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AGU 2009: Capeless superheroes and rumbling shorelines

Harvey Leifert

I started Fall Meeting bright and early Monday in the vast poster display hall, almost a city block long. The posters, like the oral sessions, cover a couple dozen broad areas of science, but climate change pops up in many of them: ocean science, environmental change, atmospheric science, and others. No one can cover it all, so a reporter depends a little on serendipity, that is, just stumbling onto the right presentation.

For example, I could not help stopping at a poster titled “Antarctic Superheroes,” and covered with comic-like images. Its author, Craig Tweedie of the University of Texas at El Paso, was happy to explain it. Tweedie, whose faint accent recalls his native Australia more than his adopted home on the American range, is passionate about involving students, especially women and minorities, in science. The superheroes he is reporting on are not caped crusaders, but 29 college and graduate students and five science teachers who participated in a research project he and colleagues devised. The students were Hispanics, native Americans, and African-Americans, and two-thirds of them were women.

Funded by the US National Science Foundation as part of the International Polar Year, the group visited Antarctica in 2007 on a chartered tourist ship, with a specific research project and a more general goal. The project was to investigate interactions between penguins and plants, in particular whether what the penguins eat affects local water quality and whether the plants in turn need the penguins to provide essential nutrients.

But, the real goal was to show the students how scientists go about their work, get them involved in the research, and perhaps instill the idea that science might be an interesting career choice. So, where does the comic book come in? Tweedie says that after the trip, the organizers wanted to spread the word beyond the participants, and they came up with the idea of developing a series of comic books about the project, to distribute in schools with large minority populations.

The first one, excerpted in Tweedie’s poster, describes the origin of the project and explains why studying Antarctica is important, even in western Texas. There is a strong emphasis on climate change: “How is Antarctica responding to global change and why is change in Antarctica important to the rest of the globe?” In the margins are little quizzes and facts about Antarctica. Tweedie says the comics are just one part of the project’s outreach component, which has also included online tutorials, videos, presentations at meetings, and published papers, but I confess that the comics were what caught my eye among the myriad charts and graphs on hundreds of other posters.

From Antarctica to Alaska: a depressing press conference on climate change in the Arctic made the point, in various ways, that warming is not only happening in the far north, but it is occurring much faster than models had predicted. Perhaps the most startling presentation was a video offered by Robert Anderson of the University of Colorado, who participated in the press conference by phone. He showed a time-lapse video of Alaska’s north coast, facing the Bering Sea, in which the coastline was crumbling away before our eyes.

He said the erosion amounted to tens of metres per year, startling for geologists used to measuring such change in centimeters. The latter observations are usually made along rocky coasts, he noted, while the Alaskan coast in this area was permafrost, almost “a dirty iceberg,” he noted. The reason for the fast loss of land was, Anderon said, a ”triple whammy” of declining sea ice—especially ice anchored to the coast—warming seawater, and increased wave activity. All of these phenomena are, of course, the result of warming. The video can be seen here.

There is, Anderson noted, no prospect that the erosion will stop. Towns, oil drilling installations, and military facilities are all at risk, as the coastline could recede one kilometer inland over the next 50 years, he said.


  1. Report this comment

    Jurgen said:

    “But, the real goal was to show the students how scientists go about their work, get them involved in the research, and perhaps instill the idea that science might be an interesting career choice.”

    Fly and ship students over to Antarctica for this goal? I find that an appalling waste of money and natural resources.

    If that is what it takes to get people interested in science we are doomed.

    I imagine Western Texas has its own environmental problems which could be studied?

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