Saving an Earth in Crisis

July was the hottest month on record, the world mourned the loss of its first glacier, and the Amazon is on fire.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

From soaring temperatures in Europe to some of the most debilitatingly hot days in North America, global warming is challenging the livelihoods of everybody on the planet. While policy change and better consumer habits offer a glimmer of hope for the future, scientific research may be our best chance at saving an Earth in crisis.

Blue Planet

Our oceans have come under increasing stress from man-made pollution. The millenia-long growth of coral reefs is now being disrupted by rising sea temperatures. Cases of coral bleaching, whereby the polyps on the reefs die due to external stress, are now five times more frequent than 40 years ago. Their looming demise risks annihilating 25 percent of the world’s fish and could trigger an ecosystem collapse that would be felt globally. Coral reef collapse risks the extinction of species that serve as cornerstones to marine ecosystems and could disrupt not only the life aquatic but the world above water.

NYU Abu Dhabi Associate Professor of Biology John Burt is researching corals in the Arabian Gulf and providing science with a looking glass into the future. The gulf’s waters are warmer and more saline than the rest of the world’s oceans. Yet the typically highly sensitive coral reefs, which bleach if water temperatures increase even by 1 degree, have somehow managed to survive. On average, the corals in the Gulf exist in an environment that would have wiped out other species. Burt has identified a gene in gulf corals that has allowed them to adapt to their relatively extreme conditions and could provide insight into whether corals around the world will be able to cope with global warming.

“Coral bleaching events have been occurring with increasing frequency in the Arabian Gulf in recent decades, and the summer of 2017 was among the most catastrophic on record.”


NYUAD Associate Professor of Biology John Burt

Using the Arabian Gulf as a living lab, Burt has managed to understand the characteristics of these thermally tolerant reefs. Along with Associate Professor of Mathematics Francesco Paparella, who develops models for oceans to better understand and track change, the academics have been able to identify coral resilience and better track the stressors that trigger bleaching events.

Rains Down in India

The oceans have served for decades as an atmospheric heat absorbent. However, now with global warming reaching a fever pitch, the oceans have warmed up to the point of triggering abnormal weather conditions. Research at NYU Abu Dhabi identified that increasing ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean alters the patterns of monsoon rainfalls on the Indian subcontinent.

Scientists from the Center for Prototype Climate Modeling demonstrated that the annual Indian Monsoon, which impacts hundreds of millions in India, will decrease if global warming continues. Derived from a near century of data recording Atlantic Ocean temperatures and Indian monsoon rainfall, the research predicts a decline in monsoon rains could spell disaster for the agriculture-dependent economy of India. The monsoon rains provide Indian farmers their main source of water and comprises 15 percent of revenue for Asia’s third biggest economy. Any changes to the weather event that has fueled the existence of the Indian civilization for thousands of years could trigger widespread ramifications in one of the most populous countries in the world.

Furthermore, the trend shows the monsoons are shifting north from ocean to land. What effects that might bring on the rest of the hydrological ecosystem, and by association the agricultural and social landscape of India, is still not understood. But researchers continue tracking these climatic changes in hopes of better understanding the complex interlinkages between ocean temperature rise and global weather events. The research can also provide information to policy makers in India and global warming experts to better prepare for a business-as-usual scenario and the severe impact it might have on food scarcity.

As Cold as Ice

As research continues on the causality of the climate crisis, science is showing that both global ocean currents and atmospheric circulation around the world exist in a delicate balance that defines the consistency of our climate. But with changes now, that stability is thrown off kilter. With that, researchers from the Center of Global Sea Level Change have developed new technology to help the scientific community better model the degree of polar ice loss and its impact on sea-level rise.

The researchers uncovered methods to help understand the process of calving, whereby icebergs larger than Burj Khalifa, or around two Empire State Buildings, collapse in dramatic fashion. The research was done at Jakobshavn Glacier, through which 8 percent of the Greenland Ice Sheet flows into the ocean. Researchers from the center are now conducting studies on a gigantic chunk of Antarctica that is in danger of breaking off in our lifetime and potentially triggering a catastrophic rise in global sea level.

David Holland, professor of mathematics and the principal investigator for the Center for Sea Level Change, is leading a project on the Thwaites grounding zone to better understand how warm waters are affecting the glacier. His work will assess just how much the potential calving of the Thwaites glacier will contribute to sea-level rise and more accurately understand the effect of warm water on the polar ice caps.

Climate change in an era that scientists have labeled the Anthropocene, or the epoch whereby human-related activities have the largest impact on the planet, is humanity’s greatest challenge. Overcoming this crisis requires a holistic approach that includes science, research, policy, and the arts and humanities. The Arts and Humanities Environmental Research Initiative, or the eARThumanities Initiative, attempts to bridge the gap between data produced by the scientific community and human behavior.

Professor of Environmental Studies and Public Policy Sophia Kalantzakos says the arts and humanities role in the fight against global warming is to help people better process the reality of the future provided humanity continues its path towards destroying the planet. Academics are filling the void by conducting research on the relationship between humans and the environment in the Near East, Northern and Eastern Africa.

“We tend to have checklists of things we need to do, like increase the use of renewable energy, or conserve water, but we simply can’t do one thing and not another. The eARThumanities initiative is saying that there is a wider story out there and we must connect the dots.”

Professor of Environmental Studies and Public Policy Sophia Kalantzakos

The research will also bring to the forefront many possible contributions from the arts and humanities that can influence the climate change agenda. Researchers in the initiative encourage open dialogue on the issue and attempt to examine the climate crisis through the perspective of history, philosophy, social science, and the arts. They aim to help humanity better understand the crisis by providing a total perspective of the realities in science.

Research on the environment continues to challenge humanity every day. More work is needed at every level from the individual to governments. The work at NYUAD continues to inform those decisions and is contributing to providing novel solutions to some of the environment’s most pressing needs.

Written by Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

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