All posts by Kevin Stark

Art detectives find the faded colors in Van Gogh’s masterpiece

By Kevin Stark and Tim Rosenberger

Vincent Van Gogh’s famous paintings of his bedroom used to have purple walls and, like detectives, scientists Francesca Casadio and Marc Walton have the evidence to prove it.

How can the artist’s paint serve as physical evidence of the world in which it was originally applied so long  ago?

How can the microscopic analysis of paintings provide key insights into the lost techniques and colors? Provide insight into a forgery? And help determine how a work has faded over time?

These are the clues Casadio and Walton examine with an innovative  research team. Using forensic methods, researchers studying ancient Roman portrait paintings, Van Gogh’s famous “Bedroom” paintings, and other works are revealing specific details about the work and the artists, discoveries that art historians are making with scientific imaging that can see inside the paint.

One method involves the use of X-ray imaging that interacts with the atoms of the chemicals present in the paint. The atoms emit back, and the researchers are able to read the color pigments that are present in the section of the painting they are analyzing.

“We are starting to get inside the head of the artist and how they might compose these paintings,” said Walton Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

Walton’s team is performing systemic studies of the Roman Egyptian paintings excavated from Tebtunis in the Gayum region of Egypt. (Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts)

Walton, a professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University, is working with colleagues including Casadio at the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago. Casadio is the center’s co-director and chief conservation scientist at the Art institute.

The imaging work means scientists can peel back the years to determine how the historic portraits from Tebbtunis, for example, were made. They can identify degraded color pigments used in the background (Egyptian Blue), the specific animal fur or hair used for the paint brush (likely from a squirrel and definitely not from a cow), and what region of the world the wood substrate had to be imported from (Central Europe).

Van Gogh’s Bedroom

Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Bedroom” paintings, depicting his bedroom in his Arles home, have been the subject of examination for decades.

The exhibit “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” that opened at the Art Institute this weekend, brought together the three paintings – from museums in Amsterdam, Chicago and Paris – for the first time in North America. Material analysis allowed the scientists to uncover secrets that could shed new light on these well-known masterpieces.

Casadio, a chemist, said the 19th century saw an explosion of color, and Van Gogh infused his colors with his emotions. But after Casadio examined the color around the edges of the painting that had been protected by the frame and analyzed the molecular composition of the color, it was clear the red in the pigment had faded. Add red to the pigment of the seemingly blue walls and you get purple.

The exhibit shows how science suggests the paintings originally looked.

Casadio highlighted some of the techniques during a Feb. 1 tour for Northwestern students.

“The Bedroom” pieces were painted by Van Gogh during three distinct periods: the first (from the Amsterdam collection) shortly after moving into his home in Arles, France in 1888, the second (at the Art Institute) during his stay at a Saint-Remy asylum in 1889, and the smaller, third painting (from Paris) a few weeks after he made the second. The three works are filled with Van Gogh’s distinct use of color, which was an extremely important tool to the artist.

The Art Institute began research on “The Bedroom” paintings in 2008. Since then, various techniques have been utilized to discover new information and detail hidden in the paintings.

In order to read the pigments, they need to be inorganic. These mineral based pigments are much like bones, dense enough to show up. Organic pigments, on the other hand, function like human skin and are transparent, Casadio said.

Outside of Academia

Material examination of paintings is a technique being employed outside the ivory tower of academia for museums, galleries and collectors. And, the devil is in the details. That is, in the hair from 30 house cats.

Clementine Hunter was a house servant and cook on a plantation in Louisiana. In the 1960s and 1970s, she started painting—on everything, Masonite, cardboard, and other materials. She quickly became a renowned folk artist known for depicting the Southern experience of African-Americans, especially women.

Originally, Hunter sold her colorful, patterned paintings for mere dimes, but her works now sell for from $5,000-$10,000. The paintings have inspired numerous fakes, such as sophisticated renditions painted in Hunter’s style by artist William Toye and his wife Beryl Ann Toye. The Toyes sold their work as Hunter originals.

Clementine Hunter - Funeral Procession - Google Art Project
Clementine Hunter is known for her simple depictions of African American life in the South. (wikimedia commons)
The fakes were so good it was difficult for the the art forgery arm of the Federal Bureau of Investigation— the Art Crime Team—to decipher real from replica.  “There was no good way of doing this except for a very difficult process of elimination,” said FBI art crime team program manager Bonnie Magness-Gardiner.

That is until the paintings were examined with careful scientific instruments and a clear difference emerged: cat hair. The Toyes had tens of cats in their home and Hunter had not.

The shedding felines left evidence in the paint on the forged works, and the cat hairs are a clear indicator of original from farce.

The Toye couple plead guilty to charges in 2011 and were sentenced to probation and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for restitution to the victims of the fraud, Magness-Gardiner said.

Photo at top: Vincent van Gogh, “The Bedroom” 1889 (Vincent van Gogh/wikimedia commons), one of three of the masterpiece painting on exhibit in “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” at the Art institute of Chicago.

Research models tackle the frontline fight on global hunger

By Kevin Stark

Paul West is planning the ultimate harvest. He is trying to feed billions more people on Earth with the same land we farm today.

Between 35 and 40 percent of all the land on the planet yields food to feed Earth’s roughly 7 billion people.  But global populations are on the rise and international leaders see the need to double  food production by the year 2050.

And given estimates that 1 billion people currently suffer from chronic hunger worldwide, where is the new land to grow rice, corn, soybeans and other staple crops capable of feeding the new billions?
Continue reading

Who can be held responsible for climate inaction?

By Kevin Stark

Well, that’s different.

Until negotiations kicked off in Paris this month, a goal of curbing global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) cseemed like the arduous but obtainable goal. As talks began, it quickly became clear that world leaders want an even sharper curb in fossil fuel emissions to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“I think we should embrace it as a legitimate aspiration,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in a live interview from the Paris summit. Continue reading

DePue continues 20-year struggle to cleanup toxic pollution

By Kevin Stark

Pollution can happen in an instant – a spill, an explosion, a malfunction. But cleanup can take years, adding continuing emotional toll to the people living with toxins in the air and earth.

The toll is still growing for the community of DePue, a village of 1,800 tucked in the Illinois River Valley about 100 miles south of Chicago. The town has been fighting to remove arsenic, lead and other heavy metal toxins from neighborhoods and contaminated Lake DePue for more than 20 years.

Village leader Eric Bryant says the struggle is  “frustrating and time consuming,” and “20 years is an awfully long time when you have children playing in the yards, in the ballparks, and being exposed.”

In a testament to commitment and patience, local residents continue to organize meetings, coordinate with lawyers, and just live a day-to-day life in one of the most toxic industrial waste sites in Illinois.

Eric Bryant, the president of the village of DePue, shows an area of town with toxic pollutants.  (Kevin Stark/Medill)

A longtime resident, Bryant has been village president for six years. Before he was elected, a government consultant told him that he should “get used to this area being wetland,” Bryant said.

“His mind was made up that the lake was not going to get cleaned up,” he said. “That motivated me.”

The conversation by the lake was crucial for him, and he still thinks about it today as he organizes community meetings.

Lake DePue is a prime attraction during the summers when the village hosts thousands of visitors for a national boat race. But no one swims in lake anymore, although many older residents did so decades ago.

“We grew up on the lake, swimming in the lake, boating on the lake. We fished in that area—obviously ignorant of what was going on.”

-Keith Garcia, Village of DePue

Visitors would never know from walking along the shores of the lake that the village sits on acres of toxic industrial pollution.

Keith Garcia is a science instructor at a local public school.

When he was a kid, Garcia spent a lot of time investigating the ditches and runoff sites that today are known to be toxic. “I was curious,” Garcia said. “We grew up on the lake, swimming in the lake, boating on the lake. We fished in that area—obviously ignorant of what was going on.”

For the last six years, Keith Garcia has been teaching classes and investigating the pollution of the village with students. “Instead of sitting around and saying, ‘woe is me we live in a Superfund,’ why don’t we educate the kids and get them involved in some hands on science?” he said.

One of Garcia’s students, high school junior Edgar Moreno said he likes living in DePue and that the village gets a bad rap because of its status as a Superfund site.

“Whenever you hear DePue it is something bad – like the polluted lake,” he said. “We want to be known for the good reasons. We are like a family. We all get along.”

In the center of the village is a pile of contaminated slag weighing more than 500,000 tons. It was left by a zinc smelting facility, the center of the town’s economy until it closed in 1990. New Jersey Zinc ran the smelter, but the property is now owned by CBS Corp. and the media company is responsible for cleanup. ExxonMobil is responsible for another site. In the 1970s, the energy company ran a fertilizer plant that contributed to the polluted environment.

In November, the 20-year anniversary of an agreement with the corporate interests to remediate the site came and went. But the battle for remediation and cleanup continues. Heavy metals remain in most places of the village and contaminated debris exposes residents to arsenic, lead, mercury, cyanide, and cadmium.

“It is the nature of the beast. I understand the community is frustrated with the response time, but it is not unusual.”

– Charlene Falco, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency

Lawyers that are representing the town and its roughly 1,800 people said that ExxonMobil and CBS Corp. have been delaying the effort with unnecessary studies.

An attorney representing the village, Nancy Loeb said the legal battle has become about cleanup standards. Two decades have passed and “virtually nothing has been done,” she said. “The responsible parties continue to drag out the process.”

While the slag is the most visible sign of the toxic earth beneath the village, there are four other contaminated sites around the community from the production of chemicals left behind by the industry that once fueled the town’s economy with jobs and doing business with people in town.

DePue was an industry town. The zinc smelter and a fertilizer plant anchored it.  When operations ceased, many residents left. Soon real estate prices plummeted and some residents were forced to stay or absorb crushing financial losses on the sale of their homes.

Despite the exodus and toxic environment, the residents that remain in DePue continue to fight for a cleanup and a normal, everyday life.

“I am amazed by the character of this community in the face of contamination of the entire village.They continue to fight. We could not be fighting without them.”

– Nancy Loeb, Northwestern University

Bryant has been leading a community organizing effort. He ran and was elected to the town council. He commissioned a documentary  about the village for a local television station, and he held screenings at a local park.

The village’s leaders and residents say  the two companies that own the industrial sites—ExxonMobil and CBS Corp.—and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency have done nothing but study and plan. DePue is a Superfund site and under federal Superfund regulations, the companies—often referred to as the “responsible parties”—must pay for the investigation and cleanup.

Company representatives said the project is governed by the federal government and it is only following the processes and detailed steps outlined by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

ExxonMobil, and corporate predecessor companies, ran the fertilizer plant from the early 1970s and into the early 1980s. Representatives of ExxonMobil said the company is committed to conducting a safe investigation for the community of DePue, workers, and the environment.

In a statement, the company said it aims to have a “productive relationship in communities where we conduct business and are committed to supporting the broader needs of the community. ” The ExxonMobil foundation support a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program in the local school and other community and cultural programs.

A contamination map illustrates toxic soil and water pollution in the village of DePue (find the interactive version here). Data derived from nearly 2,000 samples collected over decades by contractors working for ExxonMobil and CBS Corp. and obtained in a public document request by advocates working for the village. (Franz Geiger/Northwestern University and Arlen Parsa/Amdur Spitz and Associates).

A representative of CBS Corp. declined to comment for this article. In 2012, the company said that it is committed to cleaning up the contamination, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Representatives of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said they are reviewing one remediation plan—sequester an abandoned phosphogypsum stack—submitted by ExxonMobil and CBS Corp. Currently, the plan is scheduled to be completed in 2017, but it is unclear how long the review will take.

Phosphogypsum is a byproduct formed in the production of fertilizer.

Nancy Loeb, director of the environmental advocacy center at Northwestern University, is at the center of the pitched legal debate. She said she is continually amazed by “the character of this community in the face of contamination of the entire village.”

“They continue to fight,” she said. “We could not be fighting without them.”

Village leaders said that they hope that the public spaces and the residential properties will be remediated in 2016. But that is not likely according to statements from ExxonMobil and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

For 5 years, Charlene Falco has been the project manager for environmental agency. She said the project has been “elevated to priority,” but the cleanup will take years because the geography of DePue, the seepage of contaminated metal into the lake, and the complexity of the hundreds of acres of contaminated land.

“Water migrates contamination,” she said.

Bev Harrison has been living in DePue since the 1940s and has been active in fighting for a cleaner village. Harrison says she stays despite toxic pollution because she just “likes it here; it is a nice little town to raise your family.” (Kevin Stark/Medill)

It is not uncommon for a Superfund cleanup effort to take decades or longer, especially when the sites are as complicated as DePue, according to Falco. “It is the nature of the beast. I understand the community is frustrated with the response time, but it is not unusual.”

Polluted sediment was removed from a drainage ditch in 2005, but all of the neighborhoods, parks, and most of the village is still being studied by the EPA.

Members of the community remember fishing in the lake and exploring the woods in what are now contaminated sites.

Bev Harrison’s family moved to DePue from the Chicago area in 1940. Her father worked at New Jersey Zinc, and her family worked a farm. Even as her children and many young people have left the village since the zinc smelter closed in 1990, she has stayed.

“I’m active in the Church,” she said. “I live by the lake. I see the lake all the time. I like that.”

While a cleanup agreement was signed 20-years ago, the village has been struggling for a cleaner DePue for much longer than that.

“Nobody has ever enforced the agreement,” she said.

Photo at top: Eric Bryant, president of the village of DePue,  walks around a toxic ditch on the outskirts of town, one of dozens of toxic sites as of October. “The real problem of concern is village property, the parks and gardens,” he said. (Kevin Stark/Medill)

Scientists explore better ways to tell the global warming story

By Kevin Stark

Throngs of demonstrators frustrated with government inaction on climate change filled the streets of Manhattan in September. They wore cardboard cutouts life preservers that said “preserve our communities.” They carried a giant sunflower, nearly the width of a city street. Colorful signs, young and old, a cross-section of America.

And there was Yonig Goldsmith wearing a white robe like a prophet, but carrying a graph like a climate scientist. That is what he is.

“The scientists—there were not that many—but we all stood with signs that were posters of different plots [on graphs] showing what is happening,” Goldsmith said.

What role should science play in climate change advocacy?

This fall, Goldsmith and other scientists at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in southwestern Wisconsin grappled with this question. The conference is hosted by the Comer Family Foundation, which supports widespread climate research, and it brought together top climate scientists working from Antarctica to Greenland and everywhere in between.

Yonig Goldsmith and Allison Jacobel, graduate researchers at Columbia University, representing the science community at a September climate march in Manhattan. (Alice Bell/flickr)
Yonig Goldsmith and Allison Jacobel, graduate researchers at Columbia University, representing the science community at a September climate march in Manhattan. (Alice Bell/flickr)

The scientists agree that Earth is rapidly warming and that poses risks to human well being. But researchers do not agree on how to best take up the challenge of telling the climate change story. In emotion their responses range from optimistic to despondent, in strategy from advocacy to a focus on economic growth.

How do we talk about climate change so that people care even while they worry about making the rent? How do scientists communicate the threat of an abruptly warming planet to a public that often requires clarity, brevity, and certainty?

In December, world leaders will gather in Paris for the United Nations climate-change conference. Advocates are hopeful that the first global pact to limit greenhouse-gas emissions will be signed. Remember, in 1997 a framework was drawn up in Kyoto, Japan, to take a firm stand, but “the agreement failed on the international stage,” Jonathan Chait writes in New York magazine.

Goldsmith is a Columbia University doctoral candidate studying ancient lake levels in China. He believes that now that a global agreement is likely to be forged, scientists need to take an active roll in the advocacy debate. He is somewhat of an outlier among his colleagues.

To be clear, researchers should not be activists based on the premise of scientific objectivity, Goldsmith said. But researchers should not be on the sidelines either.  For Goldsmith, scientists need to be there, holding evidence. Pointing to data. Stating the case. “CO2 is rising. The oceans are warming. The glaciers are melting with an exclamation mark,” Goldsmith said.

Is there collaboration in climate messaging within this community? Does anybody agree?

Action Agenda

Goldsmith and I spoke about the role of scientists in the policy debate at the conference, several months after the march in Manhattan. He was preparing to participate in another march the following week at Columbia University, where he is a doctoral candidate studying with climate pioneer Wally Broecker.

Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University, coined the phrase global warming in the 1970s and became the “Grandfather of Climate Science.”  He famously told the New York Times, “The climate system is an angry beast and we are poking at it with sticks.”

During the 1970s, believing that immediate action was needed to mitigate global warming, Broecker sent letters to senators, wrote papers, and generally “tried to advocate in this way—that is his avenue” Goldsmith said.

But for Goldsmith, letters and papers are no longer enough. Goldsmith says this to his veteran colleagues at the conference: you are the most “influential climate scientists in the world” and you have to “get up and talk about this.”

Broecker’s response (and the conversation) mirrors the greater debate within the science community. For Broecker, his role is as a scientist—not at all an activist—and to be credible he must remain objective and neutral, he says..

Goldsmith agrees that scientists need to be careful about discrediting their research, but he does see a need for a more active roll for researchers in the public debate.  “Scientists are the ones that have to say, this is what what we work on, this is the logic, this is what we have. This is the evidence,” he says.

Researchers should focus on  understanding  the science. Activists should focus on divestment from fossil fuels, Goldsmith said. He points to the success of writer and environentalist Bill McKibbon, winner of the Right Livelihood prize in 2014 and founder of 350.org. McKibbon organized the Manhattan march.

McKibbon is leading an international movement to ‘divest,’ from the fossil fuel industry. He encourages organizations, universities, and others to withdraw financial investment from the oil and coal industry. Today, economists consider investing in the oil industry as a risk, in part, because of this advocacy (oil prices are dropping drastically because of over-supply which strengthens the argument for divestment).

Scientists marched with charts instead of protest signs in Manhattan (Alice Bell/flickr)
Scientists marched with charts instead of protest signs in Manhattan (Alice Bell/flickr)

“I very much believe in the economics approach because it makes sense to people,” Goldsmith said. “It is not this vague suffering of some whatever in some place in the world, which we cannot relate to.”

But only a handful of science researchers are actively engaged in the economics debate—Richard Alley of Penn State ranking among the most prominent. So, what does he think?

“Thirty-five Years of Failure”

Alley said that communicating his fascination for science to a public audience was a “transition” and a “jolt,” and that policy is lagging behind the science. But he believes he found a message that will resonate with people: business.

Today, Alley is widely regarded as one of the best communicators of climate science. Alley, a glaciologist and geosciences professor  at Penn State, wrote the book  “Earth: The Operator’s Manuel,” the companion book to a widely popular PBS documentary (both were significantly more popular than the “Fate of Greenland”).

He also may be a perfect messenger as someone who is “right of center” and has “enjoyed working for an oil company and benefited from its largesse.” Alley believes the answer to the problem of how to engage with the public about climate change has the power of the free market behind the message.

Richard Alley glaciologist and geosciences professor at Penn State

He said that people will take action to reduce carbon emissions “because there is money to be made as much as ethically important things to do.”

It is not the case that doing the right things for future generations means “hurting ourselves now,” he said. He sees business opportunities and innovation where other see downsizing if we hope to reduce emissions.

The former vice president and author of “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore is also advancing what has been called “sustainable capitalism” through Generation Investment Management, a company that “shifts the incentives of financial and business operations” to reduce damage to the environment caused by “unsustainable commercial excesses,” according to a recent article in The Atlantic.

Gore and Alley agree that including environmental and social impact on corporate activity can actually result in bullish gains in capital and that there is “money to be made,” (as Alley put it) and that returns can be better than just as good (according to Gore).

Gore has been able to prove that money can be made in sustainable energy investments, but there is no a guarantee that climate change will be solved on a policy level, or even that the renewable market will replace traditional oil and coal.  As Bill Gates put it in a separate Atlantic article, renewables will be “uncertain compared with what’s tried-and-true and already operating at unbelievable scale.”

Even the message of the melting ice can be a tough sell.

Philip Conkling co-wrote  “The Fate of Greenland: Lessons form Abrupt Climate Change” with Alley, Broecker, and University of  Maine climate researcher George Denton. The book chronicled the melting  ice sheet covering much of Greenland, the culmination of years of science and many voyages in the glacial North.

The book was supposed to “change the world, or at least make a little ripple,” Conkling said.  But it sold 4,633 copies. “It was like, what a disappointment,” Conkling said.

Conkling is the founder of the Island Institute, a non-profit that advocates for the remote coastal communities off the coast of Maine and in other areas. He is a rare non-science presenter at the Comer conference.

He lectured on how to tell the climate story and began by saying, “I was going to subtitle this presentation 35 years of failure but I thought that would be a little grim.”

Still, the success of collaboration between communities and the Island Institute encourages him. His newest enterprise, Philip Conkling and Associates, is a consulting firm that guides the vision and planning of non-profits.

Islands aren’t the only places that need protection as the climate risks grow.

Hurting Ourselves Now

A few months ago, I was talking about sea-level rise and development in the San Francisco Bay Area on a local radio program. I had just published an investigative package with a local news organization that detailed $21 billion worth of current bayside development projects in an area that scientists say could be flooded by the end of the century as glaciers melt, pouring more water into the oceans.

The station took a call from a skeptical listener who said the research was full of  “could be” statements and projections and wondered what about the research was news.

The caller and often apathetic policymakers are a problem for journalists and scientists who worry about what will happen if carbon emissions continue to climb and the planet continues to warm dramatically and quickly.

The biggest sticking point often for public engagement is the uncertainties that are inherent in climate modeling. Projections of sea-level rise – one of the key threats -fall in ranges. The projections are a product of highly complicated scientific models, and researchers can run different scenarios of action (and inaction) to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions.

Sea-level rise projections fall in a range at the end of the century. (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)

With the United Nations fifth assessment in 2013, the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that sea levels could rise between 11 and 36 inches by the year 2100, depending on how aggressively carbon emissions are reduced.

The difference between the low and high projections could mean billions of dollars in adaptation planning for coastal communities. And that’s without even looking beyond this consensus figure to other, less conservative projections. The gap, reflecting the rate of melting of the vast polar ice sheets, often leaves policymakers scratching their heads.

Which is another way of saying, it leaves policymakers inactive.

The report I published with a team at the San Francisco Public Press found 27 bayfront megaprojects – including new headquarters of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google – all in low-lying areas that climate scientist say could flood by the end of the century.

While interviewing policymakers, the uncertainty came up a lot, mostly as an excuse for why no specific sea-level rise regulation on the books for business in the Bay Area.

“It may be unwise—and expensive—to require immediate measures to adapt to wide-ranging, highly uncertain sea-level rise projections further out in time,” wrote San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a memo to a civil grand jury convened before the investigative package ran.  His administration has said that sea-level rise regulation needs to be written with nuance to adapt to changing science.

A map from the San Francisco Public Press. Production by Maia Wachtel, Marcea Ennamorato and Brittany Burson, UC Berkeley CAGE Lab. Illustration by Clark Miller. Find the interactive version by Amanda Hickman at sfpublicpress.org (Reporting Kevin Stark/Medill)

Alley said that inaction because of uncertainty is short-sighted, and compared it to not buying car insurance just because there’s no certainty we will have an accident.

“The uncertainties actually motivate doing more,” Alley said. “You do not know whether or not you will be run over by a semi on the way to work, but you should buy a safe car, buckle your seatbelt and not drink while you are driving.”

Passing the Torch

Alley said scientists need to “care deeply and passionately about how things work,” but communicating this message to the public is a difficult challenge—and one that a new generation of researchers is leaning into by taking journalism classes and putting off research to collaborate with science reporters.

While the scientific community is in consensus that badly needed mitigation of the rate of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere is needed to slow the current rapid period of global warming, not all scientist agree that financial markets will solve the problem.

Guleed Ali, a graduate student at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, is skeptical of the marketsplace solving the problem.

“We are here today because of business” pushing fossil fuel use, he said. He sees winning support from other perspectives.

Ali researches the geomorphic record of Mono Lake, which is a large, shallow saline soda lake in the Eastern Sierra of California, and he often speaks to the local community about his work.

Through trial and error—or “talk and blab” as he put it—Ali found that people engage more with images, or in his case, with art. Ali produces graphic images that explain the dense science. “That is the most straightforward way to penetrate that initial wall,” Ali said. “Art is something that is engaging. It is disarming.”

Guleed Ali and Sidney Hemming of Columbia University tell the story of climate change with images.

Science is a world of charts, graphs, data points, but Ali sees the world differently. “For someone like me, pictures are so much simpler,” he said. “They give life to these inanimate things that we write about.”

Ali said the route to solving the issue of global warming is through the hearts and minds of the public. People need to “see with their own eyes,” he said.

“If you see steam coming out of the bowl you know that the bowl is hot,” Guleed said. “It’s steam.”

The problem is that the majority of the public in the United States is disconnected from the changes that are taking place in the Earth’s climate. He said it is “abundantly clear” for those communities—“farmers and pastorals”—that are connected to the earth in a direct way.

Guleed Ali of Columbia University includes beautiful images that he draws along with complicated data in scientific talks.

The Ultimate Objective

The question for some of Ali’s colleagues is this: can engaging with people on an emotional level—providing steam-from-the-bowl evidence that the world is rapidly warming—move the public fast enough to mitigate warming?

The “ultimate objective” of the International Panel on Climate Change to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system—read: keep the world climate from being so screwy that society cannot grow food or live in coastal communities.

This temperature level is 2 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels. Today, we have already reached half that level of temperature rise and the other half is already spooled into the atmosphere.

If 2 degrees does not seem like a big deal—temperatures can vary 20 or 30 degrees in any given day. But it is important to to understand that the figure represents global average. If the global average temperature rises above the 2-degree mark, atmospheric climate will be disrupted. The world could see severe drought, less rain but more severe storms, and it will be a challenge to grow food to feed the world’s population.

It is clear from conversations at the Comer conference that every one agrees on one thing – the story of climate change needs to be told. All of the researchers I spoke with are doing this in some way. But, it was also clear that the science community doesn’t agree on how to tell the story. They are still debating, proposing and challenging – which they do in their science as well.

But they all keep trying to tell the story. And they all seemed to have hope.

“People will get there,” Ali said. “We are doing this for that reason.”

Photo at top: Mono Lake in the Eastern Sierra of California (Guleed Ali/Columbia University)

How hot will it get? 18,000-year-old mystery could answer today’s biggest climate question

By Kevin Stark

A mystery from some 18,000 years ago directly impacts how scientists understand the threat of climate change today.

The Earth, shivering though the end of an ice age, rapidly warmed in the Southern Hemisphere, just like it is warming globally today.

At the Comer Conference on abrupt climate change, climatologist Jeff Severinghaus, presented a possible answer to the mystery.  “Just what in the heck caused the rapid period of warming?” said the professor of geosciences of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Continue reading

Chicago area escapes record hot year

By Kevin Stark

Cool summers could soon be a thing of the past in the Chicago area, NOAA climate experts warn.

Major cities in the West scorched their hottest summers on record. California baked through a fourth year of drought conditions. The East Coast drowned under saturating fall rains that crippled much of South Carolina during the first week of October. Continue reading

The psychology of choking and why the Cubs should care

By Kevin Stark

The Cubs are on a winning streak. What now?

Rookie powerhouse Kyle Schwarber has hit 3 home runs this postseason while the team slugged a total of 15. The Cubs easily dispatched the Cardinals in four games, and the club is preparing to play either New York or Los Angeles in the National League Championship Series. Continue reading