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Nationally acclaimed scientists to offer climate change insights locally

MIDDLEBURY — Climate change may have been largely absent from the national political conversation in 2012, but Addison County is kicking off the first month of 2013 with visits from nationally renowned climate change scientists. 
On Jan. 17, the public is invited to attend a presentation by Alan Betts, a Pittsford-based climate scientist who in recent years has been presenting his climate change research to diverse audiences around the state. Betts will present at the Salisbury Community School at 7 p.m.
“Most people in my profession travel all over the place,” Betts said in a recent interview. “They largely are talking to their peers, and not enough of their understanding gets out into the public arena.”
Betts, whose research is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, has made a big push in recent years to localize climate change issues, making his research specific to Vermont’s climate change indicators based on trends in the growing seasons, freeze dates, and the onset of spring. Bringing climate change issues to a local level makes his work both useful and relevant to businesses, government agencies, and individuals in the area.
Betts, whose background is in meteorology, received his doctorate from Colorado State University in 1971. He received his undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences from Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom. He moved to Vermont after completing his doctorate, building his “dream house on a hill” in Pittsford at the advice of a friend who was in real estate.
These days, Betts is co-chair of the Vermont Climate Collaborative. He was a leader on climate change adaptation planning for the state of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources. But Betts doesn’t just present to state officials; he can recall presenting to everyone from young students to local library audiences, farmers to local business people.
Once, he said, he came to lecture at a school and was asked to go around to each class—starting with the kindergarteners and working his way up to the older students.
When it comes to curiosity about weather and the atmosphere, “Vermont’s a wonderful audience,” Betts said. “I speak to everyone from kindergarteners who are worried about rainbows on the snow, purely a beauty perspective, to high schoolers who are beginning to be a bit worried about their future.”
With citizens groups, he said, the big question is “What do we do about it?”
Vermont’s geographic location means that “our winter climate is changing very fast,” Betts said. “We have to deal with it.”
STAGER TALKS AT COLLEGE
Adirondacks-based author and paleoecologist Curt Stager will give a talk at Middlebury College on Jan. 22 at 12:30 p.m. in a to-be-determined location. Stager’s recent book, “Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years on Earth,” was on Kirkus Reivews’ Best Non-fiction of 2011. His work has also appeared in Nature and Science magazines and he does a weekly show for North Country Public Radio.
Stager was invited to speak by winter term professor and paleoclimatologist Jeremy Shakun, a Middlebury graduate from the Class of 2003, who returned to his alma mater to teach a “J-term” course in the Geology Department called “The Future of Earth’s Climate as Revealed by its Past.”
Shakun, currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, did his doctoral research with data from Antarctic ice cores. Starting more than 20 years ago, researchers began going to Antarctica and drilling cores through ice sheets.
“What you can do is look at little trapped air bubbles that are trapped in the glacier, and that records a sample of ancient atmosphere from whenever that snow fell,” Shakun said, noting that some ice sheets were two miles deep with bottom layers over a million years old. That gives researchers the ability to look at how CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels changed over hundreds of thousands of years, which gives an empirical basis for understanding how CO2 works in today’s atmosphere as humans burn more fossil fuels. Shakun also analyzes the chemistry of the ice samples, calibrating them and scaling them to gauge what the temperatures were at the time. The connection between the two is clear when graphed, causing researchers to wonder which was causing the other.
“This is something climate deniers hit on all the time, (the idea that if) CO2 causes warming, then CO2 levels should rise before warming. Though we see that warming occurs before CO2 goes up, so what’s that all about today?”
Shakun’s study tackled the dilemma that the Antarctic datasets presented. Since CO2 levels would be the same across the globe, he took datasets of temperatures from Greenland and 80 other locations around the world to graph a third data set: global temperatures, which were different than just Antarctic temperatures. Shakun found that Antarctic temperatures went up first, before the global temperature — and that CO2 levels rose before global temperature. The “punch line,” as Shakun put it, is that CO2 levels do rise before global temperatures, strengthening the case for that cause-and-effect relationship.
In a recent interview, Stager said that paleoscience brings the study of climate change into the present, and pushes it into the future. His background is in biology and geology, and he calls himself a “paleo guy,” which means that his approach to the natural sciences comes from studies of the climates and ecosystems of the past — sometimes eons into the past.
That kind of long-term perspective, which includes dramatic, rapid fluctuations in the earth’s temperatures, leads to discussions on climate change that can be disheartening and “just make you want to jump off a bridge,” he said, because the issue is so big and complex that people feel helpless.
But the advantage of Stager’s paleoscientist perspective is that he can also offer a strong beacon of hope.
“We’re in this amazing new age of humans,” Stager said. “We’ve become a geological force of nature.”
Acknowledging our role as a geological force in climate change, Stager believes, also gives us the ability to take control. He likens it to driving an out-of-control tractor-trailer down an unfamiliar road, then looking down and realizing there is a steering wheel.
Stager, said he was himself skeptical of early climate change studies. “When Bill McKibben first published ‘The End of Nature,’ I and some colleagues resisted the idea, because not all the evidence was in,” said Stager, calling himself a “reformed climate skeptic.”
But Stager is foremost a good science professor. He invites skepticism and questioning, offering a quote by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, one of Charles Darwin’s first converts: “Learn what is true in order to do what is right.”

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