Scripps scientist worries how Antarctic climate change may affect San Diego

Helen Fricker is worried.

She says cities throughout the world, including San Diego, could be affected by the climate change that’s unfolding in the Antarctica.

Fricker studies such change as a glaciologist at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is located 8,600 miles from the majestic ice floes of Antarctica.

She outlined her concerns in a perspective piece published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Fricker, who is travelling in Australia, discussed her concerns in an email interview with the Union-Tribune.

Q: Climate change is one of the most polarizing political issues in the country. How do you personally get people to set that aside and think about the sort of changes that are happening in the Antarctic?

A: I make it about the actual science -- what we see in several independent data records that are all showing the same thing. And then I tell them how it will impact their lives.

Q: Can you think of a particular moment where you broke through with someone who didn’t appear to be ready to listen? How did you engage their attention?

A: I can't really think of anyone that I have truly "broken through" with. We did invite a local prominent climate denialist to Scripps a couple of years ago. We showed him ice core records and satellite records. At the end of the meeting, he told us that he believed that we actually believe it ourselves and that we were not making it all up to fund our research programs. That felt like a breakthrough!

Q: In your Nature perspective, you talk about what the Antarctic may be like by the year 2070. What worries you most, and why does it worry you? We’re trying to get people in San Diego to understand your concerns.

A: For San Diego, what worries me most is how quickly sea level will rise so that it actually impacts our lives. Think about what happens when we have extreme high tides -- for example flooding in Mission Valley, Ocean Beach, the San Diego River. This will happen more often in the coming years. Antarctica's ice sheet stores enough water to raise global sea level by 180 feet, and it is losing more ice to the ocean as each year passes. That water will end up on our shores.

Q: You have long used satellites in your research. Can you give us a sense of how the evolution of satellites has changed your ability to understand what’s going on in the Antarctic? Is the picture, so to speak, far sharper than it once was?

A: We really couldn't do this without satellites because Antarctica is a vast continent, and also remote and harsh to work in. Satellites have allowed key events in Antarctica's recent history to be studied since the 1970s —including the collapse of Antarctic Peninsula ice shelves and the loss of land ice from West Antarctica.

The satellite record is now long enough that signatures are emerging of the atmospheric and oceanic processes that are causing it to change. Extending the satellite record further through continued monitoring will allow us to isolate those processes so that we can predict Antarctica's future behavior and sea-level contribution.

Q: How confident are you about the predictions you’re making about the future of the Antarctic?

A: We are confident. As we observe the system for longer, we see more and more changes of the type we feared could happen as the climate warms.

Q: A person can feel overwhelmed by the sort of things you’re saying. I suspect many don’t feel as they can individually do much to change things. What do you say to people to make them understand that they can, in fact, make a difference?

A: Try not to be overwhelmed. Don't tune out the climate change news. Do something. Listen. Read. Learn. Vote. Everyone counts.

Q: I’m asking questions that make it sound like the future of the Antarctic is very, very grim. Is there reason for hope? Do you feel hope?

A: The next few years will be a pivotal period for decision making with regard to Antarctica. Depending on what is decided, we could be looking at significant and irreversible changes over the next 50 years.

clifford.kapono@sduniontribune.com

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