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McAuliffe Center inspires hope in the face of climate change

A man playing a stringed instrument.

By Raena Doty

Arts & Features Editor

The Christa McAuliffe Center hosted the second annual Climate Hope Concert by Multiverse Concert Series in the planetarium April 20.

The performance included several songs written about wonders and catastrophes of the natural world and the scientific efforts in place to minimize the damage of climate change. Between the performances, speakers presented reasons to have hope.

David Ibbett, director of the Multiverse Concert Series, introduced the first song, “10,000 Rays of Hope,” performed by cellist Johnny Mok.

He said, “It’s all about polymers - new polymers, sustainable polymers, self-healing polymers being developed at MIT.

“You’ll hear the polymers stretch and break and reform alongside the pulsing cello and beats,” he added.

Isabel Varela, director of science at Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) presented her organization’s movement toward geothermal energy rather than traditional gas energy.

She said her background is in oil and gas, but two years ago, she began to study sustainable energy.

Varela displayed a map of Massachusetts and showed all of the recent gas leaks caused by old pipes and bad infrastructure. She zoomed in to show the Framingham area specifically and pointed to the FSU campus on the map.

“It is estimated it will take $9 billion to replace leak-prone pipes in the state of Massachusetts for the next 20 years. But why would we do that when doing that would only perpetuate the use of fossil fuels in a state that has a 2050 decarbonization target?” she asked.

Varela said an alternative to using gas infrastructure is to build new infrastructure with “a network of ground source heat pumps.”

She said the ground 600 feet under the surface is about 55 degrees Fahrenheit all year around, and this heat can be converted to energy to warm buildings in a sustainable way - or, in the summer, to pump heat out of buildings and keep them cool.

She added different buildings can benefit each other in a system where they’re connected, and gave the example of a data center that needs to cool its facilities even in the winter, which could provide energy to houses that require heat in the same area.

Varela said the first movements toward geothermal energy have already started in Framingham, and HEET is helping to install the necessary infrastructure in one neighborhood, which will be ready in one to two months.

“We need to change our heating infrastructure, and the answer is ready - right beneath our feet,” she said.

The next song was called “Spiral of Change,” performed by Jason Davis on the upright bass.

The song was performed to a recording of a woman named Yvette talking about her experiences living in different parts of the United States and how that experience has changed as she grew up and climate change became more and more visible.

“This is not the future I want for myself, for my nephews, nor for the people I’ll never meet,” she said.

“I’m ready and I’m hungry for a new era,” she said.

The next speaker, Carsten Grupstra, is a marine biology Ph.D. candidate at Boston University. His presentation explained what coral are and how climate change disrupts coral ecosystems.

He said a coral is an organism commonly believed to be either a plant, animal, or rock, and he explained a coral colony contains animals, plants, and rocks, so all three common beliefs are partially correct.

Grupstra said climate change has seriously hurt the continued persistence of coral because algae plants are leaving the colonies, causing the coral to die and undergo a process called “bleaching,” where it turns white.

He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) “just confirmed that the fourth global bleaching event is now ongoing, which means that over the rest of this year, coral bleaching will become more severe and more widespread.”

Grupstra added he’s interested in “identifying the factors that can help coral reefs survive.”

He said variation among different types of corals mean some are better able to survive in changing climate conditions, and showed pictures of corals - in both pictures, two corals were shown, but in the first, both were dead, and in the second, one had been revived.

“What it turns out that we found is that these unbleached corals can have specific genetic factors that prevent them from bleaching,” he said.

He added certain types of corals may recover from bleaching events, and showed a picture of a coral that was bleached in 2012 but had recovered by 2014.

Grupstra said the most important thing people can do to prevent coral bleaching is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, “but corals don’t face the fate of climate change by themselves.”

He added researchers are working on several methods of helping the survival of coral, including a method called fragmentation, developing coral genotypes in labs that can survive better in the face of climate change, and labs hosting corals in captivity.

“What we’re seeing is that we think corals will persist in some way. However, as climate change is continuing and ocean temperatures are rising, it’s likely that it will look fundamentally different in the future, and so we need to do our best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Grupstra said.

Ibbett initiated an activity for the crowd, where everyone was able to use their smartphone to connect to a website and place a dot on a floorplan of the room to show where they are in the room. When everyone was connected, Ibbett used an app to play the sounds of coral colonies on each person’s smartphone, traveling as a wave across the room.

Jeremy Shakun, a paleoclimatologist at Boston College, presented about climate change from a historical perspective.

He said climate change is often quantified in terms of degrees of warming, and the Earth is now 1.3 degrees Celsius warmer than it was 100 years ago. He added every country has agreed warming should not surpass 2 degrees Celsius, but “we’re actually on track right now for 3 degrees of warming.”

He said these numbers may not mean much to the average person, and scientists have worked to uncover evidence of what temperature the world has been at different periods of geological history.

Shakun said geologists can measure the amount of sun radiation on glacial rocks, and rocks that have less radiation are ones that have been covered by glaciers for longer.

He added rocks recently uncovered by glaciers were last visible to the sun 10,000 years ago.

“One degree of warming is already up above and beyond anything we’ve seen in the entire time span of human civilization,” he said.

He said the last time the Earth reached 2 degrees Celsius of warming, carbon trapped in the permafrost in the Arctic was able to escape, and this happened 400,000 years ago.

He added the last time Earth hit 3 degrees Celsius of warming was 3 million years ago, and showed a map of the shoreline across the eastern coast of what is now the United States. In it, the shoreline was hundreds of miles inland from what it would be today.

“But this is a Climate Hope Concert, so I want to leave you with a bit of the good news, which is that we’re still in the early days of climate change - we’re just a plus one. Two degrees, three degrees, four degrees - that’s all still to be determined,” Shakun said.

Next, Davis performed a song called “Footsteps in the Snow,” which he said he wrote based on an interview with an Inuit elder from Alaska named John Sinnok who described the way the footsteps in the snow used to sound different because it was colder.

The song was set to the sound of a recording of Sinnok describing how the weather was during his childhood versus how it is now.

“You could hear their footsteps outside / Nowadays, it doesn't get that hard anymore, where you can hear people walking past / The snow doesn't get that hard, dry anymore / Like it used to,” Sinnok said.

The next song was Ibbett’s song, called “Mantra.”

“We hope we sort of presented a mixture of emotions, because what more could we feel at this critical time,” he said.

Ibbett said he wrote “Mantra” about this idea - the idea of humanity coming together to find solutions to climate change.

“I do have faith in humanity - and I’m sure you do too - that by coming together, we can figure this out, because we have so much invested in our future,” he said.


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