What ice cores tell us about our past and future

Originally posted on September 14, 2011

by Emily Bowers

This is Part 2 of a three-part series on climatologist, Dr. Cameron Wake. Read Part 1 here.

Image of Dr. Cameron Wake courtesy of the University of New Hampshire


Part 2: The Ice Cores of Research

Dr. Cameron Wake’s research started with the analysis of ice cores from the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau and evolved to include cores from Arctic glaciers. He studied the composition of water and amount of dust that existed in the layers of the glaciers formed over thousands of years ago. He said that this research led to three at first seemingly uninteresting discoveries that added up.

The first of such was that his team’s research defined “the spatial and temporal variation of precipitation chemistry in central Asia.” Wake explained that the study of ice cores is the study of changes over time, but central to the understanding of what those changes over time mean is the understanding of how the basic chemistry of precipitation varies over space and time.

The analysis of the change over time of precipitation chemistry led to the second significant result of Wake’s research in the Arctic: the development of a relationship between changes in ice core chemistry and changes in summertime sea ice extent. Lastly, his team tracked changes over time of various pollutant deposition in the ice.

During this exploration and research, a new batch of ice core scientists were educated by working on these research projects.

“Our understanding of the way climate has changed over thousands to millions of years does not come from studying meteorological records, because reliable records only extend back a few hundred years at best,” said Wake. “Rather, our understanding of climate changes in the past comes from paleoclimate records developed from the study of ice cores, tree rings, sediments, cave deposits, rocks and other natural archives.”

“[The paleoclimate record] has provided me with a perspective that allows me to say with confidence that humans have now become a major geological force capable of changing the climate system,” he said.

Climatology…on ice! Cameron Wake, Researcher and Professor at the University of New Hampshire, is passionate about ice. He plays on it and he works on it. Hockey and ice cores shows Cam how ice is part of the fabric of life in northern New England. And the ice itself has a story to tell. For over 100 years the ice has told of the effects of climate change by marking the day of its departure from lakes in the region. And as that date gets earlier and earlier over the passing decades the ice tells the story of a warming world, even in spite of winters with snow to spare.

The Crevasse of Denial

With a 2011 Gallup poll showing only 50 percent of respondents concerned about climate change, there seems to be an obvious rift between the climate science that Wake studies and public understanding or opinion on climate change risks.

Wake pegs part of such climate change denial on citizen inclination towards certain beliefs, such as whether or not the government should interfere with business or with individual decisions. He said that climate change denial advertising campaigns paid for by Exxon/Mobile and big coal companies appeal to individuals who are predisposed against government intervention.

“It’s not really about rational thought,” said Wake, “It’s about ‘Who do you trust?’ and ‘Where do you get your news from?’ This notion that everybody is going to weigh the scientific evidence equally is garbage. That’s a world where everybody thinks rationally, and we live in a world where many individuals do no think rationally.”

He says he grapples with climate change denial a lot because it has a big impact on how climate scientists, ecologists and environmentalists go about solving the problem.

“I think for 20 years scientists have basically said, ‘Hey look, we just need to do good science and public policy will follow,’ and in fact, that’s not the case,” said Wake.

Although the rift between both public policy and opinion and what translates as a climate crisis in the data of climate science is a tough bridge to gap, Wake has made the bridging of that gap a recent focus. “My goal is to find out how it is that we engage with the rest of society, where they are, not where I am,” he said. “We need to say, ‘Where is it that you’re at that we can talk about this issue and meet on some common ground?’”

He references an October 2010 article in The New York Times about six towns in Kansas focusing on decreasing energy usage for the sake of moral obligation, energy independence and economic prosperity rather than climate change. “That’s the next step,” said Wake, “to figure out how is it that we get people to engage in this issues. Because it is so sad that it’s a political issue. It shouldn’t be.”

Wake does his best to take part in this engagement through a variety of means. He talks at dozens of events each year to share the results of his research with the general public and has written a series of reports on climate change for a broader audience. He also served on the governor-appointed NH Climate Change Policy Task Force that wrote the climate action plan for the state and he currently serves on the NH Energy and Climate Collaborative, a group that seeks to facilitate and track progress towards implementation of the climate action plan.

See also Part 1: The Ascent from Mountaineer to Climatologist, and Part 3: Solutions.


Bio: Dr. Cameron Wake is a research associate professor with the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire.

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