Perhaps the greatest challenge we face today, is to understand how the earth´s systems will respond to climate change. One of the top scientists deeply involved in that issue, is Dr Susan Solomon, the 2009 laureate of the Volvo Environment Prize.
In expeditions to Antarctica Susan Solomon was able to map the mechanisms underlying the hole in the ozone layer. In recent years, she has led the most prestigious working group within the UN’s climate panel and recently warned that climate change may be irreversible – that is, even if carbon dioxide emissions are stopped, the changes they are provoking can last more than 1000 years.
Susan Solomon and her colleagues at NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, are trying to identify tipping points and the likelihood of irreversible changes in the environment. Scientific contributions in this area
are crucial steps in defining policy options and actions. Susan Solomon’s scientific contributions exemplifies that this type of research can have major impact on global environmental policies. This has already happened twice in her career.
Susan Solomon was one of the first scientists to take seriously reports in the 1980’s of deterioration of the planet’s ozone layer. In 1986 and 1987 she led expeditions to Antarctica to gather evidence of the theoretical and experimental work on
the explanation of the Antarctic ozone hole and the fact thatchemicals known as CFC’s were causing it.
Susan Solomon’s work with research on ozone depletion was an important contribution to the scientific basis for the Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer, which led to a global ban on CFC’s just a couple of years later.
The second time in her scientific career that Susan Solomon found herself in the middle of worldwide attention, was when she was Co-Chair of IPCC, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, working group One. Their report shook the
world, and in 2007, the IPCC scientists, together with former Vice President Al Gore, shared the Noble Peace Prize for making the world comprehend the dangers of global warming.
Susan Solomon’s current work involves using advanced models for the earth system and atmosphere and ocean general circulation. In a recent scientific article, she warned that the climate change generated by the estimated emissions of greenhouse gases in the following decades will lead to processes that are largely irreversible, that is, they will last at least 1000 years. This is because the oceans absorb carbon dioxide only slowly, prolonging those processes.
“In a simple analogy, our emissions of carbon dioxide mean that we are cranking the thermostat up and that we don’t know how to crank it down again,” says Susan Solomon.
Her new findings can appear depressing. Even if carbon dioxide emissions drop sharply, climate change may be inevitable. But Susan Solomon doesn’t think the issue is pessimism contra optimism:
“It is incredibly important to have correct scientific information when making decisions. I find it encouraging that so many people today, across the world, are absorbing increased knowledge about the climate issue. And when we now know how long the effect will last, I believe everyone understands the importance of transforming to a society with as low carbon dioxide emissions as possible.”