NASA Chief Scientist Talks Climate Change

NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan emphasized the reality of climate change and advocated for increased reliance on scientific data in the Philodemic Room of Healy Hall on Wednesday.

Around 60 students, faculty and community members attended the talk, entitled “Helping Countries Build Climate Resilience.”

Stofan began the event by countering the common misconception that NASA’s work is only focused on space and not on earthly problems.

“When I talk about what NASA does, I like to use the phrase ‘we look outward, inward and homeward.’ I think outward is the part you’re most familiar with; we look out into the solar system, out into the universe,” Stofan said.

Stofan said that climate change is a reality that has been confirmed by climate models.

“The global deviation from surface temperature from the late 1800s to the present day … [shows that] as we come towards the [present], especially in the last 15 years, the planet gets warmer and warmer … [and] I have a lot of people who come to me and say ‘I didn’t know you had evidence like this’,” Stofan said.

Stofan emphasized that there is no possibility that climate change is theoretical as shown by distinct scientific evidence.

“A lot of people think that climate change is something theoretical; it’s not theoretical, the climate is changing, the Earth is getting warmer and we have clear evidence of that from the temperature record,” Stofan said.

Part of NASA’s work on climate change involves modeling future temperatures on the basis of two climate models, one estimated on conservative emission levels and one on a worse-case scenario estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Climate change models are based on Representative Concentration Pathways, predictions about climate change emissions until the year 2100. An RCP of 4.5 predicts low emission growth, while an RCP of 8.5 predicts higher emission growth and is the worse-case scenario.

The RCP 4.5 scenario assumes emissions will peak around 2040 and then decline, while RCP 8.5 takes into account rising emissions through the 21st century.

“RCP 4.5 says that within the next 20 years, based on things like the discussions that are going on at [Conference of Parties 21 in Paris ] over the past week, we’re going to radically cut carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change,” Stofan said.

Even under the more optimistic RCP 4.5, Stofan emphasized that surface temperatures will rise as high as 109 degrees Fahrenheit based on NASA”s climate models. Stofan said that if emission levels exceed the predictions of RCP 4.5, and instead reach the emissions levels of RCP 8.5, whole sections of the earth might become uninhabitable.

“You can see the earth is well above 45 degrees [Celsius] which is about 117 [Farenheit]. Huge sections of the earth in July of 2099 are going to be so hot that it can’t support things like photosynthesis … photosynthesis shuts off,” Stofan said.

NASA works with over 122 countries and two organizations and has 19 satellites operating in an effort to better understand the planet.

Of all 60 current NASA operating missions, 44 have some international component. Stofan also spoke of the possibility of NASA identifying and researching other habitable planets, or planets that have water on their surfaces.

“Right now we’re only able to determine about [planets’] size and their orbit, but in 2018 we’re going to launch a new telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope. this is going to start looking at the atmospheres of some of these potentially habitable planets,” Stofan said.

Stofan said although the reality of climate change is depressing, it must be shared so that countries can make decisions that will benefit their populations in the long run.

“So these are really worrying scenarios. On the other hand, we’re putting these models out there with this high resolution to allow countries around the world to say, ‘Do I grow the right crops? What’s going to happen to my precipitation, my temperatures, so that I can start making decisions about how I’m going to feed my population?’” Stofan said.

Kyle Rinaudo (SFS ’18) said hearing from NASA’s head scientist was inspiring.

“It’s fascinating just to hear about all the things that are going on and all the problems that are being solved by NASA that otherwise I would have never known about. … It’s actually inspiring to see these people that are doing these things that I would have never imagined,” Rinaudo said.

Victorino Floro (MSFS ’17) said he particularly enjoyed hearing about NASA’s international aid efforts and projects.

“I don’t think that a lot of the different programs that NASA does [are known] … they are doing a lot of work in relation to looking at the earth, and particularly because of climate change more people have to become more aware of the work that NASA is doing,” Floro said. “All we need is the will to use the data so that Earth can stay habitable.”

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