Climate scientist in Aspen Wednesday to discuss the chilling effects of a warming planet |

Climate scientist in Aspen Wednesday to discuss the chilling effects of a warming planet

Scientist James White of Colorado takes a break while on a field trip to observe the retreat of a portion of the Greenland Ice Sheet. He is at the western edge of the ice sheet near the town of Kangerlussuaq.
James White/Courtesy photo | James White/Courtesy photo

When Colorado-based scientist and professor James White studies the warming of the planet, he sees some potentially chilling results.

White’s research on past climates and how carbon moves around the planet has been instrumental in showing that many major climate-change events have been abrupt rather than slow.

“I like to think in time scales that human beings can get excited about,” White said. “Climate change is not necessarily something that occurs slowly over a long period of time.”

White is director and fellow of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. He is a professor of geological sciences and a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He is the featured speaker Wednesday at Aspen U, a series of environmental-oriented lectures Aspen Skiing Co. is presenting at the Limelight Hotel lounge. White will speak at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public and features beer at $4 per draft.

“Having Jim White here to talk on climate is like having Springsteen at Belly Up.”
Auden Schendler, Aspen Skiing Co.

“Having Jim White here to talk on climate is like having Springsteen at Belly Up,” said Auden Schendler, Skico vice president of sustainability. “He’s a world-class scientist and we’re so lucky he agreed to come.”

White is world-class but has no problem breaking his work down to terms a layperson can understand. He said there are thresholds for Earth systems and climate systems. When those thresholds get crossed, it affects humans.

For example, corn doesn’t grow well when the temperature regularly tops 95 degrees, so a warming planet could affect agriculture in the U.S. breadbasket.

Storms and high tides over the past 50 years got within two or three feet of entering the New York City subway system but never breached it. “Sandy managed to get high enough,” he said, referring to the 2012 hurricane. Suddenly, nature crossed a threshold and drastically boosted the devastation into the billions of dollars.

White’s fieldwork involves collecting ice cores drilled in the Arctic and other cold places. He has learned that the climate system “will be cruising along for thousands of years in one mode, then in two or three years, switch to another mode and stay there for thousands of years, as well.”

“Abrupt changes are a natural part of the Earth’s system,” White said. “It’s important to recognize that climate change is not just something that’s going to happen over your kids’ lifetime and grandkids’ lifetime. When one of these changes happen, it will be very, very, very obvious,” White said.

The “wild card” with abrupt change, White said, is that it’s difficult to tell when thresholds will be crossed. For example, droughts in major crop-producing areas around the world, including California, have spurred widespread pumping and depletion of ground water. So White asked, what happens when a threshold gets crossed and that water isn’t plentiful?

Would a foremost climate scientist want to be an investor in a Colorado ski resort these days?

“That’s a good question,” White said. “It is pretty clear that springs are getting warmer faster and that falls are staying warmer longer, and so we’re seeing the snow season chewed on both ends.

“What is not so clear, unfortunately, is the ability to say with certainty that in 25 years from now, we’re going to be seeing 20 percent less snow or 20 more snow,” White said. “These are really important questions, not just for the ski industry, but for the West in general. We are keenly dependent on water.”

White is a big advocate for early-detection systems that he said can help humans adapt to changing conditions and create a more sustainable planet. There are cameras installed everywhere to monitor humans’ activities, he said, but precious few resources are spent monitoring ground-water levels, sea ice behavior or ocean currents. More investment is necessary into issues related to climate and will be vital to easing abrupt changes and promoting sustainability, according to White.

“Sustainability is really taking a look at the future and going, ‘Boy, if we continue to do things the way we’re doing them now, we’re going to reach a bunch of thresholds, a bunch of walls, and it ain’t going to be pretty,” White said.

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