By SCOTT CANON
The Kansas City Star
Global warming is the scientific issue of our times, and researchers - some
nearby - pick at it, exploring the causes, consequences and possible cures
of a world with a fever.
Temperatures increase. Crop fields belch carbon dioxide. Oceans rise. Cities
bake. Rain patterns shift. Ice shelves tumble, bit by building-sized bit,
into polar seas.
Considered historically, today's temperatures actually look rather low.
Modern farming can capture more greenhouse gases than ever. Oceans have
always risen and fallen. If urban areas are global heaters, rural irrigation
may be an air conditioner. Weather is defined by change. Ice shelves are no
more permanent than ice cubes in a whiskey glass.
Even as the scientific consensus grows - 84 percent of climate scientists
now see people at the root of global warming - the science is far from
So Missouri and Kansas scientists look at how changes in rain patterns alter
the soil, and how hotter temperatures might set loose planet-warming gases
from that dirt. They're studying polar ice pack, plants on the Konza
prairie, microbes in Canada, sediment in Utah and Tanzania, Midwest farmland
and Missouri tree rings. And they chase butterflies.
In the end, no single research settles the global warming argument or offers
something even approaching a solution. It's trickier than that.
Sharon Billings Biologist
What happens when the ground itself heats up?
Billings' work at the University of Kansas studies how soils react to
Microbes in the ground may be invigorated, increasing their respiration and,
in turn, cranking up the amount of carbon dioxide discharged into the
atmosphere. And that could only exacerbate the greenhouse effect.
Billings travels to eastern Canada where she compares similar soils at
various latitudes to see if they react differently when exposed to different
"There's great scientific uncertainty about whether carbon will stay in the
soil and to what degree it will release as carbon dioxide," she said. "That's
what we're trying to determine."
Larry Martin Paleontologist
Another KU professor explores Natural Trap Cave on the western side of the
Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming for fossilized bones of extinct lemmings and
cats that offer a remarkably continuous record of climate over the
Their remains tell the story of a planet whose thermostat, at least on a
millennial scale, seems to often go haywire. The Earth has seen much hotter
times and is, in some ways, still coming out of an ice age.
Martin argues that such fluctuations need to be factored in more carefully
before linking warming so tightly to industrialization.
"Should we be concerned? Yeah. Is it better to get off of petroleum? Of
course," he said. "But when we're doing this, we should try to get some
perspective to get an idea of what can happen through natural causes."
Chip Taylor Entomologist
Add phenology to your vocabulary. It's the timing of the seasons, of when
birds migrate and plants blossom.
Understanding that blooms of spring arrive earlier in parts of North America
helps explain why Africanized honeybees, so-called killer bees, are showing
up now in parts of Oklahoma. They once were thought to be able to survive
only as far north as Waco, Texas.
Taylor, a KU professor, also looks at monarch butterfly migrations. Warmer
springs and hotter summers tend to rev up their metabolism; they tap into
their fat reserves more quickly and lay fewer eggs.