Prof discusses climate science’s limits

Geologist Henry Pollack said unpredictable social factors can affect scientific predictions.

Beth Hornby

Hundreds flocked to the St. Paul campus Monday to hear geological expert Henry Pollack discuss the key points of his recent book, “Uncertain Science … Uncertain World.”

His message to students was the importance of recognizing how unpredictable social factors can affect scientific outlooks. For example, when studying global warming, scientists cannot account for social behavior in the future.

“Uncertainty in predicting climate change is partly a difference of social science uncertainty, and partly climate science,” he said. “There are many aspects to the climate change problem, each with its different uncertainties.”

Pollack advised future climatology scientists to separate issues and be analytical in thinking.

“Don’t just say it’s all or nothing,” Pollack said.

University geophysics doctoral student Carolyn Dykoski attended the event because she is concerned with the future trends of global warming.

“We look at what happened in the past to figure out what’s going to happen in the future,” Dykoski said.

Scientists cannot predict global warming trends with 100 percent certainty, University climatology professor Mark Seeley said.

“(Pollack) speaks about how students can communicate this dilemma to the public,” Seeley said.

The audience included students and faculty from the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, the College of Natural Resources, the College of Biological Sciences and the Institute of Technology.

Pollack said the St. Paul campus has one of the best climatological observation centers on the continent.

At its center, geologists drill deep into the earth to take temperature readings at different depths. Pollack said it is important to track below-ground temperature changes because the earth retains surface heat information going back centuries. On the other hand, he said, land surface and sea-level temperature data can only be traced back for little more than a century.

“(The St. Paul geological observation center) is one of the longest over an array of depths that exists,” Pollack said.

Researchers use the observation center’s data to study climate change.

First-year student Mari Karlstad said she learned a lot from the lecture.

“These lectures raise a lot of questions about what we can do to inform people and get them interested in the issue,” Karlstad said.

The lecture was part of an annual series put on by the University’s department of soil, water and climate.