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Presidential accolades for the Keeling curve

Forty-four years ago, Charles Keeling started measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. Widely known as the “Keeling curve,” the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide record, is the world’s longest, continuous data set of carbon dioxide concentrations, helping scientists to understand the atmospheric carbon cycle and its implications for global climate change.

On June 12, President Bush awarded Keeling and 14 other honorees with the National Medal of Science.
“I feel very satisfied that someone said my work was important because I worked on it so many years. And not all the time it appeared that way. It gives me encouragement and makes me feel that it wasn’t a waste of time to keep the program going, which wasn’t easy,” Keeling says. Potential program funders often criticized Keeling and his colleagues for taking repetitive measurements, Keeling recalls. “It didn’t look like science. Basically, this is a validation that it was science. And that makes me feel very happy.”

Keeling, now a professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a member of the American Geophysical Union, says that what makes his curve look interesting is “the combination of natural and manmade” — the manmade being the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1958, and the natural being the seasonal swings in concentrations.

In the Northern Hemisphere in the spring and summer, plants become greener, taking in carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, and creating little yearly dips in the curve. In the winter, plants are more bare, swinging the numbers up again.

Over the years, many people, Keeling says, have heralded his Mauna Loa curve as “indisputable evidence” for the human-induced global accumulation of carbon dioxide, causing global warming. Keeling concedes, saying that “It seems to be impossible to argue convincingly that the rise in carbon dioxide is some kind of artifact of bad measurements.” And while he declines to comment directly on the global warming issue, Keeling does point out that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that warms Earth’s surface.

At the White House, Keeling and the other medal winners had an opportunity to speak with President Bush. Keeling says that he tried to come up with a nice topic of conversation beforehand to avoid discussing political issues surrounding global warming and the Bush administration. “My son did a genealogy on the Keeling family, and I was able to point out that we are tenth cousins, George Bush and I.” Bush and Keeling descend from the same number of generations through John and Mary Prescott, Keeling says. “That made the conversation easier.”

Lisa M. Pinsker

From ship to shore

D. James Baker, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) during the Clinton administration, has landed a job as president and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He took office on May 20.

Besides promoting the national and international profile of the science museum, the oldest natural history institution in the Western Hemisphere, Baker will be working with scientists to help them gain additional funding through scientific agencies such as the National Science Foundation and to raise the museum’s endowment of private donations.

An avid adventurer who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., Baker is the co-inventor of a precision deep-sea pressure gauge for measuring ocean currents and has led the strategic planning for four ocean-observing satellites. After stepping down from NOAA in February 2001, Baker traveled with his wife for five weeks through India, where they visited the facilities of the government’s space department. Baker is a fellow of the American Meteorological Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a long-time member of the American Geophysical Union. He is also a member of the Smithsonian Institution Commission in Washington overseeing the scientific guidelines for, among other things, how the Smithsonian should optimize its financial resources. While “funding is always an issue,” Baker says, he adds that he intends for the Philadelphia institution to maintain ultimate control over how funds are used, a point of controversy for Smithsonian funding. “I think it’s an issue that has to be worked out with each donor, but as a whole the Academy of Natural Sciences has final say over the exhibits and how funds are used. Most donors are comfortable with that agreement.”

Baker says he looks forward to leading the Academy because of its involvement in public outreach. “My goal is to use the Academy’s museum and public outreach programs to teach the public about the impacts humans have on the environment and to understand the changes we are making. I’m now working with the environmental research labs in Philadelphia and on Chesapeake Bay to develop watershed exhibits that show how people are part of the local and regional watershed.”

In 2004, the Academy of Natural Sciences will host a touring exhibit celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The museum currently holds the plants Meriwether Lewis and William Clark collected along their way to the West Coast and back. “Using the plants, the exhibition will help show us what the United States looked like at the time of Lewis and Clark. With that we will have satellite data, as a way to teach the public how things have changed,” Baker says. “The idea is to also show what the United States might look like in the future and how to live in a sustainable way.”

Christina Reed


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