2010-02-25 / News

Island scientist coordinates URI lecture series on climate

By Eileen M. Daly

Arthur Spivack Arthur Spivack If you’re curious about the effects that human activities have on the world’s environment, a University of Rhode Island lecture series will offer an opportunity to hear first-hand from some of the world’s most prominent environmental experts.

Islander Arthur Spivack is one of the coordinators of the Vetlesen lecture series, “People and Planet 2010: Global Environmental Change,” being held at the University of Rhode Island now through March 30.

Spivack, who holds a Ph.D. in oceanography from MIT, has been a professor in the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI for the past 10 years. Also involved in the coordination of last year’s Vetlesen series, Spivack said the lecture series is open to the public and is the largest outreach event held at the university.

“Last year, we had close to 1,000 people attend,” he said.

Since the Vetlesen Foundation is concerned with public education, Spivack said last year’s successful turnout helped create positive momentum for the development of this year’s event.

“We argued that we could continue to provide serious discussions at a level available to the general public,” he said.

The series began this past Tuesday with a presentation by Harvard University Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Daniel Schrag. This Tuesday, March 2, Naomi Oreskes, author and professor of history and science studies at the University of California, will speak on “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscure the Truth about Climate Change.”

On Tuesday, March 16, Boris Worm, associate professor of biology at Dalhousie University, Canada, will speak about “Saving the Blue Planet: Patterns, Trends and Prospects for Marine Biodiversity.” The final lecture on Tuesday, March 30, will be given by independent filmmaker and photographer of the marine environment, Norbert Wu. He will speak on “Exploring the World’s Notable and Threatened Underwater Habitats.”

Spivack, who teaches an honors course that coordinates with the lecture series, has long been interested in the topic of the impact of human behaviors on the environment. His particular focus is on remediation and problem-solving in relation to the environment and, he said, he has found URI to be “a remarkably fruitful place to work as a scientist.”

One of the most significant areas of concern is carbon dioxide emissions, Spivack said.

“Carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 35%. If we continue at the rate we are going, in a little over 150 years, those emissions will increase by 400%,” he said. A majority of climate scientists attribute changes in our climate to these emissions and an overall warming of the climate has occurred as a result, Spivack said.

“Over the last 130 years, temperatures have increased by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If the trend continues at the current rate, temperatures will increase by approximately 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said.

According to Spivack, measurable changes in the acidity of the ocean have already occurred and, as this acidity increases, there will be “a very large negative impact on the biology of the ocean on a global scale.”

Other negative impacts of climate warming are likely to be “massive changes in precipitation patterns and agricultural productivity,” he said.

Spivack noted that there are clear differences between what scientists observe and document, and the public policies that reflect values and dictate what will be done about those observations.

As an academic, Spivack tries not to tell his students what to believe. Instead, he says, he works to facilitate discussions so that students can decide for themselves.

When pressed, Spivack did acknowledge his own opinion that there “is not enough being done” to ameliorate the seriously negative impact of carbon dioxide emissions and other human activities that harm the environment.

Spivack expressed his support of the Jamestown Town Council’s recent decision to pursue the addition of a wind turbine here on the island as a source of renewable energy. “I see it as part of the effort to decrease our overall dependence on energy sources that produce carbon dioxide. I also think we should continue to look for ways to produce energy that don’t rely on foreign oil,” he said.

All “People and Planet 2010: Global Environmental Change” lectures will be held at 7:30 p.m. in Edwards Auditorium on URI’s main campus in Kingston. Lectures will also be available live online and will be archived for future availability. For more information, visit www.uri.edu/ vetlesen.

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