Science Book a Day Interviews Richard Alley

Special thanks to Richard Alley for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book, which he co-authored – The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change

Dr. Richard Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of the Department of Geosciences and EMS Environment Institute at Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pa. His current research interests include glaciology; ice sheet stability; paleoclimates from ice cores; physical properties of ice cores; and erosion and sedimentation by ice sheets. Along with his many teaching accomplishments, Dr. Alley has authored many publications, chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ and National Council’s panel on abrupt climate change, has been involved with advisory groups to improve national and international research, and has been active with media outreach translate research findings to a broad audience with appearances on television, radio and print outlets. – From NASA profile

#1 – What was the impetus for the book?

We were driven by the confluence of so many fascinating stories—Mr. Comer’s contributions, the rapidly changing climate especially in the Arctic, the history of strong linkages between the north and the rest of the globe, and the growing scientific confidence that ignoring climate change is costly and damaging, but dealing with it can make us better off.

#2 – Many reviews refer to the wonderful photography by Mr. Comer. Can you tell us a bit about these photos? Can you tell us a bit about Mr Comer?

He approached  his photography the same vision, passion, and commitment to excellence that made him a world-class sailor, a highly successful businessman, a driving force in climate-change research, and a fascinating person to accompany to the Arctic.

#3 – Your book talks about the Younger Dryas. Can you tell us about this and the work you did on this idea?

In the modern world, the only place that warm ocean water reaches near a pole is offshore of Norway.  In the winter, this water sinks before it freezes, and is replaced by warm water from the south.  If this water were a little fresher, it would freeze before it sank, dropping wintertime temperatures immensely there, spreading cold and dryness around the whole hemisphere, shifting the tropical circulations south, and warming the southern hemisphere a little.  The Younger Dryas was the most recent large such climate event, a millennium of freezing-before-sinking off Norway probably triggered by meltwater from the great northern ice sheets as the ice age ended.  The Younger Dryas started rapidly, ended really rapidly (warming of 10 degrees C in roughly 10 years or less in Greenland), and affected most of the world significantly.  All of the authors are among those who worked on assembling and reading the climate records of the Younger Dryas and similar events; my work was especially on ice cores from central Greenland, but I also helped on moraine records from mountain glaciers. 

The existence of these events in the past scared many people (initially including me) that freshening from melting of Greenland’s ice might trigger another such event in the near future.  Good science now shows that another Younger Dryas is unlikely soon; although the meltwater from Greenland pushes in that direction, it isn’t pushing hard enough, so we have high confidence (more than 90%, according to the 2007 IPCC) that a large and abrupt change in the north Atlantic won’t occur in the next century.  But, slower changes in that region are likely to impact climate, people and other living things.  And, confidence greater than 90% is not the same as 100%.  

That raises one of the big issues in climate change, and one of the messages of the book.  You will often hear public discussion highlighting the uncertainties about climate change, which are real.  But, this is often used as a reason to wait with taking any actions to slow climate change, or to increase our resiliency to climate change—people ask why we should invest any effort until we’re sure? But, the uncertainties are mostly on the “bad” side.  Building is much harder than breaking—we all know that you cannot build a great new edifice with just a hammer, but you can knock a building down with just a wrecking ball or dynamite.  We see no way that just raising CO2 greatly and rapidly will bring Eden to Earth—that would take getting a lot of things right.  But, we do see ways that rising CO2 could trigger an ecosystem or an ice sheet or part of the ocean circulation to collapse, with hugely damaging impacts on people.  Even if such abrupt changes are unlikely, we can’t say that they are impossible.  When faced with similar situations in our day-to-day lives (say, the slight chance of being crashed into by a drunk driver while commuting home from work), we put a lot of effort into reducing the catastrophic risk (air bags, seat belts, crumple zones, trained officers trying to stop the drunks, traffic engineers…).   

#4 – What is the message you want to leave with your readers from The Fate of Greenland?

The end of the last paragraph of of our book: “Ignoring our environmental impact will not make it go away, but considering our place on the planet with intelligence and vigor greatly improves our prospects for the future.”  Science doesn’t tell us what to do; science shows us our options.  Using that knowledge, with what we care about and where we want to go, can make us better off.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I’ve contributed a lot to a MOOC opening today (massive open online course; Energy, the Environment and Our Future), based in part on the work reported in our book, and making extensive use of materials I helped with in another project called Earth: The Operators’ Manual (, freely available at the project web site and on YouTube), three hours of public broadcasting showing the reality of the challenges and the great opportunities from meeting those challenges.

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