Earth’s future is uninhabitable

I feel like I’ve just come back from a long trip to the future, and returned, and I’m stricken. I finished reading “The Uninhabitable Earth: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think” by David Wallace-Wells in the New York Magazine.

This long-form essay on potential futures of climate change is a must-read. It’s difficult, not because of the language or length, but the scenarios Wallace-Wells describes in such vivid detail.

Readers, society: take note. This is our future.

If we don’t act now. Today.

“Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, ‘If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it?'”

Earth’s future

Wallace-Wells helps visualize potential futures where climate change devastate the Earth, our environment, our food, and our lives.

He doesn’t shy away from the terrifying scenarios, drilling into specific details and facts. He often compares future numbers to current ones, which helps me understand hard-to-relate to abstracts.

Here are some terrifying tidbits from the article.

  • “Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful.”
  • “The albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years.”
  • “At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat.”
  • “The basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them. And proteins are worse.”
  • “The fraction of carbon dioxide in the air is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.”
  • “For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict.”
  • “We will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century. At present, more than a third of the world’s carbon is sucked up by the oceans — but the result is what’s called ‘ocean acidification,’ which, on its own, may add a half a degree to warming this century.”

Climate fiction

We need more literature about climate change. More short stories, poems, novels. We need to use our incredible imaginations to show what we are dragging ourselves into, what we are leaving our children and grandchildren with.

This is what Emmalie Dropkin argues for in an article in Electric Lit, “We Need Stories of Dystopia Without Apocalypse: Climate change and the human imagination.” The abstract futures and numbers can confuse people and lull them into not caring. Stories, literature, have been inspiring humans for centuries. This is a tool we should use more to shock ourselves into action.

“In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them ‘weather.'”

Already, genres are emerging from climate change and natural disaster events. I’m increasingly seeing climate fiction, solarpunk, eco-literature, eco-speculation. These relate to science fiction, technology, cyberpunk, and more.

Some books in these genres include:

  • Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction by ASU Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative
  • Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • Last Hundred Years trilogy by Jane Smiley
  • Barkskins by Annie Proulx
  • Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
  • TreeVolution by Tara Campbell
  • The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh
  • Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
  • After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene by Jedediah Purdy
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert
  • Browse Goodreads for climate fiction

“More than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades … In the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe.”

We have to visualize these potential futures, because we are ensuring they become reality with each passing day. With each pound of beef we eat, each flight we take.

If we continue down our current path, we’re dooming ourselves to devastating effects of climate change. We’re fueling its fire.

“Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.”

Articles like Wallace-Wells’ and Dropkin’s, and books that explore climate change, are necessary, now more than ever. Keep reading our future. Keep ignoring it, and welcome to your uninhabitable Earth.

Sharing poetry with scientists and the public

Seven-foot-tall banners of various poems.
Seven-foot-tall banners of various poems.

I had a fantastic time bringing poetry to scientists and the public during today’s Science March in Washington, D.C.

Leading a poetry teach-in for those who write and those who never knew poetry could be science-themed was so fulfilling. And even though it was pouring rain, the weather brought more people into our tent, who ultimately took up a pen and paper to try erasure, writing about insects, or personifying nature, storms, or planets. I’d estimate about 200 people came through the Poets for Science tent during our poetry teach-ins.

Many people stopped by our tent to learn how to write science-themed poetry.
Many people stopped by our tent to learn how to write science-themed poetry.

I want to thank Jane Hirshfield for coming up with this incredible idea, Split This Rock and Sarah Browning for recommending me as one of the workshop leaders, the Wick Poetry Center for their great staff and banners, and all the local poets who led workshops and made this such an incredible event! This was a great space where we made connections between science and poetry — because, truly, the two go hand-in-hand. They are intertwined.

Science is full of images, minute details, precision. And so is poetry. They are both vivid, raw representations of our natural world.

Jane Hirshfield was the mastermind behind Poets For Science. Honored to have met and worked with her.
Jane Hirshfield was the mastermind behind Poets For Science. Honored to have met and worked with her.

For those who couldn’t make it to the Science March or our tent, here are the workshops and poetry banners. Keep writing.

Poets for Science

Posters from Poets for Science of poems paired with images. Photo courtesy of pw.org.
Posters from Poets for Science. Photo courtesy of pw.org.

On Saturday, I’m humbled to be a part of the March for Science in Washington, D.C. Most likely I won’t be marching, due to chronic pain, but I will be participating in another, meaningful way. Through serendipitous chance, I was invited to be a part of the poetry teach-ins that are happening during the day. The incredible poet Jane Hirshfield is the mastermind behind the idea — and I am so grateful to be able to work with her and bring her dream to life. Make sure to read Jane’s poem “On the Fifth Day,” which she will be reading at the rally during the March.

Several local poets and staff from Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center will be leading poetry workshops focusing on insects, personifying storms, climate change, data, and more. The workshops will be from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. at the Mall in the Poets for Science tent. Learn more about the pop-up workshops.

My workshop is Writing the Storm. I’m bringing several poems exploring weather, planets, natural disasters, and how they affect our lives. We’ll use phrases from these poems and from Patricia Smith’s poetry personifying Hurricane Katrina as a jumping off point. All are welcome, including parents and children, and no experience is required.

This opportunity is so dear to my heart because most of my poetry, and some of my prose, focuses on science in some way. I’m obsessed with space. I write about my body and medical issues. I explore the potential future in science/speculative fiction. Science and creative writing go hand in hand. Writers draw from the natural world and the rich images in science.

Jane’s work in forming Poets for Science and our teach-ins were featured in an article on Poets&Writers. Read it to learn more about the seven-foot posters of poetry that will be present at the March, as well as how this came to be. The workshops and poems are also traveling the globe and may be translated and held in satellite marches throughout the world, including the March for Science in Marseilles, France!

Join the conversation throughout the day and share your science-related poems with the hashtag #poetsforscience! Excited to see you there!

Support science on #GivingTuesday

Giving Tuesday
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A woman’s place is — in the lab

Tabia Santos
Photo from Science News for Students.

Science News for Students, the sister publication to Science News, recently highlighted the importance of women in STEM in a feature that shows the amazing females involved in the front lines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The number of women in science or engineering has increased in recent years, but not nearly enough. Women and men both study science in high school, but men still outnumber women in research jobs.

Science News for Students covers scientific topics written in language that teens can understand.

Read all about amazing women in various scientific fields, including:

Sucking up knowledge and light: Professor and students collaborate on black hole research

by Marlena Chertock, November 16, 2010

Physics professor Dan Evans is researching the physical properties of black holes with two Elon freshmen. The team will look at images from the Chandra Observatory telescope in May. Photo courtesy of University Relations.

Dan Evans never knew exactly what he wanted to do until college when he first saw the images from the Hubble telescope. Now, as an Elon physics professor, Evans studies one particular cosmic body — black holes.

Evans said he wants to understand the physical processes of the cosmic bodies in space, which is the focus of astrophysics.

He described black holes as enormous cosmic vacuum cleaners.

“It turns out that just as the material takes its last death plunge into the black hole, it also releases a huge birth of X-ray emission and gives off a big flash,” he said.

This flash can be tracked by the Chandra X-ray Observatory telescope, the telescope he is using to conduct research.

“If I take an X-ray photograph of the night sky, we can find out what (black holes) are doing, what they’re eating,” he said.

Evans said he plans to use black holes to test Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

“This is part of the $3.5 billion mission from NASA that I’ve been working on for the past decade now,” Evans said.

The funding for this project comes directly from NASA, he said.
Before coming to Elon this year, Evans worked with NASA at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institution of Technology.

“My research involves supermassive black holes, which are incredibly massive black holes,” Evans said. “They have a huge amount of gravity associated with them. What I try to do with them is to understand how they work.”

Evans is bringing two Elon freshmen onto his research team, Todd Calnan and Matthew Barger. A third student will start next semester.

“I really like the undergraduate program here,” he said. “I’ve always placed a firm emphasis on undergraduate research and it seems like Elon is really making a substantial push to put itself on the map for leading undergraduate research. I wanted to be a part of that effort.”

They started the research in mid-September. In May, they will view galaxy NGC 1068 through Chandra.

Evans said the students are researching to understand how black holes flow material.

“It turns out it’s actually a very complicated process,” Evans said. “If we find out that, we can measure out the process of the black holes.”

Calnan said he wants to get a solid foundation in this type of work, which he said he’s confident that Evans can provide.

“I’m a physics major and I’m particularly interested in cosmology,” Calnan said. “This type of research is what I’m going to be doing for quite some time and I thought it would be good to get a head start.”

He said that he’s learned to use the computer programs, which analyze data, and the basic physics of black holes.

Calnan and Barger have also learned how to program UNIX, which they use for entering data Chandra supplies.

“The point of the research is to determine how fast the black hole is rotating given certain data,” Calnan said. “I also like the idea of being able to find something out that nobody else knows about yet.”

Barger said he sees this research as a way to broaden his view of the world of physics.

“(Evans’) presentation (on black holes) in the beginning of the year really captured me,” he said. “He talked about the different situations of black holes throughout the universe. There are quite a handful of them. Each one of them has their own story. I thought that was interesting.”

A certain set of principles in space applies to every single black hole in different ways, Barger said.

“Dr. Evans’ research will allow you to apply the principles to all of these different black holes and see things that other people have yet to see,” he said.

Evans creates a comfortable, motivating atmosphere, according to Barger.

“The way Dr. Evans presents our tasks to us makes us feel we can do it,” he said. “I didn’t know (Calnan) before, but (we) work well together. Dr. Evans keeps us on the same page. We started out doing the same thing, but I think Dr. Evans is trying to make it so that the tasks we’re doing are slightly different than the other’s work.”

Evans said he tries to take his passion directly into the classroom and research. He said he wants to encourage students to take astronomy classes.

“I want to give them the training so they can embark on careers, hopefully as professional scientists,” Evans said. “I think that’s a big part of the Elon experience.”

He said he hopes the students will continue researching with him for four years.

“I don’t take students on unless they have a lot of passion themselves,” he said. “I don’t take them on unless I look forward to the next four years together.”

Both Calnan and Barger said they plan on continuing this research.
Evans said he wants to take students to an astronomy conference in May.

“It’s not so much what I have to do, it’s what they have to do,” he said. “They’ve got to show that they have the hallmarks of becoming professional scientists. They have to do a research project at professional or near-professional standards.”

Evans said he hopes to expose students to what life as a scientist is like.

“It’s actually an exciting one,” he said.