A New Zealand scientist, honored in November by his peers a lifetime of outstanding service to science in New Zealand, has warned that the human race may be facing the end of life as we know it.
“We know from our knowledge of the ancient past that if we continue our present growth path, we are facing the end of civilization as we know it, not in millions of years, or even millennia, but by the end of this century,” Antarctic specialist Professor Peter Barrett told the function held to honor him and other science leaders.
Professor Barrett, the director of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington, told his audience that there was “an increasingly sound basis for a more concerned focus in dealing with the problem of global warming.”
In particular he noted that in the past three months, scientists have warned that the Arctic is warming much faster than previously predicted and that the flow of the ice steams in the western part of Antarctica are speeding up leading to a small increase in sea level.
He also cited the prediction of Sir Martin Rees, who said in his book Our Final Century that he thought “the odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century”.
Says Professor Barrett: “His book is not just a consideration of the effects of global warming but the additional compounding concern at the misuse of scientific knowledge.”
Professor Barrett’s own work has added insights into Antarctica’s past, in turn giving clues for what the future might hold.
As a graduate student in the 1960s he made a ‘missing link’ discovery of the first tetrapod fossil, clinching the land connection between Antarctica and the other Gondwana continents. In 1973, Professor Barrett was sedimentologist on the first cruise of a deep-sea drilling ship into the Ross Sea, discovering that Antarctic glaciation began more than 20 million years earlier than previously thought.
Since that time, he has been chief scientist on several drilling projects in McMurdo Sound that studied the past history of the East Antarctic ice sheet, studies that that established that the Antarctic ice sheet was much warmer and less stable 20 to 30 million years ago.
The most recent of these expeditions, the seven-nation Cape Roberts Project, cored through 1500 meters of sand and mud off the Antarctic coast, recording over 50 fluctuations of the ice sheet from 17 to 34 million of years ago. The warmer global temperatures implied by these early ice sheets and the coastal vegetation found in the strata of those times are projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to return by the end of this century.
Despite all these achievements, Barrett told his audience, with typical modesty, that he is a scientist and an explorer “one that never really knew where he was heading.”
He was, he said, “just interested in understanding the Earth, and working with like-minded people. And was lucky enough to graduate from King Country caves via the United States to the mountains of Antarctica.”
And despite his dire warning, his speech was not without optimism: “The Kyoto Protocol, the work of our Climate Change Office and the Royal Society of New Zealand’s conference… on “Sustainable energy” are a good start,” he said.
“We still have time to convince our leaders.”