just lack the political will to do it,” said Dr. Running. But he is still hopeful. He believes that electric power production from wind and solar is about to “turn the corner.” He said the coal industry in Montana was only 5% of the solar and wind energy being developed along with a de-centralized grid. He said we may not believe it here in rural Montana, but in the urban areas now 77% of 22- to 24-year-olds don’t even bother to get a driver’s license. He said we are making electric cars and electric bicycles and making huge headway in energy efficient building and design.
“We already have most of the technology we need,” he said. “We don’t have to invent some dramatic new thing. We already have many dimensions of energy use if we are only willing to go to some extra effort to start some new deployment.”
If we do nothing, according to Running, projections show Montana getting 12 to 14 degrees warmer by the end of the century. If we could stabilize things and only see a 2 to 3 degree rise, the impacts could be dealt with.
“The difference is all going to depend on what humans decide to do,” said Dr. Running. “This is not a scientific question at all. This is now a social science question as to what humanity decides to do.”

4 Responses to Future is in our hands, says UM Nobel Laureate Running
  1. brian Lemon
    May 5, 2017 | 2:25 pm

    “Dr. Steve Running, University Regents Professor of Global Ecology at the University of Montana, spoke in Hamilton last week at the invitation of Bitterrooters for Planning. He is an expert in global ecosystem monitoring and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a chapter Lead Author for the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

    He may well be an expert but he DID NOT share the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, and he MAY NOT be referred to as a “Nobel Laureate”.

    He has been previously informed so is now lying knowingly:

  2. Doug Nation
    May 2, 2017 | 10:08 pm

    Great article, Mr. Howell. You should reprint it once a month until we start to take Dr. Running’s message seriously and begin to change our approach to energy generation and consumption.

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