The climate emergency seen from the Poles. Interview with Professor Carlo Barbante, Director of the Institute of Polar Sciences of the CNR
- Written by Frances Pezzella
The consequences of climate change for the state of the Poles continue to cause great concern. Seen from there, what does the situation look like? We asked Professor Carlo Barbante, full professor of analytical chemistry at the Ca' Foscari University of Venice and director of the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council. Engaged at the forefront of an unprecedented work for paleoclimatology studies, Professor Barbante is a guest of our virtual living room this month.
Professor, when was your passion for science born?
My passion for science was born as a child. I was able to recall it recently, when I found my fifth grade report card and, with amazement, I read that the teacher had indicated my strong propensity and sympathy for scientific activities.
What scientific achievement are you most proud of?
Definitely having been able to apply the most sophisticated analytical technologies to the analysis of ice cores, an activity that until a few decades ago was considered pioneering.
This result represented a huge step forward for the scientific community.
The consequences of climate change for the state of the Poles continue to cause great concern. Seen from there, what does the situation look like?
Seen from the Poles, the situation is much more serious than one might think. The Poles are real sentinels of climate change and the Arctic, in particular, is losing huge amounts of ice due to rising temperatures. Antarctica, which until about twenty years ago was considered to be in a stationary state, is also suffering the same fate, with a worrying melting of the ice which contributes to the rise in sea levels.
The information present in the glacial archives is fundamental. What do they tell us and why are they so important?
The glacial archives probably represent the best palaeoclimatic archive as they preserve both the information related to climatic forcings, i.e. the concentrations of dust or the variations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and those relating to the effects of the increase in temperatures and of rainfall. Having forcings and effects of climate change in the same archive is something extraordinary for those who study climate change.
He has participated in numerous sampling expeditions in polar areas, including the one related to the Beyond Epica - Oldest Ice project. What were the main objectives accomplished by the team in the recent mission?
Beyond Epica - Oldest Ice is a project that has just begun. Over the next four years we will continue drilling the polar ice cap with the aim of reaching ice dating back to one and a half million years ago. To do this we have over 2,7 kilometers of ice to explore.
In this mission we have completed the installation of the drilling tent, a structure almost 30 meters long and 8 meters wide. It is a dome housing the core barrel which will have to go down to 2,7 kilometres. Inside there is the entire sample treatment line to analyze the extracted ice cylinders. This year we have drilled up to 130 meters deep, which means going back in time for a few thousand years; it's just the beginning but the goal was precisely to prepare all the equipment for the seasons to come.
In the Antarctic summer the weather conditions are less prohibitive but despite the passion of scientists and researchers, sometimes it's really hard. Together with his group, she has been working since early December at an altitude of 3.233 meters above sea level more than a kilometer from the coast, where the average temperatures are -35°C. What does it mean to work in these conditions?
These are extreme conditions both for the altitude and for the temperatures. The big difference in these cases is given by the presence of the wind which significantly reduces the heat of the body, thus making the work more difficult.
Knowledge on climate change is essential for tackling global climate change. The data shows that temperatures don't stop. What scenarios can we expect? Is this a trend that can be reversed?
We learned the scenarios for the future from the study of ice cores and other climatic archives of the past, an activity that allows us to put into a correct perspective what is happening today and what will happen tomorrow. We have to expect more or less high temperature increases, depending on the scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, the main causes of global warming.
The worst case scenarios even lead us to increases which, at the end of the century, could rise by 4 - 5 degrees Celsius. This would have devastating effects, the most immediate and striking being the rise in sea level which can reach up to one meter due to the partial melting of the polar caps. We also need to take into account events that we know little about today, such as those defined as "unlikely but possible", linked, for example, to a collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, an event that could cause the sea to rise by more than three meters.
That is why it is necessary to know in detail and depth what happens in the climate system through scientific research.
What do you hope will happen in the coming years that can stem the climate crisis?
I hope what I have always wished for the last thirty years, which is that our world governments open their eyes to what is no longer a change but is now a climate crisis that is rapidly overwhelming us.
CO concentrations2 in the atmosphere are the highest ever. We need investments and actions against the crisis. What causes these high concentrations and what can counteract them?
The ice traps small air bubbles through which it is possible to reconstruct the concentrations of carbon dioxide over time. Studies have shown that in the past the presence of greenhouse gases always fluctuated within certain parameters but, since the Industrial Revolution, it has increased dramatically. This is due to the use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas. This is why it is not enough to monitor these changes but a drastic reduction of emissions and combustion is necessary.
What are the global consequences of melting glaciers?
Glaciers melt at a very rapid rate contributing directly to the rise in sea level. In addition to the polar areas, we have to consider the melting ice of the Alps, the Himalayas and India, as well as those of Greenland. Suffice it to say that in Greenland alone, melting occurs at a rate of about 420 Olympic swimming pools per minute. This contributes to a globally distributed sea level rise of almost 5 millimeters per year. If we consider that until the 2s this speed was around XNUMX millimeters over the same period, we have more than doubled the times. The alarm is high.
How does this scenario translate for populations living on the coasts?
It translates dramatically. There are Pacific atolls already heavily affected by sea level rise and our coasts are also extremely vulnerable.
If we consider that the increase over the last 120 years has been over 20 centimeters and that some natural events such as storms and storm surges are getting extreme, we understand how the coasts are at risk, as well as the populations who inhabit them.
In conclusion, as a scientist, what do you wish for the research system in these areas?
I hope for greater awareness by the policy-making system regarding the basic sciences, as there are still many mechanisms to be understood, and I hope that scientific research defines new approaches for mitigating the underlying causes of climate change.