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Susan Solomon

Nobel winner looks for societal soul-searching


Dr. Susan Solomon has wonderful memories from childhood, discovering nature at a beach in the Midwest, where her family would vacation.

"In Idaho, it's probably second nature to be exposed to the natural world, but unfortunately, that's not true everywhere," said Solomon. "I think the difficulty that some people have in relating to environmental change has something to do with the fact that an awful lot of people spend their lives not really noticing the natural world around them."

Solomon notices the natural world in a very big way. Recognized as a global leader in atmospheric science, particularly for her landmark research into the cause of the Antarctic ozone "hole," Solomon was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize not for science but for peace.

In anticipation of her Tuesday, March 6, appearance at Boise State as part of the Honor College Distinguished Lecture Series, Boise Weekly spoke to the preeminent scholar about global warming, the politicization of climate change and a glacier that bears her name.

Was there a moment that convinced you to take your research to Antarctica?

It was when the British Antarctic Survey discovered the presence of an Antarctic ozone hole--a phenomenal shock to the entire world. We didn't expect that the ozone would be depleted by the magnitudes that we were seeing. It was quite a revelation.

Can you explain why we can't affect climate change anytime soon by simply cutting back carbon dioxide?

About 85 percent of the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is from our use of fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is currently about 30 percent higher than it has been in half-a-million years.

You've used the analogy of a thermostat and how our culture has continued to turn up the heat.

The whole time that we've been building up carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and warming the planet, our oceans have been taking up a significant amount of heat. So our oceans are acting as a great big heat-sink, which will continue to keep the planet warm even if we were to decrease our carbon dioxide emissions.

Another factor is that carbon dioxide can be removed by going into trees or plants, but there's only so much surface area on the planet. We've basically overloaded more carbon than the biosphere can absorb.

A couple of years ago, we were faced with a plain but rather harsh headline: "Global Warming is Irreversible."

It's essentially irreversible on a 1,000-year time scale. Now, you have to be careful. If you talk to a geologist and you say 1,000 years, they'll tell you that it's about the time that it takes the Earth to blink its eye. But on a human time scale, it's a pretty long time.

Very recently, Idaho saw a few Republican presidential candidates come through our area and kick climate change around like a political football. Does some of their misinformation frustrate you?

I think all of us feel a little annoyed and frustrated by it. It's a real shame that our society has gotten to that point. I'm actually an optimist, though. We all know a lot of this stuff is blustering.

You caution that it's really up to society to make the final choice on the information that scientists present.

There's no question that this is the mother of all environmental issues. I don't think science alone is enough on this issue. It's going to require deep, societal soul searching to have a careful and considered discussion on what we ought to do.

What can you tell me about the Nobel Prize experience?

It was a very interesting and uplifting experience. The best part of it was that it was a peace prize, not a science prize. To me, that's a beautiful message--that science isn't just about esoteric things. It was a remarkable choice. In the 21st century, there's going to be more scientific issues that will help us understand how to live on this planet.

You've received so many honors, but I've also heard that a glacier was named after you.

It's my favorite of every honor that has come my way over the years. I was completely bowled over. The various countries that participate in Antarctic research get to make nominations, so I was very honored that the United States nominated me.

Have you traveled to the Solomon Glacier?

I've seen it from a helicopter. I've never set foot on it, and I'm pretty certain that no human being has.

Dr. Solomon's lecture on Tuesday, March 6 in Boise State's Student Union Jordan Ballroom, is free and no tickets are required. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Free parking is available in the Lincoln Avenue Garage at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and University Drive.

The Distinguished Lecture Series will be offering sign language interpreters for deaf individuals wishing to attend this event.