Richard B. Alley is the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences and associate of the EMS Environment Institute at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. He teaches and conducts research on the paleoclimatic records, dynamics, and sedimentary deposits of large ice sheets, as a means of understanding the climate system and its history, and projecting future changes in climate and sea level. Dr. Alley has spent three field seasons in Antarctica and five in Greenland. He is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, and has been awarded a Packard Fellowship, a Presidential Young Investigator Award, the Horton Award of the American Geophysical Union Hydrology Section, the Easterbrook Award of the Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology section of Geological Society of America, the Wilson Teaching Award of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and the Faculty Scholar Medal of the Pennsylvania State University. His book on abrupt climate change, The Two-Mile Time Machine, was the national Phi Beta Kappa Science Award winner for 2001. Dr. Alley chaired a National Research Council study on Abrupt Climate Change, and serves, or has served, on many other advisory panels and steering committees. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Are we “rocking the boat” when it comes to climate? Explorations of the Earth’s history show that when the climate system has been forced across a threshold, it can abruptly shift to a new climate, much like a tipping canoe that suddenly capsizes. These shifts have occurred within a single human generation, taking as little as a decade to move from a cooler to warmer climate or vice versa. The ocean acts as a major driver of our planet’s climate machinery, in part through its capacity to store and transport heat in major ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream. Past abrupt climate changes have disrupted ocean circulation, collapsed ice sheets, and produced major shifts in regional weather patterns (e.g. droughts, floods, severe storms) that have had widespread impacts on the environment and human communities. Because human activities affect the air, water, ice, and ecosystems that drive the earth’s climate machinery, humans could increase the chance of an abrupt climate change in the foreseeable future.
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