By Beth Bartel, Candace L. Kairies-Beatty, Luke J. Bowman, Malcolm Siegel, and Sinjini Sinha

In his 2019 GSA Presidential Address, then-President Don Siegel called on members of GSA to take a leadership position in developing climate adaptation strategies. In response to this challenge, 17 GSA Scientific Divisions sponsored a Pardee Keynote Symposium at GSA2020 Connects Online entitled “Challenges and Solutions for a Changing Climate: New Directions for GSA.” The goal of the session was to compel GSA members to think creatively, critically, and constructively about the role of geoscientists in addressing emerging climate disruption. We assembled a panel representing a range of expertise and diversity of perspectives to explore four main themes: assessment, mitigation, adaptation, and engagement. The presentations and discussions pushed for innovation around alternative approaches to adaptation and mitigation, utilizing diverse sources of data, and examining linkages among geological processes, as well as illustrating how effective collaborative engagement of all stakeholders is essential to meet the challenges that face us. Below we discuss the key points from the session panelists.

Geosciences provide perspectives and tools to identify previously unrecognized impacts of climate change and new ways to assess them. The intersections of global warming, changes in precipitation, weathering, biological pumping and human health as well as the use of indigenous knowledge and public health data in assessing climate change were illustrated in the first segment of the symposium.

Dr. David Gutzler (University of New Mexico) and Dr. Jonathan Martin (University of Florida) illustrated how global warming alters the relationships among regional water balances and surface processes that influence regional ecology. In New Mexico, climate disruption has impacted snowmelt, rain, and surface water flows. The latter is sensitive to the ratio of snowfall/rain and the timing of precipitation, with consequences for agriculture, wildfire hazards and other socioeconomic realms. In Greenland, glacial retreat and nutrient fluxes to the Arctic ocean are linked. Glacial watersheds and post glacial watersheds drain very different soils and land surfaces, resulting in different absolute fluxes and proportions of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon) in runoff. As glaciers retreat due to global warming, the nutrient balance in coastal areas in the Arctic may change, leading to changes in productivity, climate feedback through CO2 consumption and biological pumping.

Dr. Margaret Redsteer (University of Washington) and Dr. Naomi Plummer (UTEP) showed how expanding our perspective on geoscience sources of information reveal relationships between climate change and human health. In the American Southwest, indigenous knowledge provides information about climate change in the area. These data are captured in ceremonies, local place names and migration and grazing routes that describe conditions that may not be present today due to climate change. For example, there are no surface water bodies today in the area known as Many Lakes in northern Arizona. Drought in the Navajo Nation contributes to dust storms and dune migration with impacts on human health, snow albedo in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and land use. Another example comes from the Caribbean; as drought in West Africa intensifies, the huge amount of Saharan dust that reaches the Western Hemisphere in dust clouds impacts human health. This is reflected in the correlation between the prevalence of asthma (as measured by hospital visits) and the concentrations of dust (as PM10 and PM2.5) in several islands of the Caribbean. 

Managing climate change risks involves mitigation to reduce the sources and enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases. Implementing a range of natural and engineered approaches at multiple scales is essential to meet the challenges of mitigating climate change. Cost and political will continue to hinder implementation of these solutions.

Approaches that ensure recovery of natural ecosystems represent an important component of mitigation. Dr. Asmeret Berhe (University of California) highlighted the role of soils in long-term carbon storage and noted that carbon stored in mineral-associated pools can persist in soils for thousands of years. Soils degraded in agricultural systems through deforestation and erosion lose, and have no potential to sequester, carbon. Dr. Berhe underscored the importance of rehabilitating soils and managing natural ecosystems to increase sequestration potential in mitigating climate change.

Strategies for long-term storage of carbon through active, engineered approaches utilize a range of technologies. Dr. Barbara Kutchko (NETL) highlighted methods for storage and beneficial use of the CO2 waste product. Injection of CO2 into depleted shale media offers enhanced oil recovery opportunities (the injected CO2 is used in place of water as a fracturing fluid) as well as permanent storage of the CO2 waste and offers a balance between environmental and economic concerns. Dr. David Goldberg (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University) stressed that a net zero carbon world requires solutions that remove CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently and safely store it. He described the potential for carbon mineralization as demonstrated by the CarbFix project in Iceland, where CO2 was captured from a geothermal plant, injected into basalt and converted almost completely to carbonate after several years. If operations can be implemented in near-shore environments it would be possible to use wind to power operations and seawater for co-injection when needed. 

Politics or political will are the biggest barriers to policy changes. Dr. Kutchko noted that cost and funding availability are other barriers as we seek to advance the science and technology. About 80% of mitigation cost is on the capture side, stressed Dr. Goldberg, who suggested that carbon pricing strategies also need to be part of the picture, but political will is essential given the immense scale of the problem. Dr. Kutchko pointed out that part of the issue is that cost is an abstract idea to many and while we are advancing the science we need to effectively engage and communicate with the public. 

Natural solutions for mitigating climate change are attractive in the face of the prohibitive costs that currently face engineered solutions. Dr. Berhe pointed out that natural approaches can address one-third of our mitigation needs in a cost-effective manner and are attractive for carbon trading and carbon credit mechanisms, but we need to figure out a way to incentivize land managers to embrace these approaches.

The consequences of our changing climate already range from hyper-local to global, crossing borders and politics, affecting the livelihoods of broad swaths of entire continents. To adapt effectively, we must build partnerships, bridge political divides, account for local cultures and histories, explore the unexpected, and apply geoscience tools in new ways to very multidisciplinary problems.

Starting with a global perspective, Jenny Frankel-Reed, currently at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and previously at USAID, urged geoscientists to consider five factors in our research and institutional structures: 1) ensure that we’re working on decision-relevant questions; 2) co-author and collaborate with experts who know the issues from a local perspective; 3) recognize that the level of calibration or validation from a scientific perspective is different from what we would need for operational use; 4) ensure the products we generate are usable to others; and 5) reward societal impact and capacity development in addition to publishing.

Climate challenges are shared across borders and beliefs, and solutions can be as well. Dr. Clive Lipchin (Arava Institute) described the importance of cross-cultural and cross-border work in Israel, Palestine, and the Gaza Strip, where agricultural communities in arid regions dependent solely on rainwater are already vulnerable to increasing uncertainty in precipitation. Lipchin integrates local knowledge, collaboration, and understanding of village politics to develop onsite wastewater treatment systems that can provide an additional source of water for irrigation.

Very large-scale geoscience datasets can aid these types of efforts. Dr. Catherine Nakalembe (University of Maryland) applies global remote sensing datasets to local agricultural applications across Africa. Nakalembe made a case for working to overcome data management and resolution challenges in these large-scale datasets to enable locally relevant crop-type and crop-condition information throughout much of the continent, where more than 70% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods.

Even away from human populations, changes in climate patterns can have global impacts. Dr. Kimberly Miner (NASA) pushed us to think about emergent research areas to address unprecedented challenges and opportunities, taking us to the far north. Thawing permafrost in the Arctic is introducing compounds, microbes, and viruses into the environment that have been absent from our ecosystems for up to more than a million years, resulting in the reappearance of historical pollution and a prehistoric microbiome. Miner pointed out that the Earth science perspective provides the crucial foundation for sustainable solutions; to achieve sustainability in one system, we need to achieve sustainability in all systems.

Increasing public engagement is key to addressing the challenges that accompany a changing climate. Effectively engaging all stakeholders in climate issues relies on ensuring that climate science is relevant to communities. An “all hands-on deck” attitude is necessary in order to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change, and active engagement at all levels of society may lead to actionable steps and progress towards addressing this challenge.

Dr. Karen McNeal (Auburn University) recommends three key actions to increase engagement: 1) Effective communication, 2) Assessment of educational initiatives, and 3) Forging cross-disciplinary collaborations. Effective communication means using what is known about best practices so that we are making climate science accessible to all stakeholders. We also need to be sure we are training the next generation of geoscientists in science communication approaches with non-technical audiences. Dr. McNeal encourages geoscience academic programs to start adopting curriculum that would build these skills in the next generation of climate leaders. Rigorously assessing geoscience education approaches would encourage us to include geoscience education researchers on projects. Finally, forging cross-disciplinary relationships would make us more aware of the needs and perspectives of diverse stakeholders (cognitive scientists, social scientists, artists, informal educators, and representatives from marginalized communities), in order to ensure we are able to fully innovate in our engagement and assessment efforts.

Dr. Sarah Fortner adds that effective engagement in climate issues requires critical approaches to education, research, and civic engagement. The application of these approaches must intentionally seek to redistribute power by engaging for social change through policy and practices.

Paulette Blanchard (University of Kansas), who is a citizen of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, brought attention to the disproportionately low numbers of Native scientists and students in Earth sciences and other STEM fields. She highlights specific challenges that Native students and early career scholars working in climate related sciences face and specific recommendations to address this issue. For example, moving towards increased engagement of native people requires that we recognize biases, reflect on the historical nature of sciences, and intentionally integrate Native perspectives in climate science.

Finally, Dr. Raleigh Martin, who serves on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, focused on the need to enhance engagement in order to act rapidly and decisively to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. Geoscientists must meaningfully engage and advise on climate policy going forward.

Conclusion: where do we go from here?
At the end of the session, the moderators posed the following question: “What new roles or what new efforts can GSA as a professional society play or champion in contributing to climate change science?” Some of the main suggestions from the audience, responding via a link to generate a word cloud in real-time, included sponsoring Penrose conferences, climate communication, involvement in climate advisory panels, and climate-specific STEM work. In addition, suggestions from the panelists included 1) pursuing collaborative work, 2) developing a better communication strategy involving participation in interdisciplinary and multicultural groups; and 3) examining and acting on the intersection of climate change with societal issues like systemic racism that exacerbate impacts disproportionately. Finally, it is important for geoscientists to identify the audience for our outreach (e.g., politicians, our peers) and to train and encourage geoscientists to pursue careers in policy and leadership positions that will impact the response to the challenges of climate change.

We sincerely thank all our panelists for their valuable insights, presentations, and panel discussion during GSA Connects Online 2020.

Author information:
Beth Bartel is a Ph.D. student at the Michigan Technological University and the past chair of the Geology and Society division of GSA.

Candace L. Kairies-Beatty, PhD is a professor at Winona State University and the GSA Geology and Society Division representative to the Geology and Public Policy committee.

Luke J. Bowman, PhD is a research assistant professor at Michigan Technological University. 

Malcolm Siegel, PhD, MPH is an adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico and is the chair of the GSA Geology and Health Scientific Division.

Sinjini Sinha is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin and the past student representative of the GSA Geology and Society Division.