From the outside, the Sawyer Environmental Research Center looks like just another well-kept building on the University of Maine’s Orono campus. The hallways seem no different than those of other academic buildings. The office spaces do not appear particularly noteworthy—even the one occupied by Dr. Paul Andrew Mayewski, professor and director of the Climate Change Institute (CCI).
While it may not be a comparison Mayewski would welcome, those raised on a solid diet of pop culture might be tempted to begin to think of the explorer-scientist—who became CCI’s director after a two-year period serving as co-director in 2002—as a kind of Indiana Jones. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland and founder of University of New Hampshire’s Climate Change Research Center, Mayewski has led more than 50 expeditions to Antarctica, the Arctic, the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, Tierra del Fuego, and the Andes. He was the leader of the first expedition into Northern Victoria Land, Antarctica, the first glaciological expedition to Nun Kun Massif, Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas, and the first multi-disciplinary oversnow scientific expedition to the South Pole through west and east Antarctica.
But Mayewski and the various teams that comprise the CCI aren’t hunting for lost arks or mythological relics, as their research takes them across the globe. The roughly 100 individuals who comprise the CCI are working to understand the physical, chemical, biological, and social implications of climate change.
“We have about 50 graduate students—master’s, PhD, and some undergraduate students—who work with us,” Mayewski says, explaining CCI’s composition. More than 50 faculty members complete the Institute’s interdisciplinary team. “The students typically get their degrees in academic units, so we’re very closely allied with, for example, the newly named School of Earth and Climate Sciences, the School of Biology and Ecology, the School of Computing Science, History, Physics, and several other units on campus.”
According to Mayewski, at 40 years old, CCI is one of the oldest units in the world studying climate change. In its time, CCI has been responsible for thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers and has made significant contributions to the field of climate science, including research demonstrating the shocking speed at which changes in the climate can be affected.
“You can go from one state of the climate system to the other in a very short period of time, less than a decade,” says Mayewski. “The types of things that can do that are changes in ocean circulation, changes in the energy output of the sun, the amount of dust in the air, and changes in greenhouse gases, if the greenhouse gases rise fast enough.”
Mayewski is proud of the fact that CCI doesn’t just look at data and make conclusions; they collect the data. “One of the things that I specialize in is the collection of ice cores,” he says. “Ice cores give us a very, very detailed—literally a storm-to-storm understanding—of how the climate system has changed. You can reconstruct temperature, precipitation, storm patterns, greenhouse gas levels, other pollutants in atmosphere, sea ice extent, biological activity; it goes on and on. We have people collecting data from lakes that tell us about changes in acidification, the introduction of local pollutants, and what warming is doing to those ecosystems. We have anthropologists and archeologists looking at the impact of climate in the past on humans and also looking at how people were living, as a way of understanding what the climate was like at that time. The kinds of foods that they ate and where they lived are all indications of how they were controlled by the climate system.”
To gather all this material, CCI researchers have mounted expeditions throughout Antarctica, the Arctic, Asia, New Zealand, and the Americas, making the Sawyer building—and the various buildings that house the multi-disciplinary collection of CCI students and scientists—into outposts in a project that touches every corner of the globe.
“We work in a lot of remote parts of the world, which gives us a really on-the-ground understanding of how the climate system operates,” Mayewski says. “We’re out in tents in storms in polar regions. In October, several of my graduate students and I were in a sailboat traveling from the Falkland Islands to South Georgia Island, which is close to 2,000 miles round trip, sailing in the Southern Ocean. I’ll be going back to the Andes to 20,000 feet this coming February.”
The results of all this globe trekking are then translated into a growing and remarkably complex understanding of the planet’s climate history.
“In terms of the climate system, the instrumental record goes back to 1900 at best,” Mayewski explains. “Between 1900 and the present, we know that there has been approximately a one-degree centigrade rise in temperature, but there have also been some ups and downs. In order to understand how the climate system operates, you have to go back much further. So we’ve done a lot of work developing records that allow us to go back hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of years.”
Despite this vast and growing store of knowledge, the field of climate science remains politically controversial, especially when discussion turns to what climate change might mean for the future.
“A lot of people, when they hear the words climate change, think of global warming and think it’s the same thing,” Mayewski says. “It’s not the same thing. Climate change is the way the climate changes both naturally and as a consequence of human activity. In the last three to four years, we have fewer and fewer people believing that climate change is important. People not believing that people have had an impact on the climate. Interestingly enough, the number of people who believe that scientists know what they’re talking about is about 80%.
Many of those same people, Mayewski points out, believe that scientists are not in agreement. “They think that scientists know what they’re talking about but that they’re 50/50 on whether [climate change] is important. That’s not true at all. The closer statistic based on studies done by larger organizations is that probably 98% of the climate science community believes that humans have had a dramatic impact on the climate system. Why doesn’t anybody believe that? Well, why should you prepare for what might happen when everything seems to be fine right now?”
Mayewski says that the reality is that we are in an unparalleled climate situation. “You don’t have to convince people in the Arctic that the climate is changing and that something is very importantly different,” he says. In the last decade, temperatures in the Arctic have risen—compared to previous decades—two to three degrees centigrade. “If we experienced that kind of change here in Maine it would mean a major change in our lifestyles.”
That said, even in the face of these monumental challenges, Mayewski remains positive about the potential of the future.
“I’m actually a great optimist,” says Mayewski. “Despite the fact that I’ve been on the ground floor showing glaciers in the Antarctic and the Himalayas are melting. Despite the fact that I’ve been on the ground floor demonstrating how fast the climate can change and the impact humans have had on the system. Despite the fact that I do understand and believe wholeheartedly that, by 2100, temperatures will be at least two- if not four-degrees centigrade higher and will have grave consequences for sea levels and everything else, I’m still an optimist. There are things that can be cleaned up fast. We can waste a lot less of our money on energy. We can be much healthier. There are simply better ways for us to live.”