The last two years have marked a turning point for scientists trying to spread the word about changes in Earth’s climate. The groundbreaking report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the success of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth — which together shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — increased public awareness of global climate change issues by putting them squarely on the front page.
Nowhere is the impact of warming more visually evident than in the shrinking ice at the poles, says Waleed Abdalati, head of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Cryospheric Sciences Branch in Greenbelt, Md. “Ice is binary — it’s there or it’s not,” Abdalati says. “And lately, it’s been not there. Anybody can look at that and say, ‘Wow.’”
That straightforward visual message is one that Abdalati and about 30 other polar scientists are hoping to convey through Polar-Palooza: Stories from a Changing Planet, a multimedia and multi-scientist event that is currently touring the United States. In partnership with the National Science Foundation, NASA and the International Polar Year (which lasts from 2007 to 2009), Polar-Palooza is being brought to a city near you by Passport to Knowledge, an educational earth science outreach effort (which previously sent scientists and engineers out on tour with Marsapalooza).
Of the 32 polar researchers and Alaskan residents on the Polar-Palooza team, six different experts appear at each stop on the tour to share their stories, accompanied by images, video, sounds and even some props. “At each city, the team is unique,” says Jackie Richter-Menge, chief of the Snow and Ice Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research & Engineering Lab in Hanover, N.H. During the presentation, the researchers share different aspects of the same story, telling of Earth’s history, its ice, oceans and atmosphere, as well as the polar bears, penguins, seals and people who live in these extreme but beautiful environments. “We’re trying to get across a message,” Richter-Menge says, “and we’re trying to do it in a way that’s not boring.”
On March 13 and 14, the Washington, D.C., Polar-Palooza team consisted of Abdalati, Richter-Menge, Pennsylvania State University glaciologist Richard Alley, University of Alaska at Fairbanks marine biologist Mike Castellini and Richard Glenn, a geologist, whaling captain and resident of Barrow, Alaska. Moderated by science writer Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, the scientists described their firsthand observations of climate change at the poles, and showed photographs and video of majestic icescapes, scientists traveling across ice crevasses on dogsleds and charismatic penguins and other creatures. They also brought along some visual aids, such as sealskin hats, ice augers (handheld drills used by ice fishermen and scientists alike) and bulky red arctic parkas. After discussing the importance of ice cores to understanding climatic history and polar ice caps, Alley produced his pièce de résistance: a carefully transported core of Greenland’s ice containing 130,000 years of climate history.
The team-presentation approach adds an important dimension, Abdalati says. “I give a lot of talks by myself, and I think they’re okay,” he says. By sharing a stage with the other speakers, however, “my 10 minutes feels like part of something big. You play off of each other. All of us are just really motivated by our subject matter, and our belief that it’s very important to communicate that.”
An already snowballing public awareness of climate change may be helping to draw large audiences to Polar-Palooza, Richter-Menge says. The increased interest is “really gratifying. I think three years ago I probably would have been talking to 10 people in the audience,” she says. Yet the impact the traveling presentation itself will have on raising awareness “remains to be seen.”
At each stop, the researchers stick around after the presentation to chat with audience members, answer questions and hear critiques. Penny Beevis, a nurse in Washington, D.C., who attended the March 13 event, says she told Richter-Menge that she appreciated that the message was easy to follow and largely jargon-free. “The main thing I would say is, I get it,” Beevis says.
That reaction is gratifying for members of the Polar-Palooza team, who are hoping for similar reactions throughout the tour. “It’s a communication effort,” Abdalati says. “We want people to walk away with a few things: insight into the science, the recognition of its importance and the recognition that people are working really hard for the sake of society.”
To see when Polar-Palooza might be coming to a city near you, visit passporttoknowledge.com/polar-palooza/.
Kirk Johnson met his first paleontologist when he was 12 years old. His mother had dropped him off at the Burke Museum in Seattle to spend some time with Wes Wehr, a paleobotanist and artist. “Wes was great. We spent hours together talking about fossils. I was lucky I got to experience all of these great fossils, plus I learned the secrets of finding fossils,” says Johnson, a self-described “paleo-nerd” who courted girlfriends with fossilized plants.
Ray Troll didn’t meet a paleontologist until much later in life. Instead, he collected dinosaur figurines and postcards of prehistoric animals. He found rocks in the playground and declared they were from undiscovered dinosaurs. But what Troll really liked was drawing dinosaurs. “I truly loved it. My first drawings were of T. rex, and I am still doing it 50 years later,” he says.
Troll and Johnson first met at the Burke Museum in 1993, but not until 1996 did they began the collaboration that led to their recently released book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway. The book — mixing science, nuttiness, history and passion — details the pair’s road trips around the American West in search of fossils big and small, famous and obscure, rare and common. Johnson, who is chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, wrote the text and provided color photographs, while Troll, an illustrator best known for his warped, fish-focused and scientifically informed work, provided the drawings. “I am not a ‘paleo-realist’ but a ‘paleo-surrealist,’” he says.
Written in first person, Cruisin’ is accessible, fast-paced and informative, showing the rich history of fossil collecting in the American West, as well as an intriguing cast of past collectors. Johnson describes the trip as “cherry picking the best sites and best stories”; for example, while driving a heavily loaded, dark blue Ford F-250, they happen upon a cabin made of dinosaur bones, the Hell Pig, Archaeotherium, crocodile tracks and the occasional cheeseburger.
They also discover fellow fossil fanatics, each characterized by the disease “Isolated Paleo-Nerd Syndrome,” or IPNS, for short. “When two IPNS sufferers m[e]et, their conversation speeds up and they fall into a rapturous state, finally able to lapse into paleo-speak without fear of being ostracized,” Johnson writes. Troll and Johnson’s interactions with fellow IPNS sufferers provide some of the highlights of the book, especially their encounters with “Buck-a-bug” Jimmy Corbett; Robert Harris, the “King of Trilobites”; and Lace Honert, who married her husband for his “localities,” or familiarity with fossil-rich sites.
Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway is a good read for anyone who cares about fossils. You won’t find detailed science or a fossil-finding guide, but you will find inspiration, passion and stunning and fun illustrations.
Johnson and Troll recently sat down with freelance writer David Williams to talk about their experiences.
DW: You two are those kids who never outgrew your love for fossils. Why do kids outgrow that love?
KJ: Kids like dinosaurs in a way so bizarre that we don’t know why. They lose it at puberty. We have to create an interest and wonder. Kids have to experience finding stuff. Once you learn the secret of finding fossils you don’t ever want to quit.
DW: What were the highlights of your road trips?
KJ: Finding the iridium layer [from the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago] in North Dakota. I had been looking for the contact for 20 years and had about given up. I was showing Troll an outcrop and there was the layer. It had the round beads of glass formed by the cooling of droplets of molten rock that the meteor generated.
DW: What’s the big picture of the book?
DW: Do paleontologists take themselves too seriously?
The students of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., know Robert Titus as a geology professor. But to the average resident of the Hudson Valley region in New York, he’s better known as the “Catskill Geologist.” He’s earned that title by writing numerous articles for the regional magazine Kaatskill Life and three local newspapers. For the past 17 years, he’s provided his readers with a window to the past, introducing them to the area’s ancient, ever-changing landscapes and explaining the geological forces that have shaped the region.
Being a popular writer is not something Titus ever planned on. But writing, he says, has become a fun, creative way to share his passion of geology with the general public and an effective way to generate interest in the discipline. Now after writing more than 300 articles, Titus has gathered together his favorites for his new book The Other Side of Time.
Written in first-person with a conversational tone, the articles in the book cover both geology and nature as well as how geology has affected local culture and history. A good read for geological experts and novices alike, The Other Side of Time will likely have many wishing they too called the Catskills home.
Titus recently spoke to Geotimes reporter Erin Wayman about the book and life as a geology columnist.
EW: How did you get started writing for the public?
EW: Being an academic, was it difficult to write for a lay audience when you first started?
EW: Can you give me an example?
EW: Do you find that your readers are unaware of the topics you write about?
EW: Where do you get inspiration for your articles?
EW: What’s the hardest part about writing these stories?
EW: What led you to publish The Other Side of Time?
EW: Before you started writing for Kaatskill Life, was writing something you enjoyed doing?
EW: Do you have any advice for other geologists who might want to follow in your footsteps?