You Asked: If the Science is Clear, Why Do We Need More Climate Research?

January 26, 2021

By Charlotte Munson

You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. The following questions were submitted to climate scientist Gisela Winckler following her talk, “Reading the Ocean’s Diary: A Guide to our Climate Crisis.” In the talk, recorded as a part of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory’s 2020 Open House at Home, Winckler explains climate change in 12 words, lays out simple solutions, and shares some of the adventures she’s gone on while researching Earth’s past climate.

What is carbon neutrality and when do we need to achieve it?

Carbon neutrality is essentially having a balance between how much CO2 we emit and how much CO2 is being removed from the atmosphere in carbon sinks. What’s important to remember is that carbon neutrality doesn’t strictly mean no greenhouse gas emissions at all. Rather, it means that global emissions have to be counterbalanced by carbon removal. Those removal processes can include enhancing natural sinks, like restoring or planting new forests, or taking carbon directly out of the atmosphere and then storing it away, a process called carbon sequestration.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which is based largely on models, says that in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we need to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. However, it’s one thing to say we need to be at net zero by 2050, and another to actually take steps to achieve the goal. We need to get there by reducing emissions, but we are still on an upward trajectory of emitting CO2. So, we need to shift to reducing our CO2 emissions, and we will only get there with systemic changes to how we use energy and what type of energy we use. Individual actions are good, but in order to reduce emissions at the global level necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we need large-scale systemic changes.

If the science on climate change is already clear and simple, as you say in your talk, do we still need more climate research, or should we be focusing our resources on other things such as solutions?

The research into climate science is the foundation needed to actually think about solutions to climate change; they’re closely interconnected. Most of the solutions that we are talking about are grounded really in a fundamental understanding of the carbon cycle. By looking back into the past of the Earth, we are able to understand possible solutions, because the Earth has gone through a lot of these mechanisms on its own. We can actually learn from these natural processes, and then apply what we know from the processes in the past as a solution, by accelerating them all or scaling them up. It’s still the same mechanism. So, it’s not one or the other — climate research and solution development need to happen together. We need to focus on transdisciplinary work and prioritize communication between all fields that can play a role in understanding our climate system and developing solutions to climate change.

What worries you personally the most about climate change?

What worries me most is not actually what I talk about most, which is global mean temperatures rising. What worries me most is the thought of people suffering due to climate change. I worry about the human dimension of climate change. Changes in precipitation, such as where it rains and how much it rains, will greatly impact food production. I think the biggest threat from climate change will be feeding the planet. We’re already seeing impacts on agriculture and food production, and I think that will only get worse as climate change increases.

What does it feel like to go to the bottom of the ocean in a submarine?

It was truly the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and I remember sort of feeling it through my whole body. There’s nothing that prepares you for it. You do all these practice drills before you actually go underwater. One of them is that you have to go into the submarine while it’s on deck and then they close the hatch, to give you that feeling. Once the hatch is closed, you can’t open it yourself, and that’s the moment where a few people change their minds! But I thought it was exciting. Once we start diving in the water, you’re at the surface, so there’s lots of light. You see all the life in the ocean around you. As you sink deeper in the water, it gets darker and darker and darker. It’s only the first few minutes of a dive that you actually have light, because only the upper 150 meters, maybe 200 meters have some detectable light.

gisela winckler headshot with ocean background

Gisela Winckler is a climate scientist and the associate director of geochemistry at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Her research interests involve the application of trace elements and isotopes at the interface between climate, biogeochemistry, and environmental studies, with the goal of unraveling climate change mysteries on timescales ranging from decades to tens of millions of years. More information here and on Twitter.

It takes about an hour and a half to get to the bottom, so to preserve energy, all the lights are shut off. At some point we knew that we were 50 meters or 100 meters from the ocean floor, so we got really excited about reaching that point. Finally, we got to turn on these big, strong lights, and there was this huge octopus sitting on the ocean floor, right by where we were about to land! It was just very cool. I’m sure this guy had never seen anything like us. We spent several hours on the seafloor before we went back up, just observing everything. We found signs of gas hydrates and methane bubbles coming out of the seafloor, but we also noticed everything else. There are really weird looking creatures in the deep ocean!

What is the next expedition you’d like to take to continue your explorations?

There are so many places I’d like to explore! When I was in the Southern Ocean, we had lots of bad weather. We encountered a really strong storm system and couldn’t actually reach some of the target locations of the expedition. We were successful and lucky in getting almost everything done, but we never got to the most southern coring site. So, I’d love to go back there. I would also like to do a whole transect through the Pacific Ocean, from the north to the south. I’ve spent a lot of time at sea, which I love, but I would also like to go to Greenland or Antarctica. I’ve always wanted to be on an ice sheet!

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