The Realities of Climate Change: What WWU scientists see in the field

In the first of a two-part Q&A, WWU's Doug Clark (Geology) and John Rybczyk (Environmental Science) talk about their research and how their fieldwork is increasingly tied to some aspect of climate change. Clark, a glacial geologist, witnesses firsthand the world's shrinking glaciers (see picture above from his ice coring work on BC's Mount Waddington). Rybczyk, whose area of expertise includes predicting the effects of rising sea levels on coastal systems,  is working to understand how healthy estuaries can store "blue carbon" and keep it from entering the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

Doug Clark

WT: As a glacial geologist, your research work takes you every summer to some of the world’s most quickly-disappearing natural areas. What is happening to the world’s glaciers, and how are they such a “canary in the coalmine” for the changing global climate?

Basically, a glacial geologist mostly studies the landscapes and deposits left behind by glaciers, so, ironically, as the glaciers shrink, my field areas are expanding.  Having said that, the simple answer to your question is what has been stated by many glacial scientists from around the world: most of the worlds glaciers are shrinking, and shrinking rapidly.  Nearly all mountain glaciers in North America have been shrinking relatively continuously for the past ~150 years (since coming out of a cold period known as “the Little Ice Age”  The first 2/3 of that shrinkage (from ~1850-1950) was probably mostly a result of natural climate variations, but most studies suggest that the shrinkage since 1950 is dominantly a result of anthropogenic climate change (from greenhouse gas emissions). 

Many folks view glaciers as the “canary in the coalmine” as you state because they are big, spectacular to look at, and their shrinkage is so viscerally linked to warming climate; they clearly depend directly on climate conditions (colder/wetter conditions will make them grow, warmer/dryer conditions will make them shrink), but because of their great mass and slow flow, they filter out year to year changes in atmospheric conditions (what we’d call “weather”) and mainly respond to longer-term atmospheric conditions (what scientists define as “climate”).  For what it’s worth, glacier shrinkage is merely one of many lines of evidence confirming the predictions of climate science, and not even the strongest.  It’s mainly that the effect is so visual and easy to understand by most non-scientists.  Efforts to document the shrinkage using timelapse imagery, like the Extreme Ice Survey ( are more geared towards communicating to the broader public what has long been accepted by the vast majority of climate scientists.

WT: A part of your research involves sampling ice cores from deep inside these glaciers, such as the one atop Mount Waddington in BC (see photo). These cores reveal hundreds of years of past climate data. How does what you find in these cores about the earth’s climate hundreds of years ago jibe with what you see anecdotally around you in the field today?

The Waddington Ice Core Project was fundamentally a glaciologic study - which helps show that even we glacial geologists like to dabble in glaciologic problems!  The basic goal of most ice coring projects like the WICP is to analyze the chemistry of ice and air trapped in glacier ice.  The remarkable thing about such ice cores is that they can preserve samples of ice and air from the time they fell, often at remarkable resolutions (annual or even seasonal), in effect creating a “time-machine” that allows geochemists to step back in time and track changes in climate, pollution, volcanism, etc.  With regards to climate change in particular, the ice core records from around the world have provided some of the strongest evidence that global temperature have been warming rapidly over the past century, and that those temperatures are going up largely in concert with the great volumes of greenhouse gases Humans have been putting into the atmosphere.

This statement often gets misconstrued by those who don’t understand climate science, or who actively misrepresent it.  Common misconceptions include “just because two factors correlate doesn’t mean one causes the other,” and “there are periods when climate cooled even while CO2 was going up, so that disproves the idea of anthropogenic climate change.”  The crucial thing here is that the theory of ACC theory predicts a correlation between GG and climate change, it is not based on that correlation.  Similarly, just because anthropogenic greenhouse gases have an effect on global climates does NOT mean that natural climate variability will suddenly cease to be a factor; it is merely superimposed on natural variations.

The take-home message is that the vast bulk of high-quality, peer-reviewed climate science studies, from an incredible diversity of records, lend increasing weight favoring the consensus view that global climates are changing, that the change is towards warming in most places around the world, and that the changes are likely to accelerate in directions that are not favorable to modern human society (developed under relatively stable climate conditions) or to global ecosystems that are already threatened by other heavy-impacts from humans (e.g., deforestation, overfishing, etc.).

WT: What needs to happen, in your opinion and on the macro level, to stop the acceleration of global climate change?

This really gets outside my expertise, so I can’t offer specific solutions, but the basic need is fairly apparent: there needs to be a global effort to transform modern society away from greenhouse-gas emitting activities to a system that relies on sustainable, greenhouse-gas neutral activities.  I note that the new congress is in the process of proposing some far-reaching legislation to promote just such major efforts.

WT: In a general way, can (or should) science be more of an advocate for change, as opposed to the traditional “research and report” methodology?

This is a tough question to address; I am trained as a scientist, not a sociologist or policy maker; my scientific training through the years has been to remain objective and focused on my field of expertise.  Having said that, as an educator who develops and teaches courses that address climate change, I’ve increasingly felt I would be derelict in my duties if I didn’t highlight to my students the seriousness of the long-term effects of anthropogenic climate change facing our society.  As the father of four, I have become even more concerned that I not leave my children a world changed fundamentally from what I experienced growing up, in potentially dire ways, without making an effort to mitigate those changes.  I still strive to communicate clearly what I know as a scientist, vs. how that knowledge shapes my political and societal opinions, but clearly the need for scientists to learn to communicate their understanding of climate change is greater now than ever before.

Doug Clark has taught at Western since 1998 and received his doctorate from University of Washington in 1996. His primary areas of research interest include glacial geology, paleoclimatology, alpine geomorphology, and slope stability.


John Rybczyk

WT: Tell us about "blue carbon," why it is important, and how estuaries might play a role in global efforts to roll back the effects of climate change.

First, a quick definition of an “estuary;” the place where the river meets the sea.  We have many estuaries in the Puget Sound ... the Skagit, the Nooksack, the Stillaguamish, just to name a few. It is there, in our few remaining wild estuaries, unmodified by humans, where salt marshes thrive, juvenile salmon grow and blues carbon is stored.  Blue carbon refers to the fraction of atmospheric carbon captured by estuarine salt marsh plants during photosynthesis and incorporated into plant organic matter, that ends up stored, more or less permanently, in salt marsh soils. 

Salt marshes are particularly good at storing carbon for two reasons.  First, salt marsh plants are very productive and grow fast, so they capture a lot of carbon compared to terrestrial plants. Second, the organic matter in flooded marsh soils decomposes very slowly, so the carbon stays put.  So, with regards to climate change, it’s important to protect our remaining estuaries (and the carbon stored there) and to restore, where possible, the many degraded estuaries.

WT: What needs to happen, in your opinion and on the macro level, to stop the acceleration of global climate change, beyond the estuary-specific items you mention above?

First, I think there is no one thing that will solve the problem and no one magical technological solution.  It will take a coordinated global effort, and we could do it with the right leadership.  We have come together in the past to solve such problems.  In 1987, the world came together and, under the Montreal Protocol, agreed to phase out the production of chlorofluorocarbons that were responsible for the depletion of the earth’s protective ozone layer.  As a direct result, we have observed a slow recovery of the ozone layer. With regards to climate change, we already have the scientific consensus and ability to address the problem -- but not the political will, which is sad. 

WT: In a general way, can (or should) science be more of an advocate for change, as opposed to the traditional “research and report” methodology?

I think that the “either or” storyboard of research or advocacy is largely a false dichotomy. There are many, many, many examples of individual scientists and scientific organizations advocating for change. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a scientific society (my home society, the Estuarine Research Federation, for example) that does not spend a great deal of time advocating at the local and national level for actions based on sound scientific principles and data. 

The problem is not with advocacy, the problem is in managing a global commons, especially when the United States will not take a lead in doing so.

John Rybczyk has taught at Western since 2000 and received his doctorate from Louisiana State University. His primary areas of research interest include coastal restoration and predicting the effects of rising sea levels on coastal systems.


Part 2 of this Q&A, which runs tomorrow, is with Warren Cornwall,  an award-winning environmental and science writer and the faculty advisor for WWU's student-produced environmental magazine, The Planet. Cornwall will discuss the challenges of communicating about science in general and climate change in particular, and how the global conversation needs to shift for these communications strategies to bear more fruit.