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Finally: Your 'operators’ manual' for planet Earth

by Sarah Beth Moore
April 13, 2011


Courtesy of Richard Alley

One of the world's endangered icebergs.

richard alley

Courtesy of Penn State

Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Penn State and author of "Earth - The Operators' Manual"

Like most people, you would never consider throwing the contents of a toilet out your window.

This is a hopeful sign, said Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University. After all, if most people now deal with their bodily needs in cleaner, more efficient ways than they once did, maybe they'll transfer this thinking to energy needs.

In the first installment of a three-part PBS miniseries “Earth – The Operators’ Manual,” Alley seeks to present the science of global climate change and present alternatives to outmoded methods of energy acquisition and use. The program debuts on WTTW in Chicago at 4 p.m. Sunday.

The idea that humans should have an operators’ manual for Earth is one that immediately caught the eye of Geoff Haines-Stiles, miniseries producer, director and co-writer.

And we're all the operators, as the title suggests.

“Treat the Earth like a sports car or some machine you want to keep ticking along at peak performance,” said Haines-Stiles.

Haines-Stiles, who produced the late Carl Sagan’s series "COSMOS," added that the program aims to educate people about the twin goals of reducing global warming and meeting skyrocketing global energy needs.

A recent Gallup Poll indicates that the number of Americans skeptical about humans causing climate change rose to 41 percent from 31 percent between 1998 and 2009. But, despite common perception, climate change is not a political issue, Alley said.

“I’m a registered Republican,” he reports in the show’s online trailer at “I play soccer on Saturdays and go to church on Sundays.”

The takeaway?

Climate change is a matter of science, not politics. The goal of the PBS program is not to make a statement, but to tell the story of the science behind global warming and explain what people can do about it, Alley said.

Trained as a geologist, Alley has made extended research trips to Greenland and Antarctica, helping to create a climate record with ice cores that cover hundreds of thousands of years. Over the years, snow traps gas from the atmosphere in ice and these samples can be used to establish what the climate was like at any given time over the past 800,000 years.

Specifically, they can be used to determine amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide at any given time. When CO2 levels are high, the climate on Earth warms and when levels are low, temperatures drop.

“In climate change science, we are using a model,” Alley said. “Part of the testing of that model is by comparison to past records, and these records show our climate model to be working quite well.”

The science, in other words, is there in the record. Stretching back across the 800,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, the normal range for CO2 ranged between approximately 180 to 300 parts per million, explained Haines-Stiles.

This means that, for every million molecules in the air, ancient air pockets hold less than 300 CO2 molecules. The current measurement is now above 390 and rising, a direct link to global warming.

“This is clearly a level of CO2 far beyond anything in human history,” Haines-Stiles said. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing melting glaciers, sea level rise, turbulent weather and uncertain water supplies.

This means it’s time for change, Alley said, adding that he is optimistic.

“If you read history, we’ve solved a whole lot of problems in the past,” he said. “Humans have proven to be rather clever.”

Moreover, Alley said the number and amount of clean resources available give him hope.

“The amount of energy that can be gotten out of the wind, sun and geothermal is just immense, and prices have been dropping,” he said.

This isn’t just a solution for the developed world.

“In the same way the developing world has leapfrogged over old systems, we hope they can leapfrog over the fossil fuel stage,” said Haines-Stiles.

One of the program's best assets is Alley himself, said Yarrow Axford, visiting assistant professor in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University.

“There is so much information that scientists have gathered in recent years that the public doesn’t know much about,” Axford said.

“If anyone is going to inspire people to get excited about the science of climate change and help people understand what’s going on, it’s definitely Richard Alley,” she said.

Part two of the three-part series is expected to air in fall 2011, according to Haines-Stiles, and part three is targeted for release in April, Earth Month, 2012.

Richard Alley’s companion book is also called “Earth – The Operators’ Manual.”