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Recently I was lucky enough to pay a visit to the South Island of New Zealand. I am actually a Kiwi by birth (that’s why it’s so easy for me to work in Australia) but grew up in Canada. This was my first visit back since I left as a baby – in fact, we were in my hometown exactly 20 years to the day after I left. We didn’t plan this, but it was a neat coincidence to discover.

Among the many places we visited was Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park in the Southern Alps. It was my first experience of an alpine environment and I absolutely loved it. It was also my first glacier sighting – a momentous day in the life of any climate scientist.

There are 72 named glaciers in the park, of which we saw two: the Hooker Glacier and the Mueller Glacier. The latter is pictured below as seen from the valley floor – the thick, blue-tinged ice near the bottom of the visible portion of the mountain. As it flows downward it becomes coated in dirt and is much less pretty.

Along with most of the world’s glaciers, the Mueller is retreating (see these satellite images by NASA). At the base of the mountain on which it flows, there is a large terminal lake, coloured bright blue and green from the presence of “glacial flour” (rock ground up by the ice). According to the signs at the park, this lake has only existed since 1974.

In the photo above, you can see a large black “sill” behind the lake, which is the glacial moraine showing the previous extent of the ice. Here’s a photo of the moraines on the other side, looking down the valley:

It’s hard to capture the scale of the melt, even in photos. But when you stand beside it, the now-empty glacial valley is unbelievably huge. The fact that it was full of ice just 50 years ago boggles my mind. Changes like that don’t happen for no reason.

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Me: Hello?
Caller: Hello?
Me: Yes, hello?
Caller: Hi, I’m from the local paper.
Me: Okay. (We get these calls several times a week. It’s getting kind of tiresome.)
Caller: Do you currently receive the paper?
Me: No.
Caller: Would you like to become a subscriber?
Me: No, thank you.
Caller: Well, have you ever read it?
Me: Yes, and that’s why I don’t want to buy it.
Caller: Say again?
Me: I’m not happy with your science coverage.
Caller: Science?
Me: Yes. I’m a scientist and I’m not happy with the quality of science journalism in the paper.
Caller: Well, I didn’t write it.
Me: I know. I’m just telling you why I don’t want to buy it.
Caller: Is it anything in particular? I mean, you say “science”…
Me: Climate science, in particular.
Caller: Climate science.
Me: Yes.
Caller: Was it a specific article?
Me: No, it was a pattern of articles over several years, relating to climate change. I’m a climate scientist and your coverage of this issue was so far off base that I could no longer support the paper.
Caller: Oh.
Me: Thanks for your interest. Please don’t call again.
Caller: My…interest?
End of call

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Sometimes I look back to 2010 and wonder how we all got through it. I remember the stomachache I’d get every time I opened a newspaper, wondering what awful lies had been printed about climate science that day. I remember the disdain with which people treated the science I love and the scientists I look up to. 2010 was the year when climate change conspiracy theories went mainstream, and the year when the whole issue was a lump of dread I carried around in my pocket.

Things are easier now. The climate system is in really bad shape (and it can only get worse from here), but somehow I find this fact easier to deal with than the judgement of well-meaning, but highly misinformed and misled, people. Maybe this is because I find human conflict scary but graphs and numbers comforting. Or maybe I am just too good at thinking of model simulations as hypothetical.

In my own way I am in denial, because when I think about my future I always picture a world without climate change.

Regardless, the attacks on our integrity have largely abated, and everything feels so peaceful in comparison. Part of this, of course, has to do with policy: the misinformation campaign “ClimateGate” was clearly timed to derail the Copenhagen talks, the likes of which won’t happen again for another few years. I think there is another factor, though, which will protect us the next time around: the scientists are now officially pissed off.

As scientists, we are shy creatures by nature (remember what I said about human conflict and graphs?) but even we can be provoked. Recall that we have discovered important information that could be vital to the future of our civilization, and yet there are many who seek to discredit us and make sure this information is not taken seriously. When those people go so far as to slander and harass individual researchers, nearly to the point of suicide, they have stepped on all of our toes. We are mad scientists, but not in the cartoon sense.

Now, when deniers attempt to construct a scandal, it doesn’t get off the ground. Scientists are there immediately to set the record straight, and the media realizes it is a non-story. When shady politicians try to press charges against researchers, those researchers hire accomplished lawyers because there is a fund for that now. Geoscience conferences  feature so many communications workshops that you could attend nothing else if you chose to. Scientific societies are publishing handbooks on how to respond if your research is publicly attacked, you face charges of fraud, or you fear for your safety.

I like this new attitude of climate scientists. Forget the old paradigm that scientists should steer clear of political speech and stick to pure research. We didn’t give up our rights as citizens when we decided to be scientists. Maybe 2010 was a necessary evil, because it made us realize that we have a responsibility to fight for truth.

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And now for something completely different: this is one of my favourite poems by the brilliant Pablo Neruda, translated from the original Spanish by Alastair Reid.

It reminds me of all the bickering and politics that get in the way of climate science, and all the trials and tribulations of climate change communication.

Given that now perhaps
we are seriously alone,
I mean to ask some questions -
we’ll speak man to man.

With you, with that passerby,
with those born yesterday,
with all those who died,
and with those to be born tomorrow,
I want to speak without being overheard,
without them always whispering,
without things getting changed
in ears along the way.

Well then, where from, where to?
What made you decide to be born?
Do you know that the world is small,
scarcely the size of an apple,
like a little hard stone,
and that brothers kill each other
for a fistful of dust?

For the dead there’s land enough!

You know by now, or you will,
that time is scarcely one day
and a day is a single drop?

How will you be, how have you been?
Sociable, talkative, silent?
Are you going to outdistance
those who were born with you?
Or will you be sticking a pistol
grimly into their kidneys?

What will you do with so many days
left over, and even more,
with so many missing days?

Do you know there’s nobody in the streets
and nobody in the houses?

There are only eyes in the windows.

If you don’t have somewhere to sleep,
knock on a door and it will open,
open up to a certain point
and you’ll see it’s cold inside,
and that that house is empty
and wants nothing to do with you;
your stories are worth nothing,
and if you insist on being gentle,
the dog and cat will bite you.

Until later, till you forget me -
I’m going, since I don’t have time
to ask the wind more questions.

I can scarcely walk properly,
I’m in such a hurry.
Somewhere they’re waiting
to accuse me of something
and I have to defend myself;
nobody knows what it’s about
except that it’s urgent,
and if I don’t go, it will close,
and how can I hold my own
if I knock and nobody opens the door?

Until later, we’ll speak before then.
Or speak after, I don’t remember,
or perhaps we haven’t even met
or cannot communicate.
I have these crazy habits -
I speak, there is no one and I don’t listen,
I ask myself questions and never answer.

- Pablo Neruda

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Since I last wrote, I finished my summer research at Andrew Weaver’s lab (more on that in the weeks and months to come, as our papers work through peer review). I moved back home to the Prairies, which seem unnaturally hot, flat and dry compared to BC. Perhaps what I miss most is the ocean – the knowledge that the nearest coastline is more than a thousand kilometres away gives me an uncomfortable feeling akin to claustrophobia.

During that time, the last story I covered has developed significantly. Before September even began, Arctic sea ice extent reached record low levels. It’s currently well below the previous record, held in 2007, and will continue to decline for two or three more weeks before it levels off:

Finally, El Niño conditions are beginning to emerge in the Pacific Ocean. In central Canada we are celebrating, because El Niño tends to produce warmer-than-average winters (although last winter was mysteriously warm despite the cooling influence of La Niña – not a day below -30 C!) The impacts of El Niño are different all over the world, but overall it tends to boost global surface temperatures. Combine this effect with the current ascent from a solar minimum and the stronger-than-ever greenhouse gas forcing, and it looks likely that 2013 will break global temperature records. That’s still a long way away, though, and who knows what will happen before then?

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Tonight is Earth Hour, when people across the world turn off all their lights and electronic devices (except the necessary ones – I don’t think you’re required to unplug the freezer) from 8:30 to 9:30 local time. This is meant to generate awareness about climate change and conservation. It’s really more of a symbolic action, to my understanding – I doubt it adds up to a significant dip in carbon emissions – but I take part anyway. I find that a lot of interesting conversations begin when there’s nothing to do but sit in the dark.

It was during the second official Earth Hour, when I was sixteen years old, that I agreed to babysit for friends of the family. Great, I thought, how am I going to get a five-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl to sit in the dark for an hour? I ended up turning it into a camping game, which was really fun. We made a tent out of chairs and blankets, ate popcorn, and played with a flashlight powered by a hand crank.

The girl was too young to understand the purpose of sitting in the dark – she just liked waving the flashlight around – but I talked to the boy a bit about why we were doing this. I told him how we needed to take care of nature, because it can be damaged if we don’t treat it well, and that can come back to bite us. I explained the purpose of recycling: “You can make paper out of trees, but you can also make paper out of old paper, and that way you don’t have to cut down any trees.” His face just lit up, and he said, “Oh! I get it now! Well, we should do more of that!” which was really great to hear.

Halfway through the hour, the kids went to bed, and I sat in the dark on my own until 9:30, when I turned the lights on and started to do homework. And that was the end of it…or so I thought.

Apparently, at some point during that hour, a neighbour had noticed that the house was in darkness and flashlights were waving around. He thought there was something wrong with that situation, and came over to knock on the door, but we were in the basement in our tent and didn’t hear him. So then he called the police.

It was 11 pm by the time they showed up. Suddenly someone was pounding on the door, and I, convinced that someone was trying to break in, was terrified. I froze in my seat, and contemplated hiding under the desk, but whoever was at the door refused to go away. Eventually I crept over to a side window and looked outside, where I saw a police car.

My first thought when I opened to the door to two police officers was, “Who got in a car accident? My family, or the kids’ parents?” The concept of police coming to investigate a house that had its lights off was completely foreign to me.

“It’s Earth Hour,” I said when they told me why they were there. They replied, “Yeah, we know, but we have to answer all our calls.” They took my name and my birth date, so this incident must be mentioned somewhere in the city police records. I imagine there is a note next to my name saying, “Attempted to indoctrinate children with environmentalism.”

Luckily the kids didn’t wake up, but they heard about the incident later from their parents. I still babysit these kids, albeit less frequently now that I’m in university, and the boy often asks, “Can we turn off all the lights again? I want the police to come. That would be fun.”

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To the citizens of the world in the year 5000:

It’s 2012, and nobody is thinking about you.

These days, Long Term Thinking means planning for 2050, and even that is unusual. Thoughts of Future Generations don’t go beyond grandchildren. If my government knew I was thinking about people three thousand years in the future, they would probably call me a “radical”.

However, three thousand years isn’t such a long time. The ancient Greeks flourished about three thousand years ago now, and we think about them all the time. Not just historians, but people in all walks of life – scientists, policymakers, teachers, and lawyers all acknowledge the contributions of this ancient civilization to today’s culture. Our society is, in many ways, modelled after the Greeks.

I was walking outside today, at the tail end of the warmest winter anyone can remember in central Canada, and thought to myself: What if the ancient Greeks had caused global climate change back in their day? What if they had not only caused it, but understood what was happening, and had actively chosen to ignore it? The effects would still be apparent today. Global temperature might have stabilized, but the biosphere would still be struggling to adapt, and the seas would still be gradually rising. What would we think of the ancient Greeks if they had bestowed this legacy upon us? Would we still look upon their civilization so favourably?

The Golden Rule is usually applied to individuals living in the same time and place, but I think we should extend it across continents and through millennia so it applies to all of human civilization. Before we make a major societal decision, like where to get our energy, we should ask ourselves: If the ancient Greeks had gone down this path, would we care?

The future is a very long time. Thinking about the future is like contemplating the size of the universe: it’s disturbing, and too abstract to fully comprehend. Time and space are analogues in this manner. 2050 is like Mars, and the year 5000 is more like Andromeda.

I can handle Andromeda. And I can handle the concept of 5000 A.D., so I think about it when I’m outside walking. My first thoughts are those of scientific curiosity. Tell me, people in 5000 – how bad did the climate get? What happened to the amphibians and the boreal forest? Did the methane hydrates give way, and if so, at what point? How much did the oceans rise?

Soon scientific curiosity gives way to societal questions. Were we smart enough to leave some coal in the ground, or did we burn it all? Did we open our doors to environmental refugees, or did we shut the borders tight and guard the food supply? How long did it take for Western civilization to collapse? What did you do then? What is life like now?

And then the inevitable guilt sets in, as I imagine what you must think of us, of this horrible thoughtless period of history that I am a part of. But with the guilt comes a desperate plea for you to understand that not everyone ignored the problem. A few of us dedicated our lives to combating denial and apathy, in a sort of Climate Change Resistance. I was one of them; I am one of them. With the guilt comes a burning desire to say that I tried.

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A big story in Canada these days is oil pipelines. The federal government wants to ramp up the tar sands industry through international exports. The easiest way to transport crude is through pipelines stretching across the country, and several such projects have been proposed during the past year.

First there was the Keystone XL pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta to Texas and provide the United States with oil. Despite enormous pressure to approve the project immediately, American president Obama is refusing to make a decision until a more thorough environmental review can be conducted. This announcement left the Canadian government fuming and stomping off to look for other trading partners.

Now the Northern Gateway pipeline is on the table, which would transport oil across British Columbia to the West Coast, where tankers would transport it to Asia. I don’t personally know anyone who supports this project, and there is organized opposition from many First Nations tribes and environmental groups. Much of the opposition seems to hinge on local environmental impacts, such as oil spills or disruption to wildlife. I think it’s possible, if we’re very careful about it, to build a pipeline that more or less eliminates these risks.

I am still opposed to the Northern Gateway project, though, due to its climate impacts. Tar sands are even more carbon-intensive than regular oil, and there is no way to mitigate their emissions the way we can mitigate their effects on wildlife. I realize that it’s unreasonable to shut down the entire industry, but expanding it to massive new markets such as Asia is a mistake that my generation will have to pay for. The short-term economic benefits of building a pipeline will be overwhelmed by the long-term financial costs and human suffering due to the climate change it causes. My country is pushing the world down a path towards a worst-case climate scenario, and it makes me ashamed to call myself a Canadian.

According to our Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver, anyone who opposes the pipeline is “threaten[ing] to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda”. Apparently, the goal of people like me is to ensure there is “no forestry. No mining. No oil. No gas. No more hydro-electric dams”. Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to agree, as he plans to change the public consultation process for such projects so they can’t get “hijacked” by opponents.

In case anyone needs this spelled out, I am not a radical ideologue. I am a fan of capitalism. I vote for mainstream political parties. Among 19-year-old females, it doesn’t get much more moderate than me.

I have no problem with forestry, mining, and hydro, as long as they are conducted carefully and sustainably. It’s the oil and gas I have trouble with, and that’s due to my education in climate science, a field which developed out of very conservative disciplines such as physics and applied math.

I can’t understand why Joe Oliver thinks that referring to First Nations as a “radical group” is acceptable. I also fail to see the logic in shutting down opposition to a matter of public policy in a democratic society.

If Canada’s economy, one of the most stable in the world throughout the recent recession, really needs such a boost, let’s not do it through an unethical and unsustainable industry. How about, instead of building pipelines, we build a massive grid of low-carbon energy sources? That would create at least as many jobs, and would improve the future rather than detract from it. Between wind power in Ontario, tidal power in the Maritimes, hydroelectric power throughout the boreal forest, and even uranium mining in Saskatchewan, the opportunities are in no short supply. Despite what the government might tell us, pipelines are not our only option.

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Technical Difficulties

Sorry for the draft climate model post with a broken link. I clicked Preview, WordPress decided to Publish, I yelled at the computer and reverted to Draft. Apparently, in the two seconds the post was published, it found its way into all the RSS feeds and email subscriptions.

The completed post should be up in a day or two. Thanks for your patience.

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Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards.

So writes Edward Abbey, in a passage that Ken sent to me nearly two years ago. The quote is now stuck to my fridge, and I abide by it as best I can.

It’s pretty easy to find areas of untouched forest within my city. Living in a floodplain, it’s only practical to leave natural vegetation growing around the rivers – it acts as a natural sponge when the water rises. In the warmer months, hiking in the woods is convenient, particularly because I can bike to the edge of the river. But in the winter, it’s not so easy. The past few months have consistently been about 10 C above normal, though, and today I found a shortcut that made the trip to the woods walkable.

The aspen parkland in winter is strange. Most wildlife travel south or begin hibernating by early October, and no evergreen species grow here naturally. As you walk through the naked branches, it’s easy to think of the woods as desolate. But if you slow down, pay attention, and look around more carefully, you see signs of life in the distance:

Black-capped Chickadee

White-tailed Deer

If you stand still and do your best to look non-threatening, some of the more curious animals might come for a closer inspection:

If you imitate a bird's call well enough, it will come right up to you

A mother deer and her fawn, probably about eight months old

The species that live here year-round are some of the most resilient on the continent. They have survived 40 above and 40 below, near-annual droughts and floods, and 150 years of colonization. The Prairies is a climate of extremes, and life has evolved to thrive in those extremes.

So maybe this isn’t the land I am fighting for – it will probably be able to handle whatever climate change throws at it – but it is the land I love regardless.

Happy Christmas to everyone, and please go out and enjoy the land you’re fighting for, as a gift to yourself.

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