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Virginia Morell

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by Saadia Iqbal


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Virginia Morell

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    The study of past climates is a relatively new science, and it was great fun seeing all the different things scientists use to look back at the weather: ice cores, sea and lake sediment cores, tree rings, etc.  My favorite climate "proxy," or recorder of the past, was a stalagmite collected in an Oregon cave. Peter Clark, one of the scientists who'd studied the stalagmite, showed it to me. They had sliced it in half, secured it in a box, and then drilled tiny, pinprick-size cores down its length. From these they had re-created the climate of western Oregon over the last 14,000 years. That's the kind of astonishing thing that makes science reporting such a kick for me. Some scientist somewhere had figured out that the world's weather could be read in a stalagmite.

    Many of the scientists I met admitted they were frustrated by the current U.S. government's lack of interest in their research. Several of them, such as researchers in the Climate Impacts Group at the NASA/Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, have received government funding for their studies. In the case of the Climate Impacts Group, the scientists had been asked to study the effects of global warming on the New York metropolitan area. They'd discovered a number of future impacts, the most alarming being the potential for serious damage from storms and flooding, particularly around Ground Zero. They'd done their best to bring this to the attention of the authorities and to alert the city of the need to build a seawall to hold back future devastating storm surges. But no one, said these researchers, seemed particularly interested, which left them bitter and frustrated. It seemed they were already rehearsing their "I told you so" speeches for the day after the first big storm slams the city—and that made my heart ache for the scientists and the people who will suffer.

    Climate change is often reported as an ongoing debate. To doubters, I recommend a visit to Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. There I was shown evidence from tree rings, corals, and microscopic fossils found in ocean sediments. But the most compelling—and eye-popping—proof was an oyster longer than the palm of my hand that washed ashore from the Hudson River last year.  Someone brought it to the lab, and the scientists tossed it in the freezer—not for an oysterfest but as an example of what climate change has already wrought.  Saltwater oysters—big ones—are now thriving far up the Hudson River because the river's salinity is increasing.  Why? Because glaciers are melting and ocean levels are rising worldwide. The Hudson is growing saltier, which is good news for oysters, but maybe not such happy news for those humans who rely on the river for fresh water.


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