As background, review Carbon Cycle, Biomes of Earth, and, especially, State of the Planet. Then focus on the Ward lecture and An Inconvenient Truth: What are Ward and Gore’s most important findings? How credible are they as spokespersons? How might weak journalism undermine their messages?Carbon Cycle, Biomes of Earth link: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonC…400 words minimum.
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Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Climate?
What is the Worst That Global Warming
Man: It’s my great pleasure to welcome all of you to the 34th Annual Faculty Lecture.
Peter Ward is a native of Seattle. He earned his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree
right here at the UW before moving on to McMaster University and receiving his Ph.D.
there in 1976, which just happens to coincide with the beginning of this lectureship.
The fact that Peter’s been selected here is a great honor for him and for all of our
university community. The faculty of the university select one person every year to
represent the intellectual life of the university and it is, in many ways, the highest honor
that the faculty can bestow upon one of their colleagues and we’re absolutely delighted
that they’ve chosen Peter to join the Nobel Laureates and the scientists and the artists and
musicians and historians who have received this recognition in years past.
The world has just completed a year-long celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday
and the 150th anniversary of his seminal work on the origin of species. As a
paleontologist and astrobiologist, Professor Ward has spent his examining how evolution
worked millions of years ago before Darwin arrived on the scene and pondering what it
holds for us in the many years in the future. He’s studied the mass extinctions that have
visited Earth and have shaped our history and he’s considered how that might happen yet
His accomplishments are even more remarkable when you consider the fact that by his
own admission as a freshman at the UW he nearly flunked out. Fortunately, some
professors took pity on and he was able, as he said, to finally learn how to work and the
results are pretty obvious, as you’ll soon see.
His research has taken him to every part of the world. Late last month, for example, he
returned from a month-long stay in Antarctica. And his work has afforded rare
opportunities including things like swimming with the nautiluses in the South Pacific.
He’s the author of 15 books, including two that he has co-written with UW astronomer
David Brownlee. One of those, “Rare Earth,” caused more than a little sensation among
astrobiologists by suggesting that complex life is probably exceedingly rare in the
universe. Indeed, Ward and Brownlee contend that advanced life is so rare that beings
like ourselves, if they do exist elsewhere, are likely so far away from us that, for all
intents and purposes, we really are alone. That’s really depressing.
Before joining our faculty, Professor Ward held faculty positions at Ohio State University
and the University of California at Davis. At the UW he is a professor of biology and
earth and space sciences and an adjunct professor of astronomy. He is also a former
curator of invertebrate paleontology and former Chairman of Geology and Paleontology
at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.
Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming to the stage this year’s annual faculty
lecturer, Professor Peter Ward. Peter.
Peter Ward: Well, thank you, and in thanking you I’m going to do this.
(Playing audio: These were taken just a month before. This is the UW team. We’ve been
down here for a month to try to understand if ancient climate change can help tell us
about modern climate change. That’s really the subject of my talk. And Dr. Everette, I
want to assure you that we have now claimed Antarctica for the University of
Washington. Welcome to your new territory.)
Peter Ward: All right. Now that we own Antarctica I want to acknowledge several
groups, including the astrobiology group at the University, of which I am a proud
member, and here we see Woody in front and Roger Buick in the back. I think this is one
of the finest examples of interdisciplinary work, not just at this university, but any place
in the world. And it’s a great pleasure, great honor to be associated with those scholars
and those grad students.
There’s two other people I want to talk about, the first of which should be up here, Don
Brownlee, and I would like you to join me in claps or a hand for this great scientist.
And because this talk is both science and I hope to show a way of integrating science and
outreach, I’ve like to honor another person in this audience, Richard Hutton, who is
sitting over here who I think is the greatest science documentarian in the world. Richard.
All right. That said, what I want to do tonight, again, is try to merge science with
outreach and the subject will be climate change but also climate change, as we know, two
of the most powerful words in the world now are “global warming.” It is political as well
as science. We see it in the headlines, we see it everywhere, and so I’d like to take a new
take on it.
Let’s look and see what Deep Time can tell us. So we’re going to look at some data from
Deep Time and look at times in the past when there has been radical climate change and
how it may have affected the life at the particular time. I’d like to ask, “Can Deep Time
inform future time?” But I want to finish thinking about that global warming and why it
is that about half of Americans believe it’s even happening or that 80% of Americans
believe that the government is hiding information about flying saucers or that about 70%
of Americans have grave doubts about evolution. You know, how have we come to this
place? And so by the end of this talk I hope to come back to that as well.
Don and I wrote two books. One is about time, one is about place, and both of them, I
think are very interesting ways to think about our planet and our planet is an example of
what we think is an Earth-like planet. But on the slide, all of these are Earth just like all
of you change through time. So our planet has evolved through time and changed through
time. And when we think about Earth-like planets, when NASA goes out with ever new
missions and tries to find other Earths, which Earth are we talking about?
As I hope to see tonight, Earth has been changing not just in Deep Time but in Shallow
Time as well. This change, in fact, is going on right now. Some of this change is good.
Some of this change, at least for civilization, at least for a species that attempts to become
as numerous as ours, may not be so good.
If we look back in Deep Time, the time of animals, it’s only been the last halfbillion years
of this 4.6 billion year planet that we have had animal life and here we find a curve of
diversity through time going back from the first animals about 540 million years ago to
the present day. From that great seminal (undecipherable) explosion when life really took
off we’ve found a rise through an approximate steady state and then for the last 200
million years or so a rather radical and rapid rise upward.
But it has not been smooth. There have been great wrecks in the road, not just bumps in
the road, and we call these the mass extinctions and we in astrobiology would like to
know how often other such catastrophes would affect other planets with life and whether
these things, as well as being terrible, stops to particular evolutionary lines, might in fact
be almost necessary to produce complexity and to produce innovation.
So it’s not I want to look at these, but I also want to look at a change in paradigm that has
happened over the last 30 years and understanding of mass extinctions. It’s not so long
ago that fossils were reviewed as curiosities and it was in 1800, really, that the first
indication of extinction took place. George Cuvier in France, greatest comparative
anatomist ever, was able to look at any bone and tell you the species of it and his great
bone yard is still present in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris today. Cuvier was sent
these bones and quickly said this is not a living mammal. These are bones of something
totally extinct and in 1800 the concept of extinction was unknown. Well, we’ve come a
long way since then.
The greatest change in our understanding of extinctions, which from Cuvier to about
1980, was that very slow forces did it. But that entire conception collapsed in 1980 at this
particular spot. This is an outcrop in Italy, it’s a deep ocean bottom in the Apennine
Mountains, and there this student, standing next to his professor, Walter Alvarez,
collected these white rocks. He found within them a great number of sea organisms on
the bottom, about 50 species of planktonic creatures called foraminifera, and within a
couple millimeters above, one species of tiny size, a drop from 50 to 1, and likely enough
he said he turned to Alessandro, “I wonder how long that took place. I think I’ll ask my
Well, Walter had the lucky chance of having a dad who was a Nobel physicist who said,
“I got an idea. Let’s figure out how it took place.” And they measured the cosmic
abundances of clays, and to their great surprise found this. They found a great
enhancement of platinum group elements and very quickly realized there was no in way
the world, this world, that that could have happened naturally without a little nudge or a
big splash by extra-terrestrial material.
This is an iridium enhancement. It is in parts per billion but nevertheless highly
significant. When you cross those rocks in Italy and then in many places around the
world you will find this narrow enhancement of material that is common in outer space
but vanishingly rare here on Earth. Go try to buy a platinum ring and you know what I’m
At the same time in 1980 I was at the University of California at Davis and completing
what had been my major research up until that time. Diving had been in my blood since
high school and I’ve got most of my Franklin High School contingent over there. Hello. I
was combining that love of the water with research working on the chamber of a nautilus.
A more recent picture, but very close, well, I guess the eyebrows were the same in 1980.
There’s more hair.
And the interesting thing about this animal is that it has come down to us for 500 million
years of history. So here’s something that did not get caught up by the mass extinctions.
And yet a close relative, the ammonites, which were also fascinating to me did, they die
out in whatever killed off the dinosaurs at that same time interval that the Alvarez’s
looked at in Italy, a sudden sensation of this entire linage and the question was, “Why?”
This particular shell looks pretty much like the one before. Why does one die and one
not? Is this bad genes or is this bad luck?
And hence this interest of mine arrived at about the time that I did at the University of
Washington. I began looking at the fates of these two organisms at another of what these
are now called cretaceous tertiary boundary sections, this one a beautiful spot in Spain,
where we find purple rocks leading up to that black shadow on the left part of the screen
to me, and that’s one of these so-called KT boundaries. And once again, there’s iridium
there and there’s a rapid cessation of life. Life just disappears that this boundary and other
life takes it up.
And so in the 1980s, then, the great call was to try to really resolve whether the Alvarez’s
were right and they have a two-part hypothesis that we were hit 65 million years ago but
that number two, the hit caused enough environmental carnage to kill of 70% of all
species. Well, that we were hit was pretty clearly the case within a couple of years but it
took a lot longer to figure out the effect of it. And in fact it wasn’t until the time the crater
was found in 1990 that paleontologists had discovered and looked at enough sections to
realize that yes, indeed, not just the little stuff but the big stuff, including the biggest stuff
of all, the dinosaurs, went out not slowly, but extremely quickly.
Well, as you might expect this wasn’t just a scientific jolt. It certainly, certainly got the
attention of the press. It became one of these great, great pressfriendly bits of science and
in fact Hollywood soon followed and by the middle 1990s it was, in fact, printed to be
true because once a movie is made about it, since almost everything we know is from the
movies, it had to be true. And in fact there were two great blockbusters, Deep Impact and
And so hence in a Thomas Kuhnian sense the paradigm of mass extinction taking the
long and slow and by Earth-bound processes was turned over – short and violent and
caused by something from outer space.
But is that entirely true?
(Video playing: Sixty-five million years ago a world was destroyed when a 6- mile wide
asteroid stuck the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. One hundred million megatons of
energy were released, shaking the entire planet, sending megatsunamis crashing across
coastlines, and pummeling the surface with falling debris. And that was just the first 24
Peter Ward: The first 24 hours. This was from a TV series called “Animal Armageddon.”
Two years ago I had a Hollywood producer come to me and say, “I’m going to make your
greatest fantasy come true. I’m going to give you an animation,” well, he must’ve known
me, “I’m going to give you an animation studio. You try and make it technically correct,
but there’s just one rule: unlike Ichiro, you can’t be a singles hitter. It’s for the fences or
nothing.” And so we did swing away.
The mass extinction paradigm that impact did it and in consequences and causes, as we
just saw in that brief video, swept my field so that by about the year 2000 every one of
the mass extinctions, the biggest of the five, were thought to be caused by impact – one at
the Devonian, one at the end of the Permian, one in the Triassic, and the cretaceous
tertiary itself. And it turns out that at UW people have now worked on every one of these
My own work moved from this KT disaster of the 1980s so that by the middle part or
early part of the 1990s I had moved to South Africa. It was still Apartheid and I was able
over the 10 or 15 years of going there year by year to watch the veil of that hideous
racism be lifted and a country embrace freedom, and it was fabulous to watch, and at the
same time we started thinking about what is the nature of the fossil record and the nature
of the biggest of all mass extinctions – not that that killed the dinosaurs but the one that
came before, 65 million years ago.
Coolest animals of all are called gorgons or gorgonopsians. And who better to talk about
(Video playing: They must have been the top predators of their ecosystem. I’ve seen
skulls of these things that are about 2 1/2 feet long, so much larger than a lion’s skull.)
Peter Ward: And this is the great Christian Sidor, who is now a member of our university,
and lucky for us. And here’s my poor son Patrick who absolutely hates this slide.
Paleontological child abuse. Sit still for scale. You get a sense of the size of these
creatures. This is a dinosaurian group and this is a bunch of animals that were not tiny but
little way before dinosaurs. Some, however, were small, including this thrinaxodon in the
earliest Triassic strata. This is a picture I took. It’s about the size of a robin egg. There’s a
pen for scale. And this is every one of your deepest ancestor in the mammalian linage. If
this creature does not escape that particular mass extinction we don’t have this talk and
something probably scalier sits here and espouses all this stuff.
So what do they look like? And this is from the film by Richard Hutton, the great film
(Video playing: Lystrosaurs were the Permian’s most common plant eaters. Gorgons,
ferocious predators up to two feet long ruled the plains. Then, suddenly the Permians
ended. The rock record reveals a cataclysmic change at the threshold of the next
geological period, the Triassic.)
Peter Ward: Cool hat.
(Video playing: We geologists can climb through time. I’m going to climb about 50 feet
up through here. I’ll go through 2,000-5,000 years of time when I do it. This is the very
last layer of the Permian. As soon as I climb above this I’m now in the Triassic. We’re
sitting in the very bottom beds of the Triassic. In these beds we have no fossils
whatsoever. All the Permian creatures that we saw right down there have disappeared
entirely. A few of them we know to have survived because one or two species will be
found a little higher up. But in these beds we found nothing. Not only are there no fossils,
there aren’t any of the burrows or the tunnels or the traces of animal activity. We see,
instead, layers of rock that could only have formed in the absence of animal life. So
catastrophic was that mass extinction that even the small creatures had died out. It’s not
just the mighty. It’s the meek. This place is dead.
Narrator: What could destroy so much?)
Peter Ward: So this was 10 years later. Now, taking another look at what some of those
creatures might have looked like, but this time on caffeine.
(Video playing: Lystrosaurus, gorgonopsian, thrinaxodon, and dicynodon. They are the
Man: Mammal-like reptiles are kind of the lost group of vertebrates, lost in the fact that
they’ve never had their own popular movie. They’re not mammals because they have
differences in their bone structure. They may or may not have been warm-blooded, but
we think they were. They may or may not have had live birth, although we think they
may have done that, too.)
Peter Ward: So we’ve got this world and we’ve got a world in which really a lot of really
bad thing happened. So let’s look at some of the science. In 10 years of working in South
Africa very painfully and slowly, a team from the University of Washington combined
with the South African Museum and now the mantle taken up by Christian Sidor, worked
out fossil by fossil, skull by skull really what was the pattern of extinction crossing this
particular mass extinction boundary
First of all, was there evidence of impact? Secondly, was there a sudden extinction? And
the answer is there was not a sudden extinction, seemingly, and it was no evidence for
impact, but what there was evidence of, if I could walk over here, was something very
interesting in the carbon cycle. And we have to do a little chemistry now. The ratio of
carbon 13 to carbon 12, there’s a lot of carbon 12, you’re sitting here using it up and
breathing it out as C02, but it’s really a rough indicator of the health of the world.
And it turns out we use carbon isotopes and this particular ratio can tell us the health of a
planet. When it moves this way, the world’s getting really in deep trouble. As extinction
hits a planet it moves to the left. The carbon isotope record at the end of the Cretaceous,
the one that killed the dinosaurs, was a single extinction, like an earthquake and back, and
the world resumed. What we found, and others found all over the planet, is that nothing
like this happened.
Now in this slide it might be a little hard to see, the top half of the slide you can see the
green dots and they’re pretty straight. They’re going up. That’s a normal carbon isotope
record of the world. But down through here, the en …
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