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Thursday, November 19,2009

Local researchers' work will take center stage at Copenhagen climate conference

By Jefferson Dodge

When world leaders gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, next month to discuss a new international agreement for dealing with climate change, Boulder scientists and their findings will be in the spotlight.

From key data in a presentation by former Vice President Al Gore to timelapse photography of deteriorating glaciers to a giant high-tech globe that will be used throughout the event, Boulder’s fingerprints will be all over the United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be held Dec. 7–18.

The conference, known simply as COP15 (15th Session of the Conference of the Parties) could result in a successor to the 2005 Kyoto Protocol: a binding treaty among nations for reducing greenhouse gases and global warming.

The conference continues a process started in 1994, when 192 countries agreed to share information about climate change and launch national strategies for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

While the United States did not sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, Boulder County and several of its municipalities have incorporated similar emissionsreduction goals into their own environmental plans, even though most local officials agree it may be unrealistic to reduce emissions by the target set in Kyoto: 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Dozens of representatives from Boulder are expected to attend COP15, primarily from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and University of Colorado at Boulder.

The city of Boulder was also invited to send representatives to Denmark, and two city officials will participate in COP15 events as part of a delegation of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. Jonathan Koehn, regional sustainability coordinator, was invited to be one of the speakers on a local government action panel at the conference. David Driskell, executive director of community planning and sustainability, will also represent Boulder in Copenhagen, and city council approved a resolution on Nov. 17 outlining the messages the delegates should take to COP15.

Gore’s presentation

One Boulder-based research scientist, Richard Armstrong of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at CU, is not going to Copenhagen — but Al Gore will be relying on a report Armstrong coauthored when the former vice president delivers a presentation there. Armstrong was one of a half-dozen people who served on an international task force that compiled the report “Melting Snow and Ice — A Call for Action.”

The roots of Armstrong’s role in creating the report stretch back about two years, he says, when Gore was in Denver to deliver a talk at the Pepsi Center. One of Gore’s staffers told the former vice president that “the place where you get all of that snow and ice data is just up the road,” and Gore replied, “Let’s go there,” according to Armstrong.

Armstrong says Gore spent three or four hours at the CU center, quizzing the scientists about their latest findings.

“He was on his laptop, playing with his next PowerPoint presentation,” Armstrong says. “He’d ask, ‘Here’s the figure I’m using, is it still good, or is it crap?’” As a result of that meeting, Armstrong says he was invited to speak at “A High Level Conference in Melting Ice” in April in Troms, Norway, where Gore was the key player and had a “commanding presence.” It was at that conference where Armstrong was asked to help prepare Gore’s report for Copenhagen.

Armstrong says he does not know of any scientists from his center who are traveling to Denmark, in part because one of the most important conferences in their field — the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union — is being held at the same time.

Ice photography

James Balog, an award-winning National Geographic photographer who directs the Boulder-based Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), specializes in documenting the decline of glaciers in photographs and video. Since 2006, EIS has set up more than 30 time-lapse cameras at 17 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. The cameras shoot one frame during each daylight hour, producing about 4,500 images a year.

Balog is attending the Copenhagen conference to deliver presentations at the request of NASA, showing time-lapse images he has gathered over the past three years.

One of the most startling findings documented by EIS has been the rapid deterioration of the Columbia Glacier in Alaska, which has retreated more than two miles over the past three years. Twice, Balog’s team has had to move one of its cameras at Columbia because the glacier retreated out of the frame.

EIS also captured the biggest icecalving event ever recorded on film on May 29, 2008, when it took about 75 minutes for a block of ice three miles wide and three-fifths of a mile deep to break off the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. Images are available at www. extremeicesurvey.org.

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