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World-renowned scientist Richard Alley to speak Oct. 17 at NIU

September 19, 2014
Richard Alley

Richard Alley

Richard Alley, a riveting speaker and one of the most famous climate scientists of our time, will visit NIU this month to give a public talk on the impact that fossil fuels have had on climate and the potential for a bright future of sustainable energy usage on the planet.

Alley, who hosted the PBS miniseries, “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” and penned a book by the same name, will deliver his talk at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 17, in the Cole Hall lecture theater (Room 100). His presentation is titled, “The Optimistic View of Energy and Environment.”

“We get great benefits from the energy we use, which is primarily from fossil fuels, but we are burning them about a million times faster than nature saved them for us,” Alley said, “so we must change.”

Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide that affects the climate through very well understood physical processes, Alley said, adding that the processes were worked out in part by the U.S. Air Force during the design of sensors for heat-seeking missiles.

There is reason for hope that humankind can find better energy alternatives, Alley said.

Looking to the future could mean following advice from great minds of the past, including Abraham Lincoln, a great proponent of science who once predicted one of the greatest discoveries would be harnessing the power of the wind.

antarctic penguins-feature size“We are surrounded by vast renewable energy sources,” Alley said. “Science never tells us what to do, but it does tell us what we can do. If we start from there, and follow advice from Abraham Lincoln among many others, we can generate a sustainable energy system that gives us a bigger economy with more jobs, greater national security and a cleaner environment more consistent with the Golden Rule.”

Alley is an Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State and a key member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. His research interests focus on glaciology, sea level change and abrupt climate change, and he frequently discusses earth sciences on major media outlets, including NPR, BBC and PBS.

He has published about 250 refereed papers, including numerous seminal works. Among his many important scientific contributions was a study of ice cores that showed the earth has experienced abrupt climate changes in the past – and likely will again.

“I think his talk will be fascinating to just about anyone over 9 years old,” said Reed Scherer, an NIU Board of Trustees Professor of geology who invited his friend, Alley, to campus.

Scherer is among the NIU scientists who will lead a National Science Foundation-funded expedition in December and January to the Antarctic wilderness. They will drill nearly a half-mile through the ice to investigate melting at the grounding zone between the ice sheet on land and the sub-glacial ocean cavity beneath the floating ice shelf. In doing so, they will be testing some of Alley’s foundational hypotheses on grounding-zone dynamics and helping to determine future effects of climate change on already rising ocean levels.

Reed Scherer

Reed Scherer

“In our age, one of humanity’s fundamental challenges is our use of energy and its effect on the environment,” Scherer said.

“Energy and technology policy for the last 100 years has been based on fossil fuels, and we know they are leading to fundamental changes to global climate, something we need to address. Richard will give us a perspective that perhaps we haven’t thought about, and he’ll do it in entertaining way. From the perspective of science communication, few in the world are as qualified on this topic.”

Alley’s talk is part of the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences’ colloquium series, and is being held in cooperation with the Graduate School and NIU Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy. In addition to the public lecture, Alley will be giving a research lecture to the geology department earlier in the day.

“Richard Alley is an important scientist, a spectacularly entertaining speaker and inspiring lecturer in STEM education, so he will serve as the perfect segue into the next day’s NIU STEMfest,” Scherer said.

NIU’s STEMfest, which annually attracts thousands of visitors to campus, provides free fun-filled activities that expose students to science, technology, engineering and math careers. It will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 18, at the NIU Convocation Center.