The health emergency caused by the COVID 19 pandemic has temporarily overshadowed the other major global emergency of our time, represented by global warming and related climate change. However, the issue remains of absolute relevance and must not be forgotten since, like a pandemic, it has serious consequences for the future of our civilization and our model of development. Carlo Barbante, full professor of Analytical Chemistry at the Ca ‘Foscari University of Venice and director of the Institute of Polar Studies at the National Research Council (CNR), helps us to keep alive the attention on climate issues, responding to some questions on the present and future of scientific research in this area.
What does research on climate mean today and how difficult is it to do so in view of the strong debate around this issue?
I think it’s a real mission and a challenge at the same time. A mission, as our future is at stake and a challenge, as climate-related issues are often very complex.
We are constantly targeted by information on environmental issues, on the risks deriving from climate change and often frightened by apocalyptic scenarios or distracted by the effect of denial theses. Where are we with research?
The impact of anthropogenic activities on the climate is now proven by many studies. There are no doubts; man is altering the environment and the climate in a heavy and irreversible way. However, we still need to understand many things about climate processes, the impact on biodiversity and the response of the most vulnerable areas on the planet.
It is often said that the area of the planet where the effects of global warming are felt most is the North Pole. What’s the reason?
Polar areas are extremely important for regulating the earth’s climate. At the same time they are very influenced by what happens in the low latitudes. While the earth’s average surface temperature has risen by just over one degree Celsius, the temperature in the Arctic has more than doubled, due to warming-amplifying effects. This has dramatic consequences, not only on the biosphere but also on the melting of sea and continental ice, which significantly impact sea level rise.
And for other ecosystems, such as the Alps or the Himalayas, how are the conditions and what should we expect in the near future?
The glaciers of the Alps and the Himalayas are considered the sentinels of climate change. They are extremely vulnerable. Some climate models indicate that by the end of this century most of the glaciers in the Alps will have disappeared due to global warming. This will also have important consequences on the availability of the water resource
In a few weeks of lockdown, many have observed “nature take back its space”. Is it true or was it just a suggestion created as a result of the particular situation?
Let’s say it was an unexpected positive effect of this dramatic emergency. But let’s not delude ourselves; when we finally overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic system and the social fabric will have to restart. Of course, the use of resources to reactivate the planet’s production system will be placed under severe stress.
Could there be a correlation between climatic dynamics and the development of the COVID 19 pandemic that has hit the planet or is it just science fiction hypotheses, based on inconsistent data?
There is no scientific evidence on this aspect. However, what worries scientists most is the possibility that some diseases can migrate, change or evolve due to global warming. Today those who live in Rome or Venice do not worry much about the spread of malaria or dengue fever, but with the slow northward drift of the tropical zone and the consequent spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes will perhaps have to start doing so in the future.
The “Ice Memory” project, launched over three years ago with the aim of collecting ice samples from various glacial sites around the world to create a database in Antarctica, represents a great scientific undertaking. What difficulties are you encountering in carrying out the project and what relevant results have you achieved so far?
The project is progressing well, despite the fact that we had some difficulties created by bad weather in the autumn that forced us to postpone a mission on the Grand Combin and the crisis linked to the COVID-19 emergency that forces us to stay home.
How is the team of researchers participating in the project made up and what profile do they have?
We have very motivated young people with very diversified skills; chemists, geologists, physicists, all with a boundless passion for the mountains and an eye to the future.
What are the next steps “in the field”?
We must return to the Grand Combin as soon as possible and then carry out some missions in low-altitude glaciers, such as the Marmolada and the Calderone, on the Gran Sasso, the southernmost glacier in Europe.
In the outdoor world, sensitivity to the relationship between man and the environment is apparently very high, both on the industry side and on the user side of the products. Are there any recommendations that, as scientists, you would like to make to the outdoor world for an effective synergy between the market and the world of research?
I think the outdoor world should support scientific projects that aim at sustainability. It is possible to do a lot even with very few. It would be a win-win situation for everyone.
What are the prospects today, realistically, for a young natural science enthusiast who intends to devote himself to research in the environmental field?
Passion and determination are the masters. Many young people have understood how the climate crisis is the real challenge of the future. Here is a great possibility that presents itself to modern post-COVID-19 society, is to try to rebuild their social and economic systems to make them better, more resilient and less dependent on fossil sources. Health, equity, environmental and resource protection will be essential to revive the post-pandemic global economy.
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