UD experts weigh in on U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen

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Delaware Environmental Institute Director Donald Sparks discusses the impact of climate change. Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair in soil and environmental chemistry, holds joint appointments in civil and environmental engineering, chemistry and biochemistry and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

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Geography Professor Dan Leathers talks about how climate change affects Delaware's weather. Leathers, deputy dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, is a climatologist specializing in snow science. He co-directs the Delaware Environmental Observing System.

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1:50 p.m., Dec. 16, 2009----University of Delaware professors attending the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and their colleagues in Newark, Del., are this week weighing in on the key issues at the 192-nation summit, which ends Dec. 18.

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The conference aims to curb global greenhouse gas emissions and to identify how the world will pay for dramatic reductions, and reach an agreement to succeed the 1997 Kyoto protocol, which required 37 industrial countries to cut emissions an average 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

John Byrne, director of the UD Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) and co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU), will present a "how to" in reducing CO2 emissions on the final day of the summit. His presentation is based on examples of CEEP's research into communities empowered to take collective action that have led to cuts in energy waste and fostered job and economic growth.

“The field of dreams approach will not work,” Byrne said. “It is not enough to set targets, we must act by applying the practical solutions we know will work. Communities can be empowered to cut energy waste and tap renewable sources in ways that are convenient and enhance the quality of life.”

Biliana Cicin-Sain, director of the University's Gerard J. Mangone Center for Marine Policy who traveled to Copenhagen with several UD students, organized an Oceans Day at the conference to stress the urgent need to protect the central role of the oceans in the Earth's life support system and address threats faced by coastal communities, especially in developing nations and small island States.

Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair in soil and environmental chemistry at the University of Delaware and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN), said climate change has become a major environmental challenge, with the current decade on track to be the warmest in modern history.

"This is primarily due to increases in greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide. The higher temperatures are causing the retreat of glaciers, reductions in the Arctic ice cap and the warming of Antarctica," Sparks said.

"Consequently, sea levels are rising, up to an eighth of an inch per year. This will have profound impact on island nations and low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, and indeed coastal areas around the world where large numbers of the world's population lives."

Dan Leathers, professor of geography and deputy dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, said sea-level rise is the most important impact of climate change to the state of Delaware and the entire Delmarva Peninsula.

"Many experts in the field expect global sea level to rise faster over the next century, as much as 1-1/2 to 4-1/2 feet in the next 100 years," Leathers said. "Whatever the rise, any increase in sea level will create more danger of significant storm surges along the coast from nor'easter or tropical weather systems. In a state that already suffers with coastal flooding issues, sea-level rise and its potential effects are a major policy issue."

Sparks said climate change is also linked to extremes in rainfall, with parts of Africa and Australia experiencing extreme drought while parts of Asia have faced severe flooding.

The broader impacts of climate change include disastrous effects on human health, loss of life, destruction of homes and property, relocation of vast populations, global insecurity, a serious threat to food security and production, retreating coastlines and environmental contamination.

"The nations of the world must take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by relying less on fossil fuels and more on renewable energy sources," Sparks said.

Unlike other areas of the globe, Delaware has seen little change in its atmospheric climate over the last century, with temperatures increasing only slightly during all seasons, Leathers said. Precipitation trends in the state have been quite variable in all seasons, except for autumn, which has seen an increase in mean precipitation of about 2.5 inches during the last century.

"Continued monitoring of the regional environment including sea level, air temperature and precipitation is needed so that we can better understand how our environment is changing and understand the mechanisms associated with that change," Leathers said.

Byrne is a member of Working Group III of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 2,500 researchers from more than 130 nations that was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

Cicin-Sain serves as organizer, cochairperson and head of secretariat of the Global Forum on Oceans, Coasts and Islands, initially mobilized in 2001 to place issues related to oceans, coasts and island states on the agenda of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and to agree on a detailed set of global ocean targets and timelines.

Sparks holds joint faculty appointments in civil and environmental engineering, chemistry and biochemistry and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. He is internationally recognized for his research in the areas of kinetics of soil chemical processes, surface chemistry of soils and soil minerals using in-situ spectroscopic and microscopic techniques and the physical chemistry of soil potassium.

Leathers, a climatologist specializing in snow science, is the co-director of the Delaware Environmental Observing System (DEOS), a support tool for decision makers involved in environmental policy and planning, natural resource management, emergency management, transportation and other activities throughout the Delmarva Peninsula.

Article by Martin A Mbugua

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