Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Science of Persistence - Climate Science Pioneers

Within the past month, two significant global environmental events occurred, the death of Joseph Farman, discoverer of the Ozone Hole, and the first recording of atmospheric CO2 levels above 400 ppm on the Keeling Curve. What connects these events?

Reading Joseph Farman's recent obituary in the New York Times, I was reminded of his Ozone Hole discovery almost thirty years ago, and was drawn into the interesting story of his dedication as a scientist and researcher. With the British Antarctic Survey in 1957, he began collecting the ground level ozone readings which eventually resulted in one of the most important environmental discoveries of the twentieth century. But what emerges beyond the discoveries, the subsequent adoption of the Montreal Protocol to ban CFC's, and Farman's related personal recognition, are the quotes, taken from the Times obituary, regarding his methods and diligence.
"…his commitment to the prosaic first principles of data collection, they said, in the remotest outpost of the scientific world, produced discoveries unimagined by other scientists and overlooked by orbiting satellites."
"But Mr. Farman refused to stop making ground-level readings, despite his superior's questions about their usefulness, and despite his lack of standing in the field of ozone research."
"His dedication, as much to the principle of scientific record keeping as to ozone study, would make him something of a working class hero among scientists."
After twenty five years of recordings he had collected enough evidence to show that ozone levels over the Antarctic had fallen by 40% in just a ten-year period and that the ozone hole was a real and present danger to life on earth. Sharon Roan, author of Ozone Crisis: The 15-Year Evolution of a Sudden Global Emergency, noted his modest willingness to do the research he thought was important to do. "He wasn't looking for anything astonishing -- just doing a little job, and persevering at it. And he came up with the most astonishing discovery."

At the same time that Joseph Farman began his environmental recordings, another climate science pioneer, Charles David Keeling, was initiating his recordings of atmospheric carbon dioxide, two miles high on the rim of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. As a scientist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography, he began making daily recordings with a device he developed at Caltech. These measurements were begun as part of a one-year initiative, the International Geophysical Year. Like Farman, Keeling's persistence and discipline resulted in daily recordings which have been consistently recorded since 1958 and are now referred to as the Keeling Curve. Historical research has shown that, prior to 1750, pre-industrial levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide ranged from 275-285 ppm. When Keeling initiated his measurement the level was about 315 ppm, and his subsequent measurements recorded the growth attributed to human activity and fossil fuel consumption. The terms greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change all have origins resulting from this data and Keeling's subsequent research.

When the May report of atmospheric carbon dioxide recordings showed measurements of more than 400 ppm, it was seen as a possible tipping point. Many believe, like climate scientist James Hansen, that we must reduce levels to 350 ppm to mitigate the range of environmental impacts associated with higher levels of concentration of atmospheric CO2. Framed around the crucial need for reduction to this lower level, Bill McKibben's environmental movement,, also reacted to the announcement of the 400 ppm recording.

But back to the nexus of the climate science pioneers, Farman and Keeling, and the recent events that remind us of the important lessons of their research. Both scientists began their studies in remote locations and at about the same time in the late 50's, just as Sputnik went into space. Both were personally passionate, believing in themselves and the importance of their work, and persisting over significant time in the measurements which have changed our understanding of the planet. Farman and Keeling left us powerful lessons, yet we still have much to learn.

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