Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

Turning the Ship and Changing the Tide

PP-1030179How long does it take to turn a ship? How long does it take to change course, to do something different, to avoid the metaphorical icebergs?

I say “metaphorical icebergs” because the risk of real icebergs is dwindling. It’s a warming world. Things they are melting, and there are real risks hiding behind the warmth: rising sea levels, drought, severe storms. These are the icebergs. Which of the levers do the turning? Does anyone understand the controls?

I spoke to ecologist Gene Likens last week, the scientist who discovered acid rain in North America. It took a generation to get from initial discovery to the passage of legislation aimed at curbing the pollution that caused it, or as Likens puts it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

There are important things to note in that timeline: his first study, for example, came out 9 years after the discovery, meaning 27 years falls to 18 from when the information was publicly available. And it wasn’t until a 1974 study that newspapers picked up the story. That’s when acid rain really became a household issue; now we’re down to 16 years.

16 years is not the generation 27 years nears. It is, however, a long time. Likens said his science faced pushback from industry. Entrenched interests like oil and coal rejected the premise they had any responsibility for acid rain. It took proving that link scientifically to end the argument.

Of course such proof is important—there is no use in regulating an industry innocent of the charges. If it wasn’t oil and coal those laws would have just been more wasted time.

But every day that passed was a lost opportunity. More acid fell from the sky. There is a saying that the only two days that are impossible to change are yesterday and tomorrow. A lot of todays, however, went by in inaction, todays that could have turned the ship.

Arctic sea ice volume since 1979.

Now we face a different iceberg. Scientifically climate change is undisputed. The argument over human involvement remains, but the planet is getting hotter. And every today gets us closer to whatever comes next. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps it is catastrophe.

Likens compared the struggle over acid rain science with what’s happening today with climate change. “The pushback was just like it is now,” he said, again pointing to entrenched interests. Another generation-long fight could be in store.

A decade ago An Inconvenient Truth exploded the conversation about climate change, much like the New York Times coverage of the 1974 acid rain report. So if we benchmark the two, we’re at 10 years. Maybe we can match 16; maybe some course alteration will come down in 2022. That is a long way off, but it’s also almost here.

And what would it mean? What would turning the ship at this moment do? Are we surrounded by icebergs already? Are the coming changes beyond our power to affect? Are we simply too late, caught in a disaster impossible to avoid?

Who knows.That falls to tomorrow, one of those days you can’t change. But we can change today. But to do that we need to have faith in science, something seemingly in short supply with some.

An illustration of global temperature change for the last 166 years.

Science is not the conspiracy of one man. It’s multilayered work, an exploration of chance, a process of search more than an answer. And while it can be mistaken (think of early experiments aimed to determine whether light was a particle or a wave—it behaves like both), those missteps are part of the process. The call is always daring to be proven wrong. Scientists strive for that, and yet climate change is not proving wrong.

Industry, meanwhile, as Likens pointed out has a mixed record, much more so than science. Tobacco companies, for example, showed the willingness of big business to subvert science for their own ends. Science’s agenda, meanwhile, has no choice but to bend toward truth. It’s built into the method, the practice of the discipline. It may be hard to put the two on a scale, but if you could the weight of replicable results would trump corporate claims, particularly when huge revenue losses enter the conversation. The skeptic sees industry with strong motivation to deceive; scientists, meanwhile, do not gain by being controversial, or by being wrong. They succeed by being right, precise and verifiable.

And these debates are the fulcrum on which the ship turns. Is there still time to spin the wheel? Even science doesn’t know. But we may all get a chance to find out. Tomorrow.

A Tale of Two Studies

A Tale of Two Studies

9129d-ski-1080245The scientist who uncovered acid rain in North America 50 years ago now sees a parallel struggle waging around climate change and the effects of global warming.

“The pushback was just like it is now,” ecologist Gene Likens said on Tuesday, talking about how his research in the White Mountains was received when it went public in the mid-1970s. Big vested business interests and their allies rejected his findings, he said, until he and his teams could show scientifically where the pollutants causing acid rain were coming from—industrial polluters in the Midwest.

From initial discovery to the enactment of new rules limiting those polluters took nearly a generation. Or, as Likens likes to put it, “27 years, three presidents and one pope.”

Now, he said, he’s watching something similar happen with climate change.

Likens research and his legacy are intimately tied to the White Mountains. It began in 1963 when Likens was a professor at Dartmouth College. He was the lead scientist of a team studying streamwater chemistry in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest outside Lincoln, the U.S. Forest Service’s forest-laboratory of the White Mountains. His team wanted to know how the forest worked, to understand the inputs and outputs, what made it tick. They weren’t looking for anything specific, Likens said, but what they they found surprised them: water infused with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, a concoction capable of leaching aluminum from the soil and depositing it downstream in lakes and rivers, and also capable of killing insects, fish and plants along the way.

What they found was acid rain.

“The very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” said Likens, with acidity levels 100 times above normal. “Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said. “It was pure serendipity. So much of science is that way. We didn’t set out to discover acid rain. It was there and we ran with it.”

Their research led to an article in the journal Environment in 1972. Two years later Likens, now a professor at Cornell University, replicated the experiment in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, where again they found sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides in the water. He and a colleague published again published their findings, this time in the journal Science.

That’s when their research got noticed.

“It was picked up by the New York Times,” Likens said. “It ran on the front page.”

The year was 1974. Acid rain for the first time was in national headlines. It would be another 16 years before Congress passed revisions to the Clean Air Act to curb the industrial pollution that was the cause.

From acid rain’s discovery in 1963 to Congressional action in 1990, all of it started in the White Mountains, in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, which Likens calls one of the most studied ecosystems on the planet.

“We are much more effective stewards when we have long-term monitoring to guide us,” Likens said, “but the reality is such studies are quite rare.”

Likens research has included collecting decades of stream water chemistry data and associated rainfall information, creating one of the longest such records for any site on Earth. “And I’m still doing it,” he said.

And scientists in other disciplines have been doing similar work, leaving long records that allow researchers to see trends over time.

“So with climate change we can say what happened,” Likens said, “and what is happening.”

Birds in the forest, for example, are arriving earlier. Buds sprout earlier. Mirror Lake, “probably one of the most studied lakes in the world,” he said, is now covered by ice 20 days less each winter than in years past. The planet is definitely warming.

But when it comes to climate change some people push back against the science. And they doubt human involvement. Likens said he seen this before, that it was the same debate over causation that raged with acid rain.

But as a researcher, Likens said, his job is not to get lost in those arguments. A researcher’s job is to continue working, he said, to explore and examine, to collect data and ensure a record exists of what happens in the world.

“I’m not an advocate,” Likens said. “I’m not a politician. I’m a scientist.”


A version of this story ran in Saturday’s Conway Daily Sun.