This fall I’ve been doing a great online course given by the American Museum of Natural History called “Our Earth’s Future.” Over the past several weeks and continuing until mid-December, we’re learning about the science of climate change from specialists who work in oceanography, anthropology, earth science, climatology, physics, and more. This past week, for example, we heard from Dr. Michela Biasuitt, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who explained the science around climate change forecasts and the various modeling options that are used. The week before, Dr. Gavin Schmidt from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies focused on how to talk about climate change and the problems and challenges that politics add to such a conversation. Each of us in the class has had a chance to research the climate changes that have occurred over the past one hundred or so years in our neighborhood (which has been very interesting because we have people in the class from as far south as Florida, from the southwest, from the west coast, from Texas and Wisconsin, and from the northeast). We’ve read studies on climate change in a wide range of other parts of the world, from Greenland o the Sahel grasslands of Africa.
The course has been both interesting and challenging for me. While I spend a decent amount of time on environmental issues (for my course on world religions and the environment, for my work with several denominational and religious groups working on climate change issues, and in a lot of my volunteer time), this is really the first chance I’ve had to focus exclusively on the science involved in the issues. It’s giving me (and I suspect my fellow students who work in a wide range of areas as educators, journalists, horticulturalists, documentary producers, and more) a new vocabulary with which to speak and also a lot of information by which to back up my more general non-scientific statements. I’ve enjoyed learning about topics like ice core samples or climate feedbacks and forcings, I’ve been amazed that people still program in Fortran, much less that a major climate modeling system continues to be written using it as a programming language. But what I’ve found most fascinating so far, has been learning about the Eemian period, an interglacial period that was about 125,000 years ago that I’d never heard of before this class. The Eemian period seems to have a climate fairly similar to ours (although their CO2 wasn’t as high as ours is). Because of that it allows us to draw conclusions on how our present climate will be affected by ice melting based on the significant melting that happened in that time period. While we’ve moved on as a class from the Eemian period into other areas of study, this is a topic I’m hoping to discover more about on my own.