As part of the J. James Woods Lecture Series at Butler University, atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe will be one of Butler's guests at a March 4 lecture, "Climate Change and Indiana's Future."
The discussion will focus on climate change effects for the Midwest and Indiana. Representatives from Purdue, Butler, the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Citizens Action Coalition will also be present.
Hayhoe is a former Hoosier, having taught at the University of Notre Dame. She is currently an associate professor at Texas Tech in Lubbock.
NUVO: Can you talk a little bit about your background and what led to your interest in climate change science?
Hayhoe: I originally studied physics, which is a perfect basis for studying the planet. And I grew up just over the border in Canada with the snowy winters and the beautiful summers. What I realized through my studies and spending time outdoors, you really appreciate what we have, even with the snowy winters (laughs). After studying physics I realized that climate change is one of the biggest issues defining our world today. People with a background in the sciences have a really important contribution to make to understand how it's happening, how it's affecting our world and our lives and then trying to figure out some things we can do about it.
NUVO: Can you give an example of what can be done in terms of mitigation?
Hayhoe: Some very innovative things are going on with major producers of carbon dioxide. There's no question that coal-fired power plants are a big part of climate change, the interesting thing is that they can be a big part of the solution. If you pipe the carbon dioxide that comes out of these plants, instead of releasing it into the air, you pipe it into these huge bags full of algae, and the algae feed off of the carbon dioxide and you can turn the algae into oil. It's amazing. There are a lot of cool things that can be done with climate change.
NUVO: That's not a traditional method of carbon sequestration.
Hayhoe: No, it's not traditional. But there are a lot of start-up companies that are just getting into this. You don't need a lot of space; you just have to hang these racks of bags up in a space about the size of a parking lot, and you're making oil.
The more I found out about climate change the more my interest grew and I realized that this was a very serious problem. It is changing the frequency of events, it's kind of like if you are throwing a die, you have a chance of throwing a six, but what climate change is doing is slowly, decade after decade, taking out all the other numbers and replacing them with sixes. The further we go along, the greater chance we have of rolling one of those sixes.
NUVO: Have you followed any of the recent news stories about people like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) who feel that recent heavy snowfalls show shortcomings in global warming theories?
Hayhoe: Yes I've followed that. The problem with climate change is that it is very counter-intuitive. Our brains are not built to remember climate, our brains are built to remember weather. We remember the huge snow storm or the heat wave, or the drought. But climate change is about the changes in average conditions over decades. We would be like a Rain Man or a savant to remember temperature and rainfall for every single day for forty years and average it in our heads to figure out if it's been changing.
In some cases it actually means more snowstorms. Based on work I've done, we said that climate change could increase the frequency of winter storms, especially in the Northeast. Climate change is affecting our weather patterns. The warmer the air gets, the more water vapor it can hold. When you get a storm sweeping through, it picks up all that water vapor and it dumps it. Global warming or no, winters are cold. It's going to be a long time before we have no snow in winter, it will be 100 years before that happens.
That's why it is better to call it climate change than global warming; some people even call it "global weirding" (laughs). Because essentially our focus should not be on the small change in temperature: It should be on the fact that what we are used to is changing. Things are not the way they used to be.
NUVO: And that applies to everything?
Hayhoe: Yes, a personal example for me is I grew up in Toronto, so that's not that far away from Indiana. My birthday is in the middle of April. I remember growing up ... as a little girl I loved tulips, and I used to always hope that the tulips would be out in bloom for my birthday, and it happened maybe once or twice. And now it's just about every year. And that's not just in Toronto. One of my colleagues at Texas Tech... he's been in Lubbock for thirty years, and he keeps track of when the peach trees in his backyard flower every year. And it goes up and down every year. But cumulatively over the years they have progressively flowered earlier. Now they are flowering a couple of weeks earlier than they were when he first arrived.
The character of the places we know and love is being irrevocably altered, and it is important that we recognize that.
NUVO: One of the things you look at is how climate change will affect agriculture.
Hayhoe: Climate change is altering the things we are used to. Our infrastructure, our homes, our agriculture, everything is perfectly adapted to what the average conditions used to be. If you've been a farmer in a place for a long time you plant the same crops your grandfather did. But now we are seeing things like the center of blueberry production, which was always in Maine, has already shifted over the border into Quebec because Maine winters are not cold enough anymore. Maple syrup is shifting over the border as well.
If you track the center of production for corn, soy and wheat, all those staple crops of the Midwest, those centers of production used to be around Indiana and Illinois, they've been tracking them since the late 1800's. They have been tracking northwest over the last century. And pretty soon they'll be over the border, too.
It's important for people to realize that it isn't just about the polar bears in the Arctic, it's about the places we live.
NUVO: Could natural systems be more at risk than agriculture? Agriculture is shaped so it is already artificial, natural ecosystems would be slower to adapt, wouldn't they?
Hayhoe: You put your finger on it exactly. We just finished doing a study on the Franklin's ground squirrel which is an endangered species in Indiana. What we found is that the Franklin's ground squirrel needs a certain amount of cold winter temperatures. It hibernates and that is what it needs. You don't find it too far south where it gets too warm. They have records dating back to the 1930s in Indiana that show the range of the squirrel and that its range has already shifted due to changes in temperature. But yes, natural ecosystems are at very high risk.
NUVO: Is there a particular region that interests you?
Hayhoe: I would say, like most people, that I'm most interested in the places I have lived, because I know what they look like. I know what life is like there and I can picture much more vividly what climate change would do to them. It's just more personal. The places most at risk immediately are in the Arctic. The U.S. Corps of Engineers said that there are thirty villages in the Arctic that have to move NOW, their villages are crumbling into the ocean. And there are 180 more that are at risk. I've never visited these villages so I don't have that personal connection. But for Indiana, I know what it's like, I know what I loved about it, I know what climate change could do to that. It just makes you care more.
NUVO: One of your areas of work is science and policy interface, what drew you to that?
Hayhoe: Climate change is such an important issue today, the luxury of doing science in your ivory tower, where it has no immediate practical application to the world ... we just don't have that luxury today. The more policy relevant information that can be provided, such as what is the impact on agriculture in Indiana from climate change, that is the information we need to make decisions. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
NUVO: What areas of your work are you currently most excited about?
Hayhoe: Two things. I worked with the city of Chicago, and the city of Austin and I'm really encouraged by seeing what's going on at the state, city and community level. There are enormous amounts of stuff happening where people are realizing that our resources are precious and we need to conserve them and they're really doing some good work on preparing for what's going to happen in the future. I'm really excited to see what will happen at the sub-federal level.
The second thing I'm very excited about is my book that just came out a couple months ago, that I wrote with my husband. It's a faith-based approach to climate change issues. And actually you can go online and read the whole book, the goal was to get the book out to people and answer some very common questions about climate change. Most of the resources out there assume that you are already on board with the whole concept of climate change. If you look at the polls, more than half the country is not on board, and the number who are on board have actually shrunk.
I think that part of that is simply that they are not being given the information they need to let them understand that you can have a massive snowstorm and still have climate change happening at the very same time.
Go to Katharinehayhoe.com to check out some of her work or read her book, "A Climate for Change." To see the effects of climate change for Indiana visit www.ucsusa.org/greatlakes/glregionind.html.
For more on climate change, go to nuvo.net/news for John Young's interview with National Wildlife Federation president and CEO, Larry Schweiger. Schweiger was in town for a discussion on creating jobs for Indiana with clean and renewable energy.