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A & S News

Understanding Climate Change

May 12, 2009

The story below is an excerpt from the Arts and Sciences Magazine story, "Change in the Forecast" by Franci Rogers. The full article is available here.

Hybrid cars, reusable cloth shopping bags, backyard composting and compact fluorescent light bulbs are everywhere you look. Even Kermit the Frog must admit that today, more than ever, it's easy to be green.

The nation's attention is beginning to focus on climate change: why it's happening, how to slow it and what can be done to adapt. Once known as "global warming," scientists now prefer the term "climate change" to help convey the message that rising temperatures are just part of a larger change in the planet.

Nearly every department within Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences has reacted to climate change in some way -- some by leading research of geological evidence in the earth, others by studying how cultures are adapting to the changes.

Dr. Steven Driese, chair and professor of Geology, is doing his part to help understand climate change by discovering how the earth has been changing since its beginning.

"Our concept of time is very different than the general public's," says Driese. "From a geologist's perspective, 100 years or 1,000 years is the blink of an eye. We most often talk in terms of tens of thousands to millions of years."

By studying fossil soils (known as paleosols) and fossil plants and animals in ancient river, lake and sand dune deposits, Driese and other scientists at Baylor are able to determine trends of warming and drying of the earth.

"We know the earth's climate has warmed and cooled in the past," says Driese. "So the question becomes, 'Is the change the result of humans pumping greenhouse gasses into the air, or is it part of a natural earth cycle?'"

One such cycle, he says, occurred during the Paleozoic Era, which began about 540 million years ago. In that time, when no humans existed, the amount of carbon dioxide on earth was 15-20 times higher than today. The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere increased dramatically, then decreased over a period of about 300 million years to below present atmospheric levels.

"But how can we ignore the fact that we have doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the air in the last 200 years?" Driese asks. "Over hundreds of millions of years, the earth can assimilate the extra carbon, but probably not anthropogenic doubling in 200 years."

Dr. Joseph White, associate professor of Biology, has spent years studying ecosystems' response to climate change and agrees with Driese that human involvement has been the leading cause of our current climate crisis.

"If you have any doubts about the existence of climate change, just ask someone who lives in Fairbanks, Alaska," he says. "They can see climate change. People generally don't experience climate; they experience weather. But in the polar regions, you can actually see where the glaciers used to be, just a few years ago. They've receded. In some places there are still signposts marking the glaciers, but the glaciers are now a mile away."

The question, says White, becomes not whether climate change is happening, but what are we going to do about it. And while people living in colder climates may be the first to see the effects of the earth's warming, those near the equator have been the first to feel it.

"Climate change will affect humans. Those living in equatorial regions - which are the most populated and have the most poverty - are most at risk of suffering," he says.

White believes health conditions will worsen in developing countries as temperatures rise.

"Diseases are mostly born in the tropics. As temperatures increase, so will the places where these diseases can exist," he says. "And these people have no place to go."