Posts Tagged ‘global climate change’

Back out on the ice cap

January 24, 2012

19 Jan 2012

Well fed and rested we were ready for another day on the ice. Because of all the uncertainty surrounding the ice conditions we are all trying to make the most of the opportunities we get. Today, in addition to collecting our normal samples, the Bronk team (Stephen and Rachel) are planning to stay a bit longer to collect ice cores and Niko is going to attempt to collect samples for his methane studies. It’s a lot to do and necessitated rather intricate planning, so that we always have enough snow machines, sleds, drivers, guides, and bear guards. Everything started smoothly. We all set out about 11:00 as the dawn twilight began (still no sun, but some light) and headed north. First, we headed north over the frozen tundra and then out onto the ocean. The ice at our new location was very jumbled and rough, which made for a bit of a bumpy snow machine ride. However, the rough ride was reassuring since it meant the ice was probably quite stable. The roughness in the ice and the formation of pressure ridges is largely due to wind moving the ice around and piling it into the shore.  Eventually, with enough pressure it becomes locked in and grounded to the bottom.

Once at the site we began to set-up the camp. Since it was a new camp we had to drill new ice holes and situate the tents over them. We also set-up propane heaters in each of the tents, and unloaded all our gear. It was a cold morning but absolutely spectacular to be out on the frozen Arctic Ocean.

Marc and Victoria geared-up

Drilling an ice hole

Ice camp

Tony Kaleak

Arctic icescape

Everything was going smoothly. First, Victoria and I deployed our Manta water quality instrument to measure the water column and then the Bronk group took over. Then disaster struck! While moving one of their very heavy sample boxes Debbie’s foot slipped into the ice hole and she fell. Her hand hit the propane heater;her down coat touched the hot chimney and melted. Feathers went everywhere. Debbie screamed. It was chaos, but no one panicked. Debbie was quickly pulled to her feet and, besides a nasty burn on her hand (and the destroyed coat), she was fine.

Dr. Debbie Bronk after the fall, it could have been much worse!

We turned the heater off and, when the feathers settled, we were able to continue. But, we thought it best to get Debbie back home so that someone could look at her burn. So while Debbie was escorted back, the rest of us finished-up sampling and then followed her in.

Once back we all got busy in the lab processing the precious water samples that we had collected.

Dr. Tish Yager in her filtering zone

We all realized how lucky we all were today and grateful to be back safely. I for one slept well.


Back to Alaska!

August 19, 2011

Hello from Barrow, Alaska! This is Victoria Baylor and Zac Tait, members of the Frischer lab at Skidaway Institute. We are here to collect our final summer season samples and perform some experiments. We arrived safely in Barrow on August 11th after spending most of the 10th traveling and spending a night in Anchorage. The trip is so long, that we had to spend the night in Anchorage AK. We stayed at our usual place, the Holiday Inn Express in Anchorage and enjoyed fine dining at Simon & Seaforts. We have to admit the food was exactly spectacular and with a good nights rest we were ready to head off to Barrow on the 11th.

We made it safely to Barrow and were met by Dylan and Glenn Roy, two of the UMIAQ  Logistics personnel, and Rachel Sipler from the Bronk lab at Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS.) The first thing we noticed as we walked off the plane in Barrow, Alaska was all of the snow and ice was gone. The ice was just beginning to melt on the roads at the end of the last trip in May but now the landscape was transformed into a gravelly, boggy mud-puddle. We left with Rachel, then checked into our hut and were surprised that our entire group plus Karl Newyear , Chief Scientist of UMIAQ, would be occupying the same space. That’s 8 people in one hut…..and only one bathroom.  It was our first group housing experience.

Victoria and the "welcome sign"

After getting settled in, we decided to set-up our labs. We pulled all of our supplies down from storage and distributed them to the Barrow Alaska Research Center (BARC ) lab and the Beach freezer cold room. After setting-up, with no more work to do, we did our grocery shopping and returned home to await the arrival of our other team members. That’s when we received the news that Barrow was out of fuel and we were being asked to reserve our fuel as best as possible. We also received the news that due to high winds we would possibly delay our first sampling trip which was scheduled for Thursday morning.  There were two barges on the way to deliver gas but it was uncertain when the gas would be available.  Not having gas was certainly going to put a damper on our sampling plans by boat so we began to think about other options.

Winds were blowing as high as 25-30kts. Winds like those made usually simple tasks like opening and shutting car doors quite the task. So in light of the weather, all we could do at that point was wait and hope for the best. Part of our summer sample collection involves going 30-40 miles from Barrow to collect water from tundral melt pools that haven’t been influenced by civilization. These melt pools contain organic carbon compounds which we hypothesize will stimulate bacterial activity when released into the coastal ocean.  We usually collect this water by travelling away from town by boat but because of the fuel and weather issues, that wasn’t possible.

On Friday & Saturday, we concentrated our efforts on setting up both our BARC lab for RNA extraction and gear cleaning and the Beach freezer cold room where we’d be filtering water for DNA & RNA collection and Zac’s tundra melt-water incubation studies.  As part of his thesis project, Zac is trying to find out if bacteria will be able to “eat” this material and if they do if it would increase their usage of nitrate. Because nitrate is what limits the productivity of the Arctic Ocean (i.e. how much of the green things at the base of the food web can grow) if bacteria start using more of it this could profoundly affect the food web in the Arctic. If the permafrost (frozen tundra) melts with a warming climate it could mean less fish, seals, bears, birds, and whales.

Things went pretty smoothly with setup. We washed all of our supplies and organized our work spaces.  Then, our group met to discuss sampling options in light of the rough weather. We worked closely to try to create some feasible scenarios that would allow for Zac & Rachel to collect tundra melt-water.  After a meeting with the logistics personnel, the option of using ATV’s to collect the tundra water was presented, but we had to wait to see how things would work out with the weather. So to lift our spirits the group went out to eat delicious Chinese food at Sam and Lee’s and caught a few minutes of the first football game of the season. This also happens to be the highest latitude football game played in the world.  The score at half time was Barrow 35 – Away team 0.

Zac caught chugging down his 3rd bowl of chicken egg drop soup.


The Barrow Whalers “Thunder on the Tundra”

By Sunday we got a break in the weather and we were given the green light to go ahead and use the ATV’s to gather tundra water. Rachel, Zac, Lynne, & Marta (Lynn and Marta are also from the Bronk lab at VIMS) all suited up and headed off with Brower to go find some tundra melt-pools.

Our guides for the trip

The  ATV trip was an incredibly a bumpy, yet fun ride. The guide’s idea of a ‘trail’ was simply a general direction across the tundra.   It was hard to compare the terrain on this trip to anything we have encountered. The closest comparison we could think of is: the tundra is like a very rough, frozen ocean, turned to mud. We then rode across this rough landscape at high speeds on ATVs; it was both scary and exhilarating. Needless to say, some ibuprofen and bed-rest were welcomed at the end of that trip. Fortunately, the trip was successful and we were able to get plenty of tundra water containing the high concentration of humic acids that we needed to get our experiments started.

The winds decreased further by Monday so it was decided that we could go on our first sampling trip on the ocean.  At 10 in the morning, we loaded our gear and everyone, with the exception of Victoria  and Marta, headed out. Within 2 hours, the group returned and unfortunately couldn’t go out due to the low tide.  A second attempt was made at 1pm and the boat was launched. While the group was out, the winds picked up again. The decision was made that is was too treacherous to return to the same boat ramp that we left from, so we had to continue around Point Barrow, directly into very high winds and seas to a more sheltered ramp. Several times the boat was airborne after being launched over a 5 or 6 foot swell. We did eventually make it back, but it was a punishing ride. We came back at around 5pm with water samples and told Victoria and Marta about a huge polar bear we’d seen just up on the way back from the boat ramp.

The sampling team (l-r) Rachel, Tara, Lynne, Karie, & Zac

While the group unloaded the boat, Marta and Victoria went to check get some pictures of the Polar Bear. We were later told that there was a serious storm and somehow the polar bear ended up stranded in the ocean and swimming 100nmi to shore. It was huge and completely out of energy after the long swim. We watched the bear, feeling at ease since a bear guide who was armed with a rifle was nearby.  Later, several people from our group witnessed the bear get shot by a local hunter. Rest in peace Polar Bear.

Polar Bear

Back in the Beach freezer cold room, we worked for several hours filtering our waters samples to collect DNA & RNA samples. Zac finally had both humic and seawater to set up his incubations. We worked pretty late but we were quite excited that we were finally able to get samples.

Tuesday was primarily a lab day and we extracted RNA and prepared for the Wednesday’s boat trip.  The other groups worked to process their water samples. We were able to get out again on Wednesday for sampling. So far weather predictions are in our favor and we look forward to having a couple of more sampling trips before the weeks end.

A Second Sampling Day – January 28, 2011

January 31, 2011

Today was our second scheduled sampling day.  We started off the day with the most amazing start of the twilight time ever.

Dawn! Around 10:30 am Barrow time.

I managed to take a picture but it doesn’t begin to do it justice.  The temperature has actually warmed up quite a bit, which means it can snow, and it did.

Snowy morning

But that didn’t stop from heading out to our ice camp and sampling.

This time I decided that I’d better drive my own snow machine.

Marc driving himself on the snowmachine this time

I tried to get Zac to take the sled musher position, but he declined. Actually, he was going to ride the sled (I think he was going to fake falling off to even the score), but he was drafted to drive Tish Yager (our lead PI on this project.) Does anyone else think this wasn’t the best idea? But Tish was smarter than I was and opted to ride on the back of the snow machine instead of the sled. Even so, having heard the story of the previous day’s adventures, she held on so tightly that if she fell so would Zac. They arrived at the camp intact.

Today, on their own initiative our fantastic support team had actually gone out to the camp early to set things up, so by the time we got there the propane heaters were running and the tents were already warmed. This really made our jobs a lot easier. The YSI instrument even seemed to behave itself today. I’m still not confident in our results, but at least they were in the right range today. The good news is that the salinity gradient we thought we observed and that worried us appears to have been an artifact of the misbehaving instrument.

We finished sample collection in record time, just under two hours and headed back.  Zac and I spent the rest of the day filtering water in the temperature controlled room.  Under normal conditions I would call this room a cold room since we have set the temperature to match the ocean temperature which is -1.8°C (~29°F), but compared to outside air temperatures it is a warm room.  Outside temperatures today were about -20°F and the wind made it feel like -40. Strange to go into a freezing room to warm up, but that is what we did today.

Everything went smoothly filtering water and we were done by dinner time. Having missed lunch again and spent the whole day at below freezing temperatures, dinner was again large and satisfying. Today at the cafeteria they had salmon.

Tomorrow will be another lab day. No weekends for us I’m afraid.



Notes from the Arctic – A day on the water August 25th, 2010

August 26, 2010

This is the second post by Skidaway Institute professor Marc Frischer, chronicling his research trip to Barrow,  Alaska,  for his study of the effect of a warming climate on the coastal ecology there.

Just completing day 3 of the expedition.  After staying-up half the night to get ready for an 8:00 am sampling trip, the weather delayed us.  We were fogged in.  But what can you do?  That is the nature of fieldwork.

After waiting around until nearly noon, the fog had finally dissipated sufficiently so that our native whaling captain, Captain Quinik (pronounced something like “Cone – Nick”), gave the long-awaited ok.

Captain Quinik

We followed captain Quinik and his first mate to the launch ramp located several miles east of the research station and launched on the Chukchi Sea side of Point Barrow. For about an hour we motored our way around Point Barrow, into the Beaufort Sea, and to our sampling station about 3 miles north of the station.  It was a choppy ride but the boat, a sturdy 27’ aluminum hulled boat with two brand new 175 four stroke Suzuki engines, handled it well.

The sampling team

Once on station we began our collections.  Since there are three teams of us collecting different types of water samples and data, we had to carefully choreograph our activities.  First on the agenda was to determine the basic characteristics of the water. Its depth, 12M (about 40 ft); its temperature, 6°C (around 43°F); its salinity, 31.4 o/o; and the oxygen content (fully saturated with the atmosphere).

We also measured light penetration which was the most important parameter for determining our sampling depth since we are conducting experimental incubation studies and need to match the light levels in the lab.

All this data told us that we had a very well mixed water column typical of the region for this time of year.  Just what we were hoping for!

After these measurements were completed, the Yager team ( for Patricia Yager, UGA) began collecting water for their studies to characterize the carbon chemistry of the water and the activity and abundance of the bacteria and phytoplankton.  After they were nearly finished, we deployed a special submersible pump to 4M, our optimal sampling depth, and the Bronk team (for Deborah Bronk, Virginia Institute for Marine Science) began collecting water and filling up what seems like hundreds of sample jars for their experiments.

The Bronk group is interested in understanding the effects of different nutrient additions on Arctic microbial populations. They are especially interested in humic materials, since those are expected to be released in high concentrations as the permafrost melts into the coastal Arctic ocean. Humics are the left over organic matter from plants that make the water in our neck of the woods tea colored.

As the Bronk team completed their sampling it was our turn.  We collected 120 liters (a little more that 30 gallons) of water for our genetic studies that we are conducting to provide insight in how microbial communities may adapt to future changes. Once all the samples were safely on board and our gear stowed safely, we returned to the lab.

Approaching Barrow

Luckily, since the water was relatively calm, we were able to head south and offload our samples onto the beach which we were then able to easily transport to our various laboratories.

After the sampling expedition, the rest of the day was a blur, with each of us rushing around trying to get everything done. But it was a pleasure since this is what we had been planning for so long.  Victoria and I spent about six hours in a walk-in cold room set at ambient water temperature filtering all the water we collected. As I’m typing now (nearly midnight) the Yager group is still at it though the Bronk group has already called it quits for the day.

Tomorrow is a lab day and should present a lighter workload for all of us. I’m hoping I’ll be able to visit the whaling camp (think ice fishing camp) and soak it all in.

Point Barrow whale boneyard

The native Iñupiat Eskimos, who make up over 60% of the 4,000+ residents, authentically practice their culture and seem to be eager to share it with interested visitors.

Off to Alaska!

August 25, 2010

Professor Marc Frischer and research technician Victoria Baylor are traveling to Point Barrow, Alaska for field work on their project to study the effects of global climate change on the coastal environment there.

Dr. Frischer will be blogging about their adventures. Here is the first report.

Notes from the Arctic — We’re on our way!  August 23 & 24th, 2010.

Today was a travel day.  After months of planning, preparation, ordering supplies, and shipping we’re finally off.  This will be our second sampling trip to Barrow Alaska, the most northern point in the continental US.  Our goal is to collect information concerning the response of the organisms at the very base of the food web (the microbes) to climate change.  Arctic ecosystems are considered to be the most sensitive environments to the effects of climate change.

The journey itself is an adventure.  Victoria Baylor and I left Savannah on Monday August 23,  early in the morning traveling to Atlanta, Minneapolis, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Prudhoe Bay, and finally to Barrow — racking up nearly 5,000 frequent flier miles along the way.

Marc Frischer (right) with friend in Anchorage hotel lobby

It never ceases to amaze me how big our country is and yet, at the same time, how fragile it is. This is certainly one of the great paradoxes of our times.  Amazingly, with the exception of a few minor delays that we’ve all come to expect whenever we travel by air, the trip itself was thankfully uneventful.

Sunset in Anchorage

After arriving in Barrow and being greeted by the rest of our team who had arrived earlier, we spent the next 14 hours readying our equipment and laboratories for the first sampling expedition tomorrow. Our team, in addition to Victoria and myself, includes Debbie Bronk, Quinn Roberts, and Rachel Sipler from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, and Tara Connelly and Karrie Sines from the University of Georgia. Our goal is to sample coastal water just a couple of miles offshore at a standard station we have previously established.  The last time we were here in April, we had to access our site on snow machines and had to drill a hole in the ice to sample the water below.

Now in August, the ice is melted and we’ll be traveling to our site in a small boat charted from a native whaling captain. Currently the temperature in Barrow is in the upper 40’s (F) and, at least for now, sunny. For sure, one thing that really slaps you in the face up here is the extreme climate.

Stay tuned for more, the fun really begins tomorrow!

Marc Frischer

Watch out for the polar bears!

May 12, 2010

Skidaway Institute research tech Victoria Baylor and grad student Zac Tait just returned to warm, sunny Skidaway Island from their first sample trip to Barrow, Alaska. Here is their account of their interesting trip.

Our trip was part of our Professor, Dr. Marc Frischer’s, three-year project to study the effects of climate change (ie: global warming) on microscopic organisms in the Arctic Ocean. You can read more about this project HERE.

We left Savannah on April 20th to join collaborators from the Virginia Institute for Marine Science and the University of Georgia at the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium campus where we did our lab and field work out on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean.

We made it out on the ice three separate times to conduct our research. The temperature ranged between zero and 25 degrees Fahrenheit, just a little cooler than what we are used to in Coastal Georgia. During this time of spring in Barrow Alaska, there were 18 hours of sunlight each day.

(l-r) Zac Tait, UGA’s Melissa Booth and Victoria Baylor

Luckily, we had so much to do each day none of us had trouble falling asleep with the sun still up.  In order to travel out onto the ice, we needed a field guide to provide us direction and protect us from polar bears. Yes, polar bears! That’s sort of ironic when you see all those pictures floating around on the internet of polar bears on melting ice floes.

To get to our sample site, we drove snow machines across the frozen Arctic Sea on ice trails cut through ice pressure ridges that in some spots were over 30 feet tall. When we found a site to drill a hole through the ice to collect sea water, the ice was 22 inches thick. We ran a hose underneath the ice to a depth of eight meters and then pumped the water through a series of filters to collect bacteria and other microorganisms.

A lab set up on the Arctic ice pack.

The samples went into liquid nitrogen and then were shipped back to Skidaway for processing.

Barrow isn’t that small of a town considering it’s geography.  There are around 4,000 to 5,000 residents that live there year round.  At the end of the day, we typically went out to eat.  There are many restaurants to choose from including a Chinese restaurant and a Mexican Restaurant.  The array of food to eat was surprising but not as surprising as the prices.  One Chinese restaurant had a 12 piece bucket of fried chicken for $46!  We also visited the local grocery a few times where a gallon of milk costs $11 dollars.  We were told the prices were so expensive because all of the food had to be flown up there.

On April 28th, we boarded a plane and flew back to Georgia with only 1 to 2 hour layovers at each stop.  It was a long trip and roughly 17 hours of flying!  Barrow Alaska is unlike anything either of us had ever experienced before. After arriving in Georgia, and being hit by the sweltering humidity, we all missed the cold weather of Barrow a little bit.

We have several more trips planned for the future. The next will probably be near the end of August or the beginning of September when the sea ice has melted in Barrow.

Skidaway Institute researcher maps armored shorelines

December 10, 2009

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography researcher Karrie Brinkley has spent a lot of time in recent months traveling up and down Georgia’s coastal waterways in boats and canoes with maps and binoculars in hand. Brinkley is working on a project to identify and map all the armored shorelines in the state’s six coastal counties.

Brinkley has been looking for bulkheads, causeways and rip-rap – the piles or rock or concrete frequently used to stabilize a shore or river bank. The purpose of the study is to establish a baseline set of data to help understand and project the effect of rising sea level on the Georgia coast.

Karrie Brinkley examines a bulkhead armored shoreline on Skidaway Island.

“The shorelines are going to act differently as the sea level rises, depending on whether they are armored or not,” said Brinkley. “In this project, we want to see how much of the coast is armored and what type of armory is being used for individual sections as well as the entire coast.”

Brinkley is working under the guidance of Skidaway Institute professor Clark Alexander. He says that currently the oceans are rising at approximately three millimeters per year, or roughly a foot per century, however many scientists project that rate could double, triple or quadruple in coming decades. This could have a tremendous impact on coastal areas.

“One environmental area of concern is the salt marshes,” said Alexander. “If the sea level gradually rises along a natural coast, the salt marshes that thrive in the intertidal zone will gradually migrate to the upland.

“However, if a section is armored, the intertidal zone may become completely submerged, and we would lose the function of the salt marsh in that area.”

The study is funded by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, under the umbrella of a larger Environmental Protection Agency project. Geographically, Brinkley is studying all the coastal shores, from the beaches westward to either Interstate 95 or US Highway 17, which ever is further to the west.

For the first ten months of the project, Brinkley spent her time in front of a computer, studying aerial photographs of the coastal counties. Using a Geographical Information System program, she electronically marked the photos to indicate causeways, bulkheads, rip-rap and other shoreline armor.

An aerial photo of Wilmington Island showing causeways in purple and shoreline armor in yellow.

“Depending on the resolution of the photography, you can identify a lot from the photos,” Brinkley said. “Bulkheads show up as straight lines, and the bright stones of concrete rip-rap are fairly obvious as well.”

There are still many areas that Brinkley cannot characterize from the aerial photographs due to poor resolution, foliage overhangs or other reasons. Even the tide cycle when the aerial photography was shot can affect how much information can be gleaned from the photos. “A high tide may cover some rip-rap and make it invisible in the aerial photograph,” Brinkley said.

For those sections, she gets in a car, a boat or a canoe and visits the sites personally.

Once completed, the project will be shared with officials in Georgia’s coastal counties. Brinkley expects to have the project completed early in 2010.

Skidaway Institute scientists study Arctic climate change

December 1, 2009

Climate change will have profound effects on the Arctic ecosystem, and those effects may be felt around the world. Skidaway Institute of Oceanography professor Marc Frischer is launching a three-year project to examine the effects of rising temperatures in the Arctic and how those changes will impact the marine food web.

The project is funded by a $356,139 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

“We know global climate change is impacting the fragile Arctic environment,” said Frischer. “Atmospheric concentrations of heat absorbing greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide are rising; the Arctic sea ice and permafrost are melting; and models are predicting significant changes in precipitation patterns in the Arctic.

“What we don’t know is how living systems will respond or adapt to those changes and how, ultimately we as humans will have to adapt to those changes.”

The work will be conducted in Point Barrow, the northernmost location in the US, at a NSF supported research station operated by the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.

Pt. Barrow, Alaska, in winter

The landscape at Point Barrow is tundra that sits on top of as much as 1,300 feet of permanently frozen soil called “permafrost.” The concern is that with climate warming this permafrost will begin to melt and release an enormous amount of organic material into the coastal ocean.

“What you have now is have is up to 1,300 ft deep frozen soils consisting of ancient forest peat locked in the permafrost,” said Frischer. “What will happen when the permafrost starts to melt and that material, called humic acid, is released into groundwater, streams, rivers and ultimately into the ocean? That is what we want to know.”

Frischer’s focus will be on the microscopic organisms that comprise the very bottom of the Arctic Ocean food web. They include a wide variety of tiny organisms. On one end are the autotrophs, organisms that consume inorganic material and produce energy through photosynthesis, like plants. At the other end are the heterotrophs that consume organic material and obtain their energy from what they eat, like animals.

The humic acid material is rich in carbon, but lacks nitrogen, a key element that both autotrophs and heterotrophs need to make use of the carbon in the humic material. For every carbon molecule an organism uses, it will also need nitrogen.

“If you are going to grow more things, then that nitrogen has to come from somewhere,” said Frischer. “Our hypothesis is that as this humic material enters the coastal Arctic, there will be a greater demand for nitrogen at the base of the food web.”

Whoever gets that nitrogen, whether it will be the plant-like autotrophs or the animal-like heterotrophs, will determine how much organic production ends up farther up the food web in larger marine animals and eventually humans.

“This will all be set by whoever wins the war for nitrogen,” said Frischer.

Over the course of the project, Frischer and his team will travel to the Arctic several times a year. While in the Arctic, Frischer’s team will focus on making observations of the system and conducing experiments to determine what organisms are growing, which organisms are using the humic material, and determining where they are getting their nitrogen from and how they are doing it.

“We will manipulate the nutrients in the water samples and see how the different micro-organisms react,” said Frischer. “From that we should be able to project how the natural environment will react and ultimately contribute new data that help us understand and predict the biological effects of climate warming in the Arctic.”

Frischer will be working with two collaborators on the project, Patricia Yager from the University of Georgia, and Deborah Bronk from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Both Yager and Bronk received independent grants from NSF to participate in the study.

Pogo was right; the enemy is us

July 9, 2009

by Richard Jahnke

Professor Emeritus

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography

“Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.” Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966.

In the midst of the ongoing debate over global climate change (aka: global warming), there is a gigantic ‘elephant in the room’ that no one wants to acknowledge. That figurative pachyderm is human population growth, an issue that may overwhelm any efforts by developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr. Richard Jahnke

Dr. Richard Jahnke

Although many may wish to put their heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening, the science is quite clear – the earth is warming. On a year-to-year basis, the global average fluctuates, down a little for a year or two and then up a little for another few years. Observed on the short term, the data are very noisy, but when you step back and look at a larger picture, the trend becomes clear. Over the past 130 years, the upticks have surpassed the downticks. Even adjusting for a generous margin of error, the world is nearly a degree-Celsius warmer than it was when Ulysses Grant was president.

Most scientists agree that the increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide are significant contributors to the warming trend. By analyzing gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists have been able to paint a picture of the Earth’s atmosphere going back 800,000 years. Until the 19th century, CO2 levels fluctuated roughly between 200 and 280 parts per million (ppm). However, over the past 150 years, CO2 levels have broken out of those limits and shot nearly straight up to approach 400 ppm.

All efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions may be for naught, if we ignore the ‘elephant’, population growth. Even if all rich nations cut back dramatically on their consumption and emission rates and live more simply, it will merely push the breaking point a little further into the future. As developing nations advance, their citizens justifiably strive to become more comfortable, to consume more – more energy and more resources. And there are a lot of citizens out there in developing countries.

Between 2000 and 2050, world population is expected to grow by nearly three billion people. Stabilizing or slowing the rate of greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere in the face of this increasing human pressure is a daunting challenge. Indeed, if the emission rate for every person on earth could be reduced by one third, that increase in population would balance the emission reduction, and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations would continue to rise at the present rate. Considering that approximately 30 percent of the heat-trapping effects are due to non-CO2 greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which are released mostly through agricultural activities to feed the growing population, and the challenge of stabilizing emissions is even greater.

The most effective method of slowing population growth is education, and particularly the education and emancipation of young women and girls. This is a significant issue in the developing world where much of the future population growth is expected.

One important consideration overlooked by those in developed nations who object to the idea of limits on population is that without a decrease in worldwide population growth, all nations will become overpopulated, as desperate migrants from impoverished, crowded regions seek work in developed nations. More stringent immigration policies won’t stop desperate people.

As the comic strip character, Pogo, famously once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  Ultimately, sustainability of the environment requires population stabilization. Until this is achieved, there is much that can and must be done. Small reductions in population growth provide major benefits and permit future generations more time to recognize their impact and adjust to changing earth conditions. Such achievements require, however, that we open the door for an honest dialog about population – the elephant that future generations need us to acknowledge.