UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Climate Change Is Here

“It’s happening right now – the momentum is incredible.” Those were the words of one of the speakers at a symposium on climate change and biodiversity last Saturday at UMB. UMB’s biology department – notably Kamal Bawa and Rob Stevenson – hosted the event which lasted from 9:00 am to past four in the afternoon. The symposium featured five speakers from various fields, all concerned with the implications of the current global warming.

The current global warming trend has been accelerated by the activities of human beings. Emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, and other by-products of home and industry are accumulating in the atmosphere and trapping heat there – an occurence which is changing the weather and biological patterns we depend upon as a species.

William R. Moomaw is a physical chemist and director of Tufts Institute of the Environment who has also participated in making environmental policy. Moomaw’s presentation focused on the human element of global warming and the domino effects of that warming.

Moomaw put it plainly, “Species depend on the abundance of nutrients.” A change in nutrient abundance compels a change in species abundance. The currrent warming trend is going to affect the nutrient supply.

The accumulation of pollutants in the atmosphere not only retains too much heat and prevents the earth from cooling in natural cycles, it also hampers solar irradiation. This means that the sun’s rays – vital to plants’ photosynthesis processes – are blocked in varying degrees from reaching those plants. Changes in temperature also affect the microbial balance of soil – bacteria and fungi populations which are the basis of the food chain. Anything that affects the foundational nutrient balance affects everything that depends on that foundation – including us.

Ice caps melting around the earth’s poles are creating problems too. Fresh water is pouring at above-average rates into the ocean. Heavier than salt water, the fresh water sinks to the bottom and disturbs ocean currents which heavily influence earth’s weather patterns and the migration patterns of species. The unnatural abundance of fresh water in the ocean also changes the ocean’s food supply – the phytoplankton which is the sea’s foundational support. Moomaw mentioned “well-documented” studies showing an increase in polar bear morbidity and mortality rates due to these upsets in climate. The ice cap of Greenland is melting at three cubic kilometers a year.

Farm fertilizer run-off along the Mississippi River is creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. When most run-off occurs in the spring, fishermen report the existence of a lifeless zone in the gulf. This is a relatively new development considering that run-off has been occurring for more than forty years. Moomaw believes that global warming is the variable responsible for worsening its effects. In the winter, species do return to the ‘dead’ zone but come spring the zone becomes lifeless once more and grows larger. The accumulation of fertilizer pollutants builds.

According to Moomaw’s data, human beings add more carbon dioxide and nitrogen annually to the environment than is produced by natural means world-wide. He cited a Dutch study that predicted that even if we cut production of these gases “tomorrow morning” it will still take a “millenium” for the earth to recover from past pollution.

Still, there is hope. A discussion group ensued after the speakers’ presentations in which UMB students, professors, and experts talked about subjects that intergrated science, sociology, business, and activism. The main issue was how to best “mobilize the concern” people have for environmental issues into action.

Not all the data is in on exactly what will happen to the earth because of changes now occurring. “However,” said one symposium attendee, “doing nothing in the face of uncertainty is a decision” that will amount to disaster.

Someone else retorted, “Doing nothing in the face of terror is understandable.” This person went on to say that the “fear factor needs to be overwhelmed.” He expressed concern that people feel paralyzed by dire environmental predictions, that we need to know what we can feasibly do to help, that what we do will be effective.

Someone else in the audience said it was “morally wrong to not tell people” what is actually happening to our environment as a result of man-made contaminants. “People sit around and think technology is going to fix everything.”

It was clear from the conference that while technology can be employed in dealing with the problem: business, government, and personal policy changes need to be made. The need for effective communication was a hallmark of the symposium. Along with science and personal choices, skills in marketing the needs of our environment to those with the economic power to do something about it were called for. Conference attendees recommended the following websites for more information: AAAS.org and Cleanair-coolplanet.org.