Eyewitness to climate change

Numbers can be powerful things, but they don't necessarily help the average person grasp what's actually going on in science. Instead, personal stories tend to make a bigger impact. And that's understandable. Things you can see—or things that someone can show you—are going to stick in your head a bit more than a barrage of data.

This is especially a problem, I think, with climate change. Some of the largest impact of climate change, so far, have happened in places far removed from the experiences of the people who create the most anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So it's often hard to take the idea "the Earth is getting warmer" and really grok what that actually means.

That's why people like Will Steger are important. Steger is an explorer and science communicator who has won the National Geographic Society's John Oliver La Gorce Medal—an award that's also been given to Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Jacques Cousteau.

He does most of his work in the Arctic and Antarctic, places where he has clearly seen the results of climate change. In a video of a presentation at the University of Minnesota, Steger shows you his experiences—and what they mean. How has climate change altered the landscape of the poles? What does that mean for the future of the Earth? Steger does a good job of making the data feel like something real.

I wish I could figure out how to embed this, but you should go watch it, nonetheless. It's a long video, but worth the time.

Image: Ice berg melting., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from dkeats's photostream


  1. Well, I don’t want to diminish his expertise but Hugh Brody has been writing about this a long time ago. Inuit crying as the ice turned slushy or experienced hunters not returning from hunting trips and possibly broke into ice. 
    Hugh Brody has been mentioned repeatedly by Ethnologists and Anthropologists in TED talks or SALT talks but he is absent, working and writing books only. I can recommend The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World, which is full of wonderful accounts of the way of life in the arctic and the inventiveness and resilience of human beings. Absolutely gripping and inspiring: http://arcticcircle.uconn.edu/RelatedInformation/brody.htm

  2. @Mememine,

    Has the thought ever occurred to you that the same phenomena can have different causes? Claiming that since climate has changed before humanity ever existed therefore humans can not be the cause now is  like claiming that since forest fires happened way before humans ever existed that arson must therefore be impossible.

  3.  Alaska is actually a really bad example to look at in terms of climate change. While I trust the inuit that they personally have no experience of current conditions, it is clear that temperatures have been especially cold in their livetime.

    You will find that the warming only started 40-80 years ago according to those authors:


    and that temperatures had been warmer before that. Or on other words, the cooling stopped 40-80 years ago. In fact, the all-time temperature record for Alaska (Ft. Yukon) is a 38C (100F in local units) from the year 1915 that hasn’t been surpassed since.

    Unfortunately, the old inuit can’t ask their great-grand fathers, how the weather felt like, how the ice felt like or what the animals did 100+ years ago.

    1. That study doesn’t seem to say what you’re saying it says.  It’s not clear that temperatures have been “particularly cold” in the lifetime of modern inuits.  The fact that “warming started 40-80 years ago” (a tentative conclusion based entirely on indirect evidence) suggests that actually that’s not the case…that it was cooler before warming began (I mean, that’s just common sense, right?).  I don’t know where you get “temperatures had been warmer before [the warming had occurred].”  That’s just seems perverse to me. 

      “The cooling stopped 40-80 years ago” is an absolutely unwarranted conclusion for which I can see absolutely no evidence in the cited paper — it seems to be an inference original to you and I can’t imagine what it’s based on.  A one-time temperature record is essentially meaningless in terms of climate (which you should already have known if you’re paying attention to climate change stuff).

      You’ve provided nothing to convince anyone that “Alaska is actually a really bad example in terms of climate change.”

      Edit: The study is using “warming” and “cooling” to refer to the temperature of the permafrost (frozen dirt), not atmospheric temperature. So tp1024’s is a little misleading in that respect as well since it uses “warming” and “cooling” and in ambiguous way that seems to refer to atmospheric temperature but actually doesn’t.

      1.  Have a look at:



        Temperatures in those graphs in the early 2000’s are  not significantly higher than in the 1940ies. And the paper itself says that there are cycles of temperature increases and decreases that dominate the climate in Alaska that haven’t (so far) even been fully observed twice in their entirety, because there simply isn’t enough data for Alaska.

        And there could obviously be more. There is no reason why climate should respond to 3 year, 8 year and 20-30 year cycles (which we know for sure) but no such cycles should encompass time spans of, say, 100 years or 250 years – without any records we just can’t know and should simply limit what we say to what we know instead of idle speculation.

        E.g. we know that coal mining, oil and gas drilling is damaging the environment, we know that reserves are limited. We should stop doing that and find alternatives. We know that, taken to arbitrary extremes, CO2 emissions are going to cause global warming. We can’t reduce those emissions to zero all that soon anyway, so could we please stop the apocalyptic fear mongering and limit ourselves to scientific facts?

        We’ve started to destroy (or replace) on the order of 10% of the worlds grain harvest each year to stop “catastrophic climate change” and caused massive increases of food prices that are sure to cause much more harm, death and desperation than whatever contribution to the prevention of  global warming this idiocy ever possibly could have made.


        There has never been anything worse than fanatics claiming to save the world from doom.

        1. Why do you not just go and take a look at a temperature graph for the Northern Hemisphere and see if it matches up with you claims? Notice that it is the northern latitudes above the tropics that have warmed the most.

          1. Because I was talking about the merits of Alaska as an example for the whole and not about the northern hemisphere, perhaps?

        2. Dude, you so badly misrepresented that first study that you have about zero credibility on this topic right now.  You’re certainly not in a position to fling around accusations like the last sentence in your post.

          And you’re conflating the actions of corn and ethanol industrialists with those of environmentalists.  How many environmentalists currently support corn ethanol as any kind of solution?  How many ever have (as opposed to the “liberal” media hyping ethanol on behalf of the corn and ethanol industries)?  It’s the typical response of deniers to actual scientific data on warming: make an apocalyptic strawman out of a scientist calmly telling you some bad news.

          As far as limiting ourselves to the scientific facts that’s exactly what you’re not doing.  You talk about “warming” and “cooling” citing that study that is talking about the warming and cooling of dirt, not the atmosphere.  The facts are not on your side, buddy, and even if they were you started off from such a bad position that no one should trust you in the first place.

          Edit: Just for shits in giggles, care to show me where in the thread is there an example of the following?
          “There has never been anything worse than fanatics claiming to save the world from doom.”

          1. Well, obviously your credibility won’t suffer the least for having claimed that the temperature of the ground is independent of the temperature of the air.

            Give that, I wonder why you should worry about any warming at all. The dirt won’t warm up from higher temperatures and permafrost will stay permafrost.

          2. @boingboing-e23b16e83342d08d0d3ef4eeed9d3299:disqus :
            Now you’re just trolling.  Pathetic.  Would you like to point out to me exactly where I claimed “ground temperature is independent of the temperature of the air”? What’s so hard about admitting you’re wrong (or at least that your argument is invalid based on the evidence that you’ve provided so far)?

            And of course, your initial post didn’t show anything like this sort of “sophistication” in its analysis. You threw out “warming” and “cooling” from the paper without the barest hint of qualification and now you’re talking shit about my credibility? I’m not the one trying to intentionally mislead people into false conclusions.

            Just in case anyone’s uninformed enough to fall for this guy’s bullshit, the term “permafrost” should be a hint.  The ground remains frozen year-round even in climates that have several months of above-freezing atmospheric temperatures.  Changes in ground temperature lag behind changes in atmospheric temperature and show a lot less variability.  (And this should be common sense — soil is denser than air and significantly less fluid so it can’t conduct heat as efficiently overall).

          3. Your argument:

             “You talk about “warming” and “cooling” citing that study that is talking about the warming and cooling of dirt, not the atmosphere.”

            How much closer can anyone get to saying that the warming of the air has nothing to do with the warming of the ground?

          4. How much closer can anyone get to saying that the warming of the air has nothing to do with the warming of the ground?

            The sentence you quoted from me does not even remotely resemble the sentiment you’re reading into it. I’ll try to break it down for you because apparently you’re really having trouble with this stuff.
            1. The ground temperature and atmospheric temperature are not the same thing.  Acting as though they are — which you started out doing and you’re now doubling down on — is dishonest.
            2. (1) does not imply they’re not related.  They’re certainly related.  For another example, the number of arrests made by police and the number of crimes committed by criminals are not the same thing but they’re related.  If you tried to present the number of arrests made as the number of crimes committed to further a politically biased argument you would be being dishonest.  There is nothing the least bit complicated about this.
            3. Although I admit in (2) that ground temp and air temp are related this does not help your argument.  To help your argument you would need to present a detailed analysis of HOW soil temp and air temp are related.  You would further have to show that this relationship plus your data about soil temp imply some particular facts about air temp over the same period (or more realistically an earlier period).  You have not done this.

          5. Oh great, so I have to give perfect derivations of all scientific facts that support my case, while you don’t need to do any such thing at all, because catastrophic warming has become common sense for some reason.

            Besides, the graph I referred to supports the fact that the cooling of the ground was caused by the cooling of the air above it.

        3. Ok, I’ve had a look, and checked some other papers on the subject (e.g. Lopez de Lacalle, for those who can access Springer articles). My general impression is you’re mixing truth and falsehood in a very annoying way.

          On the truth side: these are genuinely the values to look at for Alaska. It’s stupid to compare the 2000s to the 1940s, which are clearly marked out as a warm anomaly,  but the over-all trend is really not simple. On the contrary warming is mostly the result of a spike in the 1970s, and the linear trend on either side of that is slight cooling. So maybe not a great example.

          But it’s also not so ambiguous as you pretend. The lack of clear trend is well correlated with the Pacific decadal oscillation, and if this has not been observed completely in Alaska, it has been traced for thousands of years in other places. With this removed, everyone agrees on definite warming, especially in the north.

          So for this, you do exactly what you ask us not to: idly speculate about other long-term cycles. But there’s no good reason to believe in any, whereas the oscillation and warming trend both agree well with the rest of the hemisphere. And of course, the air temperature is not the only data for Alaska; other things support the same underlying warming.

          Then, of course, you jump to the standard projection about fanatics. I think wysinwyg has suitably taken you to task for your garbage about harvests; but I think it’s particularly interesting you picked that, since in many places grain harvests are one of the first things climate change would affect.

          All in all, I have to agree: bad misrepresentation. You obviously know how to find good studies on this subject, you might try reading them.

    2. @boingboing-e23b16e83342d08d0d3ef4eeed9d3299:disqus ,

      Did you read the PDF you linked to? Here are some choice quotes:

      From the abstracts first sentence:

      There has been a widespread warming of air temperatures in Alaska since 1977 and some warming of permafrost.

      If you had read the the paper then you would have discovered that this paper is a look at how the permafrost is warming. In some places the permafrost is warming not as fast others. How you have confused air temps with borehole readings and then further conflated places that are not warming as fast as the rest of the permafrost with the whole of the permafrost is beyond me.

      I want to suggest you take a look at the section of the paper title Implications of the Warming. Can I get any more explicit on how you have grossly misrepresented this paper?

    3. Oh great, so I have to give perfect derivations of all scientific facts that support my case, while you don’t need to do any such thing at all, because catastrophic warming has become common sense for some reason.

      No, but you do have to provide some basis for believing your case besides “well, it’s like my opinion, man!”  But this is a waste of time at this point.  So far in this thread,  you’ve done the following:

      1. Presented a set of data on soil temp as if it were data on air temp.

      2. Presented inferences made about nonexistent data with no evidence as factual.  (“temperatures had been warmer before that”, “it is clear temperatures have been especially cold”)

      3. Presented a one-time temperature record as evidence of a warmer climate.

      4. Blamed the ethanol debacle on climate scientists and environmentalists.

      5. Cited the mere possibility of unobserved climate cycles as hard evidence against AGW.

      6. Implied that climate scientists doing their jobs and other folks talking about the actual science are “fanatics claiming to save the world from doom.”

      7. When called on (1) started arguing that soil temperatures should SOOOO be allowed to be used by you as direct proxies for atmospheric temp.  Not by arguing directly (that would have been the honest thing to do), but by implying anyone who questions the validity of such an “analysis” is being silly.

      8. Failed to address any of the arguments presented, deflecting and moving on to a new and more dubious argument every time you’re challenged without addressing the failures of your previous arguments.

      Since that reads like a denialist bingo card I’m going to stop arguing with you because it’s a waste of time.  You give no indication of having engaged with actual climate research or wanting to.

  4. Speaking from a lot of knowledge in this area (not trying to sound like an asshole, but to contrast myself to the vast majority of posters on this topic); the Arctic is much, much more susceptible to human-caused climate change because of the organization of the atmospheric and oceanic circulation.  And, climate change “skeptics”, if you can’t explain how those work, then you have zero valid input to the subject.

    This has been known about for at least the last 30 years, which was one of the reasons that I spent over a decade all around the Arctic researching on these topics – plus it’s a stunningly beautiful and unforgiving environment.

    Inuit culture (particularly in Greenland and Eastern Canadian Arctic) is one with a rich oral tradition and intense connection to the land.  Hugh Brody shows maps in one of his books sketched from memory by hunters, and I can confirm that they are actually more accurate than the Canadian government maps in terms of coastlines at low tide. So even though current Inuit hunters may not be able to ask their great grandfathers about conditions, they damn well know what they were because they have heard about them since childhood.

    Despite all these things, if you spend any time in the Arctic you can actually see things changing in real time – because a 1.5deg C change here is a 10 deg C change in the Eastern Canadian Arctic.  Ice conditions have changed, bird species have changed, and seasonal weather patterns have changed in the last 20 years.

    For those who don’t follow the subject at all (or who willfully ignore science) the over-riding issue is timescales.  There have been climate changes in the past – I can take you to see petrified tree stumps on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands over a thousand miles north of treelike, and there are crocodile fossils in the same areas.  But change from those conditions took place over millions of years and with the continents in different places.  Even the little ice age and younger dryas took place over hundreds of years – we are seeing atmospheric CO2 increase astronomically at rates far higher than natural systems can react to.

    We are all part of this grand global experiment and chances are it’s too late to stop – even if the know nothings in the western countries finally accepted science and evidence-based logic, the growing middle classes in Asia will probably continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere and continue this anthropogenic change.  It’s fascinating to me as a climatologist and scientist; but terribly sad to me as a human being.

  5. I think anyone with a keen eye on their local environment can find signs of climate if they’ve watched closely for a couple of decades. Nature is very different where I live than what it was 20-30 years ago

    I picked my first batch of loquats last week. Sure, they’re a small “yellow meat” variety, but even the white meat tree two blocks away will be ripe in two weeks. This is very early compared to when I was a kid. Bananas regularly yield fruit far from the moderating warmth of Galveston Bay, and even the least hardy citrus trees are heavy with fruit by December.

    The animals are are different too. The once common Inca dove is now rare, and white wing doves travel in huge flocks. The purple house finch and goldfinch now winter further north. I have not seen either in many years. The fulvous tree duck used to be confined to the coastal parts of Texas and Louisiana can now be found in Austin.

    You think the oldtimers would notice even more changes.

  6. Really important stuff.

    Could I request that the Institute on the Environment please post this in a more share-able / embeddable format?

  7. I can observe climate change by looking out my window.  Yesterday was yet another record high temperature in a month already breaking records for record high temperatures.  A couple of years ago I threw out my big, down-filled parka as such are no longer needed in Toronto.  The company that makes them has fallen on hard times and now seems to want to make it’s money in copyright lawsuits!  One of the nails in the coffins of the big Canadian retailers is that they persisted in selling stuff like this when there is no longer any need for it.  I’m going to throw out my Sorel snow boots (“good to -40 C!”) now as they are too hot to wear and replace them with some $25 plastic pieces of crap from Walmart for the two or so weeks that it snows here.  I may also ditch my assorted mittens as gloves will do.  Certainly no longer any need for the sheepskin mittens with the metallic heat reflector lining.

    A bit further afield, the local bodies of water, aka the Great Lakes, no long freeze over to any great degree so it looks like year-round shipping: that is, if there’s enough water around without winter run-off to run the current ports and channels.

    Oh well, it’s another fine sunny early March day in Toronto so I’m off to work on my tan.

      1. Weather is random but climate is not.  The chances of another winter such as was common in the first 40 years of my life, with temperatures routinely staying at -20C for weeks, are approaching zero.  Some of the stuff I’m thinking of chucking hasn’t been in much use for over three years and some of it for five.

    1.  I’m from Buffalo and it’s the same here across the lake. But like Magnus says, can I suggest you don’t just throw that stuff away (by which I presume you mean donate it to a charity shop)? If it’s good quality – especially popular brands like Sorel – you may be surprised how much you can get for it on ebay or elsewhere.

      You might never leave Toronto and so don’t need it, but some people do still head north once in a while (e.g. winter camping in Algonquin) and have need for this stuff :)

      I bought some heavy-duty boots in December, after moving back to Buffalo from California (I didn’t have any particularly warm clothes anymore after living there for a few years). I was only able to justify wearing them three or four times, and now it’s like summer this week. Oh well, they look cool and didn’t cost too much.

      The best plan these days in Buffalo and Toronto is to buy cold-weather stuff at the thrift shop. There’s amazing stuff that people are getting rid of these days, and it’s dirt cheap so if you don’t actually use it it’s not a big deal :)

      1. No, actually I’m talking about dumping it on the curb.  Charity shops don’t want this stuff as it takes up too much space and no one wants it.  My reasoning is similar: storage space costs money.  I cleared out one trunk by ditching the parka and am eyeing clearing out another.  I’ll be out at my storage locker today to get out the shorts and t-shirt box as that’s what I should be wearing today – it is, after all, March in Canada.

        For things that will likely cost a tonne for shipping and are of low value like Sorel boots Ebay is a dead loss.  For one thing, the entire US ex-middle-class is dumping everything, down to and including the wallpaper, trying to hold on to their McMansions.  I might, out of recycling concerns, try Craigslist and such if someone wants to come and pick it up.

  8. No, no, no. I watch FOX NEWS and one of their esteemed journalists told me and my uneducated, easily misled demographic that climate change was something liberals made up at their marijuana pentagram orgies to take away our God-given right to pollute clean air and clean water–partially sponsored (100%) by Corporations For Polluted Air and Water for a Better Tomorrow, thank you very much.

  9. I saw it right away. I went thru every post and yours was the only other person who could see it. Talk about forest for the trees, eh? The title of the photo should have been Skullberg or something. Some of us see things others don’t, and even things others don’t even see when the facts are in their face.

  10. Will Steger is my new hero. Here’s another one,  Jeff Masters, truly a master on the topic of climate change: 


    I hope all of you east of the Rockies can get some time off for sun bathing this week. And just think of how much y’all are saving on heating bills this month. The silver lining to global warming, eh? 

  11. I’m sick and tired from all these articles about whiny polar regions- all those arctic climates need to stop constantly begging for handouts and coddling, the tundra just lying around all day, moping and feeling sorry for itself… Stop crying and get a real job, icebergs.

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