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Researchers go to the core of climate change

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In West Virginia, a mention of the phrase "climate change" is likely to prompt attacks on the Obama administration, harsh criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims from the mining industry about a "war on coal."

Next month, two state natives who are top climate change researchers will try their best to bring some actual science to the table for a different sort of climate change discussion.

The husband-and-wife team of Lonnie Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson are scheduled to deliver a public lecture, "Climate Change: The Evidence, People and Our Options." The event is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. March 10 at the Clay Center.

Mosley-Thompson said the couple hopes to provide their Charleston audience with enough information that they understand the science, but not so much that those who attend become confused or lost in the details.

"I just want to give people some of the basics," said Mosley-Thompson, who has led nine expeditions to Antarctica and six to Greenland to retrieve ice cores. "I would like people to realize that as humans, we're part of a bigger, complex system."

The Kanawha Garden Club put together next month's event.

"The goal of inviting the Thompsons to do this lecture is not intended to be a political one, but the presentation of their actual scientific research from which people can ponder the evidence and arrive at their own conclusions," said Judy McJunkin, chairwoman of the club's conservation committee.

The event is free to the public, but tickets are required and can be reserved by calling 304-561-3570 or visiting www.theclaycenter.org.

Lonnie Thompson, a Gassaway native, and his wife both graduated from Marshall University. Together they lead the internationally famous ice core paleo-climatology unit at Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center, where scientists work to reconstruct past climate by studying chemical records preserved in ice cores around the globe.

Thompson has done 58 expeditions in 16 countries, pulling ice core samples from glaciers and ice sheets, looking for clues to help advance the world's understanding of climate change.

The New York Times observed in a 2012 profile that Thompson was among a pioneering group of scientists who, in the latter decades of the 20th century, essentially discovered the problem of global warming.

"Hauling six tons of equipment to South America, Africa, Asia and Europe, he and his small team raced to recover long cylinders of ice from glaciers that had built up over thousands of years," the Times explained. "The layers in those cylinders contained dust, volcanic ash, subtle variations in water chemistry, even the occasional frozen insect -- a record of climatic and geologic changes that could be retrieved, preserved and interpreted like a series of tree rings."

Thompson's work -- in more than 185 peer-reviewed articles -- helped identify and record a broad global melting of land ice.

"The beauty of a glacier is that it has no political agenda," Thompson said.

In their presentation, Thompson and Mosley-Thompson plan to stress the scientific evidence that climate change is happening and that human activities are the primary cause. But they'll also talk about the economic costs of climate change, such as huge impacts insurance companies are seeing from extreme weather events. And they also plan to touch on how the issue is currently seen in West Virginia, and on industry efforts to convince the public to ignore the science.

"There is a very vibrant and well-funded denial campaign putting messages out that are false," Mosley-Thompson said. "It's the same thing as the campaign to convince the public that there was no link between lung cancer and smoking cigarettes."

Thompson said that human beings "deal with the here and now" and "aren't very good with planning for the future," but that repeated examples of extreme weather events have more people accepting what scientists have said about climate change.

"We respond to things that have consequences to us," Thompson said. "We may care about thousands of people being flooded in Bangladesh because of climate change, but we become really concerned when it's our house that gets flooded in a valley in West Virginia."

As for West Virginia and its coal industry, Thompson said that the real conclusion of scientists sometimes gets muddled in the public-relations battle over climate change.

"It's not as if scientists are saying, 'Don't burn a single chunk of coal,'" he said. "What the science is saying is, we need to diversify the energy sources and scale up the nonfossil-fuel industry."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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