In the discussion of dried-up Tibetan lakes and marine isotope excursions here at INQUA, one thing has been noticeably lacking: a sense of the bigger-picture context. In his plenary address today, Peter Barrett of New Zealand brought the crowd back to a sense of reality.
Barrett is one of those grizzled Antarctic geologists who look like they’ve spent their entire life on the ice sheet. And in fact he’s been a key player in Antarctic research for many decades (back from the time when the Beatles and the Grateful Dead were fresh, as he reminded the INQUA audience today). But in the past year or two, Barrett has started to worry more about the future than the past.
As part of a tour through Antarctic climate history, Barrett ran through the various reasons why the southern continent is so important – as a constraint on sea level rise, as a control of global weather, and as a record of deep-time climate history. But then he started whipping out the IPCC graphs, showing carbon dioxide levels rising in the future and what that might mean for the Antarctic ice sheet. The audience began to murmur, and some looked a bit confused. Had they been out to lunch in February when the latest IPCC report came out? Or have they just not spent much time extrapolating from their studies of the Quaternary to what happens next?
Kudos to Barrett for introducing a bit of activism into the normally staid surroundings of a scientific conference.