Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Visualizing Climate Change
A NASA climatologist explains why global warming is more than starving polar bears, and skeptics are simplistic.
By Peter Dizikes. Salon, June 1, 2009

In our visual culture, climate change remains oddly invisible. Few people can glimpse melting glaciers or perceive that seas levels are rising. We may feel hotter, but we cannot see carbon rising through the atmosphere as we drive our cars around. This is one reason for our lethargic response to the problem: out of sight, out of mind.

“Climate Change: Picturing the Science,” a new book by Gavin Schmidt and Joshua Wolfe, aims to alter that by providing a rich photographic record of a warming world. Some photos tell a self-evident record of geophysical change, like a shot of Lake Powell, on the Arizona-Utah border, where warming-induced drought has produced a dramatically lowered water line — a yellow “bathtub ring” of once-submerged rock.

In other cases, knowing a little about our climate can affect the way we interpret these photos — lending a more menacing air to seemingly benign images. An aerial shot of a massive Dutch sea barrier, with the city of Rotterdam lying just beyond, looks like an ode to Sisyphean futility. A gorgeous photo of sunlight striking a glacier in Peru’s Quelccaya ice cap symbolically sums up a larger question: How long will such formations resist the effects of the sun?

To provide some of that knowledge, Schmidt, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, wrote a few accompanying essays and solicited several others from colleagues. The book emphasizes the complexity of the climate change problem, noting the wide range of greenhouse gases that engender warming (not just carbon dioxide but also methane, aerosols and more), the many ways we release them, and the varied regional effects they produce. Climate change is not a one-dimensional problem with a simple solution, so we need to grasp the totality of the global climate system.

Salon spoke to Schmidt about our inability to grasp global warming, the nature of climate science, and our prospects for a cooler future.

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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


E. Coli and You
The New York Times, June 29, 2008

The Meaning of the Butterfly
The Boston Globe, June 8, 2008

Joseph Needham's Grand Question
Seed, May/June 2008

Pure Science
The New York Times, April 13, 2008

Nature Nurtures Learning
The Boston Globe, December 31, 2007

Genes Open New Frontier in Privacy Debate
The Boston Globe, September 24, 2007

Cambridge Scientists Put on a Show
Nature Network Boston, May 1, 2007

Edward O. Wilson Sees Accord on Climate Action
The Boston Globe, January 29, 2007

Genome Human
The New York Times, July 30, 2006

Galileo Groupies
Slate, February 3, 2006


Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society


Measure for Measure
Technology Review, July/August 2010


Andrew Hearst


Photo credit: Flickr user alb Marcos, via a Creative Commons license