Climate change, ocean diversity and women in science

Science has made great strides since Svante Arrhenius, the Swedish Nobel Laureate who in 1896 first determined that carbon dioxide from human activity could warm the planet. The same progress hasn’t been made in increasing the number of women in the sciences, reports Nancy Bazilchuk from Norway.

In June, among a host of international stars —including 11 Nobel Prize winners, Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin and Oliver Stone— the Starmus Science Festival in Trondheim, Norway, will showcase talks from two superstar female scientists: atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, and coral reef biologist Nancy Knowlton.

Both women have taken leading roles in their disciplines, and have used their successes to try to boost the number of women in the sciences. The hope is that their presentations at Starmus, along with other leading female researchers such as Nobel Laureate May-Britt Moser, will encourage young women to consider science as a career.

Earth’s changing atmosphere

Katharine Hayhoe was one of the stars of a digital series produced by Texas Tech Public Media entitled “Global Weirding.” Illustration: Screenshot from PBS Digital and KTTZ.

Katharine Hayhoe focuses on developing and applying high-resolution climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. She is an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. Hayhoe has been named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People and Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers.

Her Starmus presentation is entitled “Climate Change: Facts and Fictions.”

“I’ll be talking about climate science,” she says. “The basic science connecting global warming to temperature and precipitation is relatively straightforward. We’ve known for over 150 years that the burning of fossil fuels produces heat-trapping gases.”

She points out that “the first climate model – calculating how much the Earth would warm if we doubled or tripled carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – was worked out by hand in the 1890s by Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist who won a Nobel prize for his work in physical chemistry. Climate modeling was what he did for fun!”

“But most challenging of all,” she says, “is the question of how to use this information to encourage people to act on climate; to prepare for the impacts we can’t avoid, and to implement the rapid reductions in carbon that are needed to avoid dangerous impacts in an increasingly polarized political environment.”

Hayhoe is interested in the politics of climate change action, particularly given the politicized nature of the topic in the United States over the past few years.

“Today,” she says “ the number one predictor of whether people think climate is changing and humans are responsible, is not how much they know about the science, or how educated they are, but simply where they fall on the political spectrum. At Starmus I’ll be talking about all of those challenges.”

Earth’s changing oceans

Photo: fourandsixty CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nancy Knowlton is a coral reef biologist who currently holds the Smithsonian Institution’s Sant Chair for Marine Science, and is author of the book “Citizens of the Sea”, published by National Geographic in 2010. A graduate of Harvard University, she undertook a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently an adjunct professor of marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego.

Knowlton’s talk is entitled “Life on Planet Ocean: From DNA to Crochet and Twitter.”

“The ocean covers over 70% of the surface of the planet and represents over 95% of the Earth’s habitable real estate,” Knowlton says. “The ocean also contains all the major branches of the tree of life, many of which don’t even occur on land. Some of these creatures are so strange that they almost seem to be the works of science fiction.”

She explains that “until recently we really haven’t had the tools to study this diversity in a comprehensive way, but molecular genetics, particularly the ability to sequence DNA rapidly, has made it possible to begin to understand what really lives in the ocean.”

“Life in the ocean has been severely impacted by human activities” she says, “everything from overfishing and pollution to global warming and ocean acidification. For years I have given talks about the state of the ocean, but I have become increasingly convinced that doom and gloom doesn’t really inspire people to take action.”

“Moreover, there are an increasing number of success stories in ocean conservation,” she says. “The Earth Optimism Summit, which I spent the last year organizing, represents an alternative approach which uses the power of positivity to inspire change. This project, telling the stories of conservation success, has basically taken over my life.”

Empowering women in science

These two scientists are also well known advocates for the increasing role of women in science. Knowlton notes that “there are actually a lot of women — often more women than men — interested in making a career in the field of marine biology and conservation. The problem is more in the retention of women through their professional lives, so that there are women in conspicuous leadership positions. These are still dominated by men.”

Hayhoe currently chairs the Advisory Committee for the Earth Science Women’s Network.

“I believe it is so important to engage and, even more importantly, retain higher percentages of women in the physical sciences,” she says.

According to Hayhoe, “we need a diversity of views and perspectives to solve big problems like climate change. We need role models for young girls; we need encouragement and learning opportunities for high school and undergraduate students; we need support for early-career researchers; and we need to be advocates for women and diversity at every stage in our careers.”

Knowlton agrees. “Having successful role models makes a huge difference” she says, “but it takes time and effort to ensure diversity at all levels of the profession.”

Photo credit: WorldFish, flickr/Creative Commons

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