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Thursday, November 19,2009

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

By Jefferson Dodge

High-tech globe

Beth Russell, a scientific communication and data specialist at NOAA’s Boulder lab, the Earth System Research Laboratory, will also attend COP15 in Copenhagen. She will provide training and technical support for “Science on a Sphere,” a six-foot-wide suspended globe, onto which computer images are projected from four sides to simulate the earth and its shifting conditions. Animated images of atmospheric storms, climate change and ocean temperature can be shown on the $160,000 sphere to show complex environmental processes.

Russell says the sphere will be used every day of the conference, and her role will be to maintain the technology, help teach scientists how to use it and contribute to NOAA presentations. Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald, director of the Earth System Research Laboratory, invented the high-tech globe in 1995 and will deliver a presentation using the sphere on Dec. 8. That presentation will be a “spherecast,” Russell says.

Not only will video of the presentation be streamed live online, but any of the 41 museums around the world that have the giant Science on a Sphere exhibit will be able to carry a live feed showing everything MacDonald is projecting — on their own globes.

“So it will be a worldwide remote lecture,” Russell says.

MacDonald’s lecture, which is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time on Dec. 8, will be aired online at sos.noaa.gov/spherecasting.

NOAA Research Scientist Janet Intrieri says MacDonald will use the Science on a Sphere to show world leaders things like decreases in polar ice caps and how various levels of carbon dioxide increases correlate with rises in global temperature. Intrieri is helping MacDonald compile material for a second presentation that MacDonald will deliver at the conference, about the history and science of monitoring carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Satellite imagery

Another Boulder scientist who hopes to use the Science on a Sphere in Copenhagen is Waleed Abdalati, an associate professor of geography and director of the Earth Science and Observation Center at CU. Abdalati, who is also attending COP15 at the invitation of NASA, will speak on the first morning of the conference about the most recent changes in polar ice, possibly using the sphere to show the latest satellite imagery.

He can only stay at the conference for the first two days; he has to get back to teach class. But Abdalati says he is looking forward to making an impression on world leaders during that short time.

“I hope to deliver more than I take away,” he says. “I want to impress upon them the significance of the change we’re seeing and the scope of it.”

Abdalati says he also plans to emphasize the important role that satellites and satellite imagery play in monitoring climate changes. He says 14 of the 15 earthobserving satellites now in orbit are beyond their design life and need to be replaced, but current plans only call for launching seven more in the next seven years. Abdalati plans to argue at COP15 for more aggressive replacement of the satellites.

“I think the information is crucial for how earth is changing and how to respond to that, adapt to that and mitigate that,” he says. “Without some investment for the tools, we’ll be in the dark.”

Abdalati, a former NASA scientist, also says the work done by researchers in Boulder is at the international forefront of the field of climate change.

“The work we do is a critical part of the broader process,” he says. “When I left NASA and looked for an environment where scientists do this robustly, Boulder was at the top of my list.”

“We’re where the carbon dioxide samples come to from all over the world,” NOAA’s Intrieriadds.

Climate change ethics

Ben Hale, an assistant professor of philosophy and environmental studies at CU, is also traveling to Copenhagen for the conference, but not for the hard science. Hale is an ethicist, and he explores moral questions about the permissibility of government policies and actions, as opposed to individuals’ rights and responsibilities.

Hale says his interests in attending COP15 involve weighing the costs and benefits of climate change policies, at the global level, against the implications for particular populations and individuals. For instance, he says, certain climatechange agreements may affect one population more than another, and his interests lie in the social and human dimensions of any agreements proposed at the conference.

Hale says it could be beneficial to set different goals for different countries, taking into consideration the impacts on certain populations. He says he is attending the conference to observe and to blog, but also to participate in a side event with about 10 philosophers and ethicists.

A main focus in Hale’s research has been to examine environmental problems and the remediation technologies used to address those problems. He says that historically, one flawed approach, in the case of oil spills, for example, has been for the polluter to swoop in and clean up the mess and pretend that the damage has been dealt with adequately.

“There is something moral always left behind,” Hale says. “I can’t go into your house, mess it up, then clean it up, and think everything is fixed.”

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