16 October 2008

climate change exhibit @ AMNH

This past Tuesday, I had the opportunity to get a sneak preview of the new exhibit Climate Change: The Threat to Life and a New Energy Future that opens this Saturday, October 18th, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

The day started in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians with opening remarks from the primary contributors,* which in hindsight seems apropos, considering the culture of native people in this region is being threatened by climate change.

From there we were led to the 3rd floor for the big show, on the way passing through the Warburg Hall of New York State Environment (I love the retro decor of wood paneling and white script lettering that surrounds the dioramas -- I hope they never renovate!), North American Forests, and the Hall of Biodiversity.

The exhibit

I don't want to give away the full show, because I think you should all see it for yourselves (it's in NYC until next August, then it moves on to Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Mexico, and South America). To give you a sense of the importance and comprehensiveness of the event, Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, professor of Geosciences at Princeton, basically said that in lieu of his intro to climate change course, his students should just come to the museum to observe the exhibit.

The beginning of the end

The overwhelming theme of the entrance to the exhibit is black, perhaps signifying the dark descent into our addiction with black gold (in this case coal). On the wall, a fiery red LED line overlaid on a black and white collage demonstrates the rise in world population, economic growth, fossil fuel use and correlating atmospheric carbon dioxide.

This image only represents recent history. The line starts well below the knees and during the last century skyrockets to well about your head. ©AMNH/D. Finnin

Back in 1550, the great forest of Europe were vastly diminished, wood being the primary source of energy. Reluctantly, people took to burning coal for energy.

Here's a comparison between world conditions in 1600 (when coal use was gaining momentum) and 2000 (8 years ago):

In 1600
estimated world population: 545 to 579 million
estimated size of world economy: $77 billion
estimated atmospheric CO2: 274 parts per million

In 2000
estimated world population: 6.07 billion
estimated size of world economy: $41 trillion
estimated atmospheric CO2: 369 parts per million

If my math is correct, in 400 years, the world population increased to about 12 times its size and atmostpheric carbon dioxide increased by 35%! How could anyone refute that humans have greatly contributed to the warming of our planet?

[Click image to read text]

Ellen V. Futter, president, AMNH

Hey kids, coal is not cool!

Theresa Maher, age 9, and Brian Maher, age 11, from Massachusetts, examine a model of one metric ton of coal in the Climate Change exhibition—a dramatic icon of human energy consumption that represents the amount of coal needed to power an average home for two months, emitting about 2.5 metric tons of CO2. ©AMNH/D. Finnin

Goodbye downtown Manhattan

This model of lower Manhattan demonstrates what will happen when sea levels rise. ©AMNH/D. Finnin

Some alarming facts

  • Earth’s average temperature has risen about 1.8°F over the past 100 years and it will rise much more as long as CO2 emissions continue to increase at current rates
  • Even if emissions were to stabilize today, temperature would continue to rise for several decades due to the delayed response of the climate system
  • Sea level has risen about 7 inches over the last 100 years, mostly due to the expansion of water as it warms. Every foot of sea-level rise translates to 100 feet of shoreline loss on the Eastern U.S. coast. Predictions vary, but future sea-level rise could range from 7 inches to more than 40 inches by 2100
  • The primary effects of sea-level rise are increased flooding during storm surges and coastal erosion and submergence. Some of the world’s largest, most densely populated cities are located in these regions; indeed, 634 million people live within 33 vertical feet of sea level

Look on the bright side

The exhibit is only about 88% doom and gloom. Okay, I'm exaggerating -- it struck a balance between human contribution to the problem, the science of climate change, the ecosystems affected, and potential solutions to slow down the process.

Cleaner energy options are examined, and each resource (solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal) was allotted a percentage of the full energy pie. Other solutions offered were individual ways we can reduce our carbon footprint. There's even an interactive pledge wall where you can join others in committing to specific actions to improve your ecological impact.

Visit the exhibit

Timed tickets to the exhibit -- which is on view until August 16, 2009 -- include museum admission. Prices are $24 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, and $14 for children. Tickets can be reserved in advance by calling 212-769-5200 or visiting www.amnh.org. (Service charge may apply.)

*Ellen V. Futter, president of AMNH; Michael Novacek, SVP/provost of Science/curator of the Paleontology division; Edmond Mathez, curator of the exhibition; and Michael Oppenheimer, professor of Geosciences and International Affairs (an abbreviated title) at Princeton University

(Thanks again, Andre & Jenni!)

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