Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"How far we are to look:" A Context for Climate Change Research

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
U.S. Climate Change Science Program:
Planning Workshop for Scientists and Stakeholders

Washington, D.C.

December 4, 2002

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good morning to everyone. I'm very pleased to be with you today to discuss climate change science. The issues on the table are as timely and important as they are complex. The attendance at this meeting is truly remarkable. I congratulate you, Dr. Mahoney. You and your team have put together an excellent forum for public debate.

As the discussions at the conference have already shown, to understand climate change we must study many interrelated processes across the globe.

When these processes interact, on scales from the large to the small, and over long time-periods, significant complexity results. That's why it is critical to look at the natural variability of climate on a broad spatial scale and continuously over long periods of time.

For the first time, science and engineering offer tremendous new tools to observe and to synthesize, to probe our planet's past and address current and future environmental challenges.

In just a century, science and engineering have brought us to the threshold of being able to look at climate in all its breadth, depth, and complexity, including education. Critical is K-12. The National Science Foundation is lead agency for No Child Left Behind, and we are mindful that educating our youth and the public of our nation is critical.

For the theme of my talk today and for perspective, I think back 90 years ago to the Antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott, whose return from the South Pole foundered notoriously when his party perished en route. As Susan Solomon has chronicled in her book, The Coldest March, Scott himself believed that anomalous weather did him in. However, it took modern science to confirm it.

[title slide]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I titled my remarks today "'How far we are to look:' A Context for Climate Change Research," because I believe our discussions at this meeting will be richer if set within the broad context of how science and engineering are evolving. Indeed, how far do we need to look?

[Thoreau quote slide]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I borrow some wise counsel on the need for the right perspective from Henry David Thoreau. "Objects and insights," wrote Thoreau, "may be concealed from our view...because there is no intention of the eye toward them. We do not always realize how far and widely, or how near and narrowly, we are to look."

[Ice Station SHEBA]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

In 1997-98, Ice Station SHEBA took a year-long look at Arctic climate from the ocean to the sea ice to the atmosphere and clouds above. "SHEBA" is short for the Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean.

The core of the station was the icebreaker we see here. It was purposely frozen into the pack ice of the ocean hundreds of miles north of Alaska. The idea was to study all aspects of the ocean-ice-atmosphere system that contribute to improving climate models of a critical but little understood part of the world.

Ambitious in scope and duration, SHEBA represents the vanguard of intensive, comprehensive, and interdisciplinary science that tackles the non-linear aspects of climate, the puzzling feedbacks and interactions.

To meet the complex challenges of understanding our environment, we must frame integrated research questions and merge insights across spatial, temporal and societal scales. Our current efforts on climate change and global change research are ambitious steps toward those answers.

The National Science Foundation is investing in innovative instruments and observing platforms—sweeping in scale and committed to observation over time—which promise to expand the horizons for study of climate change and global change, and to bring us reliable answers. These new tools themselves fuel the demand for collaboration among scientists and engineers from many disciplines.

Demand is also growing--from scientists as well as policy-makers--for environmental data collected from observing platforms in real time, with remote control of complex instruments.

I'll now survey some of the exciting scientific developments supported by NSF—initiatives that collectively illustrate how our research and technology capabilities are evolving to revolutionize how we study climate and global change.

[LTER map]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

NSF's Long-term Ecological Research Network exemplifies a commitment to research on ambitious temporal and spatial scales. The network promotes synthesis and comparative research across sites and ecosystems. As just one example, at the LTER site at Sevilleta, New Mexico, studies of the ecology of Hantavirus linked outbreaks to climate patterns, specifically to El Nino years.

Now, as we see here, the idea has gone global: 25 nations have joined the LTER network.

One step further is NEON—the planned National Ecological Observation Network. Here's a video that describes a NEON site.

[NEON video with audio track: 1 min. 29 sec.] video not available

[slide: US NEON schematic with globe behind]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

The entire NEON system will track environmental change from the microbiological to the global scale. Today, we simply do not have the capability to answer ecological questions on a regional to continental scale. These questions include tracking invasive species and microbial threats, whether emerging diseases or nefarious in intent.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Scale is an important consideration for observing the atmosphere as well—to paraphrase Thoreau, knowing when and where to look. Here we see contrails left by jet aircraft in the sky over Southern California.

When all commercial aircraft were grounded after September 11, 2001, a unique portal opened onto surface temperature. The range in daily temperature on those days without jet flights proved to be the widest in 30 years. The reason: Contrails block sunlight by day and retain heat on the earth by night.

[Asian Brown Cloud: horizontal views, north and south]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

On a grander scale, the NSF's Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate, along with the United Nations Environment Program, are looking at an atmospheric phenomenon called the Asian Brown Cloud, a man-made haze of pollution that shrouds much of Asia and the Indian Ocean in winter and early spring.

Here, the two pictures show north and south views from the same location. The top view shows a clear sky over Mount Everest. The bottom, southward view shows the brown haze that can reduce incoming solar radiation hitting the earth's surface by 10-20%, potentially harming agriculture.

One note on time scales: these human-caused, "brown cloud" aerosols stay in the atmosphere for only days and afflict a region, while greenhouse gasses work their harm globally and over decades-to-centuries.

[NCAR water vapor simulation]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Here is an atmospheric puzzle on a global scale. This animation shows the circulation of water vapor around the earth. It is from the Community Climate System Model, a product of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, academic scientists, and the Department of Energy.

In climate models, water vapor feedback—the enhanced greenhouse effect from increased water vapor in a warmer world—is a critical variable. But water vapor and several other variables are represented differently in various climate models that predict global warming. To resolve this conflict, we need to understand better those fundamental processes controlling relative humidity and clouds.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Massive observational platforms produce a flood of observational data from scales large to small, and covering four dimensions. As we seek deeper insights into the processes that shape the earth, we face a growing problem: synthesis of information across scales and disciplines.

GEON—the geosciences network now being developed, and highlighted here—brings together information technology and Earth science. It heralds the birth of "geoinformatics."

[Still: deep sea vent chimneys with Alvin for scale]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I'll turn now to the realm of the ocean. We see here a magnificent formation of chimneys around hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, with a deep-sea submersible on the upper right for scale. Phenomena such as these vents, as well as microbial food webs and plate tectonics, have been discovered since the 1960s by ship-based expeditions.

But we now imagine ocean studies on a more ambitious scale--continuous and integrated. A new vision is now taking shape: to create facilities that would allow unlimited observations of the sea, including the deep sea, enabling the study of processes from earthquakes to ecosystems to climate change.

As ocean processes vary, they have a significant effect on the earth's climate. To understand and make forecasts for a large complex system such as the ocean, we must make sustained observations over large areas.

[animation of seafloor observatory]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Our ocean observatories initiative will employ new technical capabilities to detect and forecast environmental change. This animation depicts one potential component—a remote seafloor observatory.

Instruments will be turned on and off remotely, and monitoring by the network will trigger rapid deployment of a submersible in response to climate or geologic events.

Also part of the initiative is the use of portable observatories, based around a system of large, instrumented buoys. They will collect important climate data in remote areas such as the Southern Ocean.

The new, multidisciplinary ocean observatories will help us investigate important basic challenges such as:

  • The role of the ocean in moderating build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere;
  • Episodic coastal events such as harmful algal blooms;
  • The role of the ocean in the hydrologic cycle and in climate change;
  • and many more issues related to climate.

[simultaneous simulation of four ocean parameters]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Here is a quick glimpse of the power of observation combined with computer visualization. We can watch four different parameters changing simultaneously in a coastal area off Oregon and Washington. On the top, at left, are nitrates; to the right, temperature; lower left, phytoplankton; and lower right, zooplankton.

[temperature curve: central Greenland]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

As Thoreau suggested, we need to look both near and far, and now we have the ability to do that, not only in space, but also in time. This graph shows the history of air temperature over central Greenland during the last 100,000 years. It reads from right to left, with the most recent temperatures on the left.

The graph conveys a very stark lesson on how quickly climate can change. As we see denoted by the arrow, climate changed very fast 13,000 years ago during the Younger Dryas—a "cold snap" that lasted 1000 years. At that time, climate in the eastern United States, Canada and much of Europe was similar to today's. It changed—in less than fifty years--to Ice Age conditions.

It was NSF-funded research that unlocked this climate record frozen into Greenland's annual snow and ice layers—a treasure trove of information on natural climate variability.

As for recent times, climate scientists agree that, across the globe, surface temperature has been higher during the 20th century than in the past 1000 years. The larger perspective on our planet's climate history will ultimately help us to understand the causes of this recent warming.

[Yupik quote]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

I will close with a last reference to the polar regions, in particular to the Arctic, where climate is changing in complex ways never seen in history.

The Arctic's Yup'ik people—as quoted by the Alaskan photographer, Jim Barker--give advice to their youth. It goes like this: "...One must be wise in knowing what to prepare for and equally wise in being prepared for the unknowable."

Wisdom flows from foresight, which in turn relies on insight—insight into complexity across the grand horizons of space and time.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic