On St. Valentine’s Day, I get a little sentimental. Not about lurve — or at least, not the commercial hearts and flowers sort — but about humanity and well-being and, well, how we all benefit as part of the Earth system. So humour me this week if I introduce a little something extra to season the science.
New Satellite Data Show Increasing Pace of Sea Level Change
But let’s begin with something serious. As the Earth warms, melting ice in Greenland and the Antarctic is fuelling sea level rise. In some ways this isn’t news: you can take your pick from a whole raft of studies which estimate how far sea levels will rise by the end of the century and how many people will be affected.
Of course there are many factors influencing this — not least the fact that population isn’t static and that land can rise and fall as well as the sea — and so the numbers can’t be exact, but I certainly haven’t seen anyone refute the suggestion that very many people will be vulnerable to the effects of sea level rise. For illustration, I found one study back in 2014 that cited 147-216 million people at risk. The exact numbers don’t matter: all studies indicate that they’re huge.
This week NASA has published new analysis of satellite data that measure actual (not forecast) sea level rise, and it makes alarming reading. The results indicate that seal level rise is occurring more quickly than expected, and that the pace is accelerating.
“If the rate of ocean rise continues to change at this pace, sea level will rise 26 inches (65 centimeters) by 2100 — enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities,” the study warns. And the impacts won’t just be felt by relatively isolated island communities in the Pacific, but in low-lying coastal communities in the developed world as well.
Talking Science — in Poetry
Poetry is traditional for Valentine’s Day, so I’m going to share a poem. I’ve always liked William Blake, with his Songs of Innocence and Experience, and this verse is perhaps one of the better known.
To see a world in a grain of sand
And to see heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Science reporting can be dull. The terminology is difficult, and scientists speaking to scientists and to non-scientists have to be exact in their language (for example, there’s a difference between climate change and global warming). But in this day and age it’s vital to be able to communicate science with those who don’t understand the terminology, or who don’t have the time to sit down and read the detailed papers (or even summaries of them).
This week my eye was caught by a study into science communication and how poetry — yes, poetry — can be used to inform those who don’t have the capacity to access the heavy stuff. Like many people, I suspect, I have a bit of secret poetry buried in my past so I can relate to this. And so, it appears, can others.
The study opens with a statement of fact that sums up what I repeatedly say in my articles: that hazard — i.e. the effects of any natural event — is defined not by the event itself but by the impact on people. “The implications of climate change on our environment and society is not solely dependent on how the Earth system responds to changes in radiative forcing; instead it depends on the extent to which humankind responds through changes in their lifestyle, attitude, and policy.”
The study reports on how scientists and laymen came together and used poetry as a means of communication, allowing the science to be expressed in a form of words more accessible to the latter, concluding that poetry offers: “a powerful way of generating what underserved audiences really know and think about environmental change”.
Twitter Cups: #VolcanoCup Update and More
I promised an update on Twitter’s #VolcanoCup for those not following it themselves. There are some big names through to the next round — Mount St Helen’s, Krakatua, Mt Fuji among them — and some big names are out, including three of my favourites (Vesuvius, Eyjafjallajökull and Yellowstone).
Overlapping with the Volcano Cup comes, perhaps inevitably, the #EarthquakeCup. This one is just getting into gear so there’s not a huge amount to report, though looking at the contenders I’m much more struck by how significant they feel to me.
Other than THAT ash cloud back in 2010, volcanoes tend to have a fairly limited regional impact. That isn’t the case with earthquakes. The contenders for the Earthquake Cup tend to fall into two categories — those which have made the news relatively recently, and which I can remember from news headlines, and historic earthquakes with monumental death tolls.
What struck me is that these earthquakes, even more so than the volcanoes, have had enormous resonance way beyond their source. The 1700 Cascadia earthquake caused the ‘orphan tsunami’ that devastated parts of Japan. The Shaanxi earthquake in China in 1556 killed (an estimated) well over three quarters of a million people. And the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is credited with having changed the way people thought about the church and society.
There are some big and significant earthquakes unrepresented, too — most notably the ones which are (probably) responsible for some of the Biblical stories such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the fall of the walls of Jericho and (perhaps) even the rending of the veil of the Temple in two.
Science Communication is Changing
If you’ve been following the Earthquake and Volcano Cups you’ll have learned, as I have, a lot of new facts as snippets of information suitable for the modern mind. You’ll have learned a lot of science and a chunk of social science too — such as that the Laki fissure eruption in Iceland is held partly responsible for the French Revolution because of the crop failure and famine that came in its wake.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Natural hazards aren’t about the Earth, because the planet will do just fine on its own. They’re about us. By loving the planet, you’re loving yourself — and seven billion others. So love the Earth, and show the Earth you love it — every day.