Down to Earth With: Glaciologist Richard Alley

by Sam Lemonick
Tuesday, January 13, 2015

If you don’t know who Richard Alley is, stop reading for a minute and search for him on YouTube. Go on, this can wait. Back? What you likely saw was Alley singing his rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” in which he explains subduction zones, or another similar song. In addition to being something of an Internet sensation for his energetic lectures and songs about geologic processes, Alley is a glaciologist who studies the effects of climate change. Alley’s work has taken him to glaciers around the world, from Greenland to the Antarctic ice sheet. He is also trying to understand how best to communicate scientific ideas to the public. So far those efforts have included singing to his undergraduate classes and filming a television series for PBS called “Earth: The Operators' Manual.” (There’s a public-friendly book and website of the same title as well.)

By day, Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University in State College. In 2007, Alley and other members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He spoke with freelance writer Sam Lemonick about his family, his fame and his work.

SL: A lot of people know your name because they’ve seen you on television or found your videos on the Internet. You’re well known for your research as well, but when did the performance part of your work begin?

RA: I was doing general education within a year or two of when I got [to Penn State]. As a scientist, I would love for everybody to study science but that’s never going to happen. If people take just one science course, they should probably take one of ours [the geosciences], because … we cover a lot of things that are useful for a citizen to know. I’ve always been really dedicated to making these introductory courses engaging.

It became evident that standing in front of a class and talking was not engaging students at all levels. So we started trying to find another way to reach the students. We made slide shows and put them online and then I started doing rock videos and [then] we got a dozen really good advanced students and took them to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to film items to use in online classes. You know, it just sort of grows.

SL: Do you have a favorite science communicator? Say, Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman?

RA: You named a couple of really good ones. There are a number who are at it in the modern world who I watch: Andy Revkin [who writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times] is very good with what he does. Gavin Schmidt [of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies] at is really good.

There really are good resources that are being put together now in a whole bunch of different places so I think we’re getting good words out. It still is complicated because there aren’t many gatekeepers to the Internet and there is a large amount of information out there that is not as good as well.

Science communication has gotten harder. The media have fragmented. Ask yourself the question: If Carl Sagan were here today, would he command the same audience that he commanded [when he was alive]? And more broadly, can anyone command the same audience? When I was a little kid, Walter Cronkite came into your home on the TV set and he and a very small number of other people sort of had “the word.” No one commands a tenth of his audience now. As a consequence … we need a whole lot more of us doing this because no one of us can get anywhere near that much of the audience.

SL: Tell me more about your research.

RA: I look at big ice sheets. Those of us who do “big ice” are motivated by two things: One, it has the potential to fall in the ocean and flood the coasts; and two, it has a history of climate. It’s also really fun to study and it makes beautiful landscapes.

I split my time between working on climate history and working on fall-in-the-ocean. So I’ve done a fair amount of looking at ice cores, cutting little slivers and using that to reconstruct climate history. I’ve done a little bit of ice sheet model development. I’ve done a little bit of crawling around on deglaciated terrain and seeing what glaciers had done. And I’ve done a lot of hanging out with really good modelers and physicists to help them interpret what they’ve discovered.

SL: What projects are you working on right now?

RA: We’re working on an ice core from West Antarctica. A Ph.D. student working with me has just published a paper where he uses the number of bubbles in the ice to reconstruct the past temperature. It’s ultimately a paleoclimatologic indicator that is based primarily on physics rather than correlations.

I’ve also been working with a variety of geophysicists who are primarily working with a very good colleague here named Sridhar Anandakrishnan. An ice sheet is a [3-kilometer]-thick, one-continent wide pile of old snow and it spreads under its own weight. It interacts with the ocean at the edges. Sridhar discovered that when the tide rises in the ocean, the ice slows down. That happens right there where [the ice sheet] starts to float, but that influences what’s farther inland a little later. From a reasonably small tide, you get big changes extending 100 kilometers inland.

How rapidly that change propagates inland tells you something about the rules by which deformation occurs. If you can measure what it’s doing under different conditions, then you can … find a rule. One thing to do is wait until the ice sheet starts falling apart, and once it’s done you’ll have this different condition and then you can figure out what you should have told people about when it would start falling apart. The other thing is to use the tides because these different conditions of high and low tide give you that variability. I think it’s going to work.

SL: Climate change has become deeply political. What role do you think science should play in politics and policymaking?

RA: I truly believe that if our scientific knowledge were more broadly included in discussions of policies and politics that the world would be better off. The analogy that I’ve been using lately is the one of dealing with weather forecasts. You’re much better off listening to the weather forecaster than you are assuming that tomorrow is going to be the same as today or that tomorrow is going to be the same as the average of the last 30 years. [Forecasters] are very skillful and they are very imperfect. And when they tell you the weather they’re not making you take your umbrella or cancel the picnic. They’re giving you useful but imperfect information.

Climate science has now been demonstrated to be skillful. It does not tell you what policies to pass, but it is a piece of useful information with associated uncertainties. If it were included in our thinking, our politics and our policies, there’s a huge body of literature that says we’d end up better off.

SL: It seems like there’s a serious communication problem between scientists and policymakers. How do we fix that?

RA: You know, that’s why I’m on the phone [with you] and why I get in front of the camera. Most people didn’t learn their climate science from a climate scientist in an apolitical environment. The people who are making policies got through college, they got into policymaking, and then climate science caught up with them. And the climate science that caught up with them was pretty tightly wedded to policies.

Carbon dioxide interacting with solar radiation is science. Raising the tax on coal is a policy. Carbon dioxide interacting with solar radiation does not tell you if you should raise the tax on coal. We need to do a better job of [making this distinction] and we have to reach people where they are and how they learn. I sing reviews to my classes because some people learn in different ways. We have to do the same thing with global warming.

SL: Do you have a favorite method of communicating?

RA: Well, the one I like best is to sit down with somebody and have a beer and talk. But I can’t do that with everybody.

I get abusive emails occasionally. But in the great majority of cases if I shoot back a firm but polite response, the next communication is completely different. And it may not be convinced, but it’s civil. You go from being one of “them” to being someone.

This is where education comes in. If we get to the point where everyone knows someone who can explain [climate science], I think reality wins out; I think science is included at the table with all the other things that matter and I think we end up better off.

SL: What do your daughters think of your YouTube videos? Are they embarrassed that their dad is an Internet star?

RA: I think they’re supportive. They’re good-natured about laughing it off. We’ve got one that we did as a parody of “Yellow Submarine.” The pianist is our elder daughter, Janet; the bass player is now her husband; the lead guitar is his sister; and our younger daughter, Karen, is filming. Karen plays the flute in [another one].

SL: You’ve won a number of awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Is there one that was particularly meaningful to you?

RA: My election to the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy was put in place during the Civil War. I think the second or third study that the Academy did was on ironclad ships. The [ironclads] Monitor and Merrimac fought to a draw [in 1862] and within a couple weeks everybody was building ironclad ships because it’s obvious that the world has changed.

So the Union turned to the Academy and said, “Okay, we just put big slabs of metal next to our ship’s compass; which way is north?” And the Academy fixed it! It’s just amazing. The technique is still basically used, little magnets that true [the compass] up. It’s the government going to science and saying, “We want you, as scientists, to agree to work for the public, in the public eye, and tell us what we know and what we don’t know.” I mean this really is science in service of the public. To be elected as a member is really special.

SL: Can we solve the potential challenges from a changing climate?

RA: I’m cautiously optimistic. I can see how we can fail but the answers are there. There really are ways that we can end up with a sustainable world and plenty of energy and food. Having run the numbers, I don’t see any fundamental barriers to us getting to a sustainable, peaceful, happy and healthy world except us. We have more than enough smarts to do that.

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