Nova (1974–…): Season 45, Episode 6 - Decoding the Weather Machine - full transcript

Scientists around the world strive for a better understanding of the workings of the weather and climate machine known as Earth.

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Most people sense a
change in the weather.

It's not your imagination.

Mega-storms, droughts, fires.

We're seeing
one-in-a-thousand-year floods

with astonishing frequency.

How many times
does that have to happen

before it's not a fluke,
but it's a trend?

Is this trend the new normal?

Our planet did not come with
a manual of how it all works.

To understand how it works,

"NOVA" explores one of the
greatest scientific quests



of all time.

This is the essence of science.

A global investigation
of our climate machine.

Looking good back there?

And how it
determines our weather.

Yeah, super-clean data.

The technology is
a huge leap forward.

It's game-changing.

It's just been like
flipping on the lights.

It is a historic adventure...

The science goes back
almost 200 years.

It was one of these things
waiting to be discovered.

Probing deep into
our natural world...

There's really nothing
like it in science.



Looking for clues
from Greenland's ice sheet...

The only way out of there
is that helicopter.

You're certainly
not walking out.

To the desert of Australia.

That gives us a really
important window into the past.

Oh.

The stakes are high...

yet the outcome uncertain.

We're poking
at the climate system

with a long, sharp,
carbon-tipped spear.

And we cannot perfectly predict
all of the consequences.

Can these discoveries show us
where our planet is headed?

What gives me hope is
that we understand this.

So we actually
can do something about it.

It's a planetary crisis,

but we're clever enough
to think our way out of this.

Right now on "NOVA"...

"Decoding the Weather Machine."

♪ ♪

Major funding for "NOVA"
is provided by the following...

♪ ♪

At a weather studio
in Minneapolis, Minnesota,

there is a storm brewing.

The models aren't sure
where this thing is going.

And TV meteorologist
Paul Douglas

is trying to predict its path.

There's the eye.

So it's moving more northwest.

Wow.

It's still a very strong
tropical storm.

I don't think anybody
in their right mind

sets out to be a meteorologist.

Meteorologist Paul Douglas
with an update on Irma...

"I'm going
to be wrong frequently,

and people will second-guess me,
and I will get verbal abuse."

And, of course,
the big story: Marco.

The damage, quite extensive.

Predicting the future...
140 miles an hour...

it's not for the faint of heart.

Because the weather these days

is not for the
faint of heart either.

All the ingredients converging

to turn this into
a true superstorm.

While Paul is reporting

on a Category 5 hurricane
threatening the U.S...

Once again, smoke dominating...

His team is also reporting
on wildfires in the West,

We've got a multitude of
active large fires, not only...

And another mega-storm en route.

It could be making a very
close call with the Bahamas.

We'll keep you up to date.

It's an atmospheric
free-for-all.

♪ ♪

Now, the Twin Cities'

fastest-growing television news.

Over nearly four decades

of blizzards, hurricanes,
and floods,

Paul has seen it all.

It may have been
the most extreme outbreak

of heat and humidity
on record...

In the grips of the
worst blizzard of the century...

But over the years,
storm by storm,

Paul began to develop
an uneasy feeling.

He wondered, "Was something up
with the weather?"

The rhythm
of the atmosphere was off,

we were seeing
more freakish weather,

storms were stronger and wetter.

It wasn't the old-fashioned

minus-20, minus-30
winters anymore.

It was raining in January.

How many times
does that have to happen

before it's not a fluke,
but it's a trend?

♪ ♪

Douglas had heard
about global warming,

but given all the crazy weather
he'd experienced,

he was skeptical.

And he's not alone.

A third of Americans doubt
humans are changing the climate.

We pray
that you would awaken us...

Douglas understands
where they're coming from.

Many in his community
of Christian conservatives

are distrustful
of big government.

A lot of the pushback

is because when people look
at climate change,

they think, "Oh, my God!

"If this is true,
the only possible solution

"is more government,

more regulation,
EPA times a hundred."

But dealing with the weather

day in and day out
forced Douglas

to confront a question
we all ultimately face:

is the frequency of powerful
storms and odd weather patterns

just normal
weather variability...

Why has this gotten
so big and so ferocious?

Or is it a new normal?

Shut down almost 30 roads...

Most people sense
a change in the weather.

The weather's out of tune.

So how can we decode
these changes?

Douglas is not the
only one noticing changes.

Seven of the ten hottest
years on record

have occurred
within the last decade.

Wildfires are
at an all-time high,

while Arctic sea ice
is rapidly diminishing.

We are seeing
one-in-a-thousand-year floods

with astonishing frequency.

When it rains really hard,

it's harder than ever.

We're seeing glaciers
melting, sea level rising.

The length

and the intensity of heat waves
has gone up dramatically.

Plants and trees are flowering
earlier in the year.

Birds are moving pole-ward.

We're seeing
more intense storms.

♪ ♪

Changes like these have led
an overwhelming majority

of climate scientists
to an alarming conclusion:

it isn't just the weather
that's changing,

it's what drives the weather:

earth's climate.

Climate change is happening now,

and the damage is happening now.

People notice extremes,

and climate change is increasing
the risk or probability

of certain types
of extreme weather events.

If we look all around us,

we see over 26,500
independent lines of evidence

that the planet is warming.

But while there may be evidence
for a changing climate,

hasn't Earth's climate
always been changing?

Glacier expert David Holland

says the evidence for that
is as solid as rock.

Walking through Central Park
in New York City,

he finds a huge boulder,

impossibly balanced on bedrock.

It's a different type of rock

than any rock that we can see
in the neighborhood.

This rock was clearly
transported here

by some mechanism.

And the mechanism
powerful enough

to carry this huge boulder
was a glacier...

A vast sheet of ice.

Unquestionably there was
a very large glacier

over Manhattan
almost 20,000 years ago.

20,000 years ago,

New York City looked
very different from today.

It was a much colder place,

covered by ice that extended
down from the North Pole.

And very carefully.

Open the pages of the book.

Oh yeah, look at that!

And there is evidence that
millions of years before that,

the Arctic was completely
different, too.

Fossils have been found
of palm trees

in a place now famous
for ice and snow...

Alaska.

Earth's history is full
of dramatic swings

from hot to cold.

So isn't today's changing
climate just natural?

The scientific evidence says no

and points to
a very different cause:

us, primarily through
our burning of fossil fuels.

That's a serious charge,

and addressing it
will be enormously expensive.

So what is that evidence?

The quest to understand

what is behind
our changing climate

began... surprisingly...
More than 200 years ago.

At the end of the 18th century,

there's really this,
this flowering

of fundamental exploration
of science of all kinds.

Andrea Sella, a chemist
at University College London,

says scientists at the time

were out exploring
the natural world

and what factors
control Earth's climate.

One of the things that's
very interesting at the time

is this idea
of what heat actually is.

People were beginning to realize

that there are these invisible
radiations that can convey heat.

Today, we call it
infrared radiation.

It's what you feel

when you're standing
in front of a roaring fire.

But it's invisible to our eyes.

A Frenchman
named Joseph Fourier...

Science advisor
to Napoleon Bonaparte...

Wanted to understand if these
invisible radiations of heat

helped determine
Earth's temperature.

He reasoned that
if sunlight just warmed Earth,

the heat should build up,

and the planet
would be intolerably hot.

But if all the heat coming in

radiated right back out
to space,

our planet would be cold.

Fourier sets up
the first kind of scheme

for understanding that balance

between energy in
and energy going out.

Fourier was intrigued
by a simple experiment...

With a dark box, a thermometer
and a pane of glass...

That could explain
how Earth's temperature was set.

The really striking thing

is that when he turns it
towards the sun,

the temperature
of the thermometer

goes up and up and up.

If he takes the thermometer out,
the air is very cool.

But when he puts it back in,
the temperature rises again.

Why does the air
inside the box heat up?

The glass must be allowing heat
from sunlight into the box...

And trapping some of it.

Fourier wondered if something
similar in the atmosphere

was doing the same thing
as that pane of glass...

Helping to regulate
Earth's thermostat.

While not exactly
how our planet works,

this metaphor was a first step
in figuring out our climate.

Earth's climate is set
by a complex interaction

among its four major components:

land, sea, ice,
and the atmosphere, or air.

Fourier had zeroed in
on the role of air.

In 1824, Fourier was
the first to deduce

that it's the composition
of the atmosphere

that governs the surface
temperature of the earth.

1824, almost 200 years ago.

And climate science has been
accumulating ever since.

He plants a seed...

This idea that the atmosphere
is trapping some of the heat

that comes down from the sun.

And the real question is
how does that happen?

40 years later, John Tyndall,
another prominent scientist,

discovered a clue about how
earth's atmosphere is heated,

with an experiment at London's
famous Royal Institution.

The Royal Institution
was a place

which combines
cutting-edge science

and the equivalent
of TED Talks of today...

Public lectures
in which the latest science

could be communicated
to the common man.

♪ ♪

Tyndall wanted to figure out

if a gas in the atmosphere
was trapping heat

like that pane of glass.

After making a breakthrough
in his lab,

Tyndall quickly went public with
a dramatic live presentation.

He presents it to the public.

You know, "Here is
the latest science,"

and he is redoing the experiment

step by step and explaining
his thought process.

Tyndall's original lab equipment

is still housed
at the Royal Institution,

and Sella has dusted it off

to bring this famous experiment
back to life.

This is the business end
of the whole experiment.

It's what's called a thermopile,

and it was something that
had only recently been invented.

Two sensors inside measure heat.

If there's a difference
in temperature

between one side and the other,

what it does it produces
a little voltage,

an electrical current that's
going to flow down these wires,

and then you can measure it
using a voltmeter.

Tyndall's idea
was to use this sensor

to measure
the temperature difference

between two sources of heat.

On one side was a tube that he
could fill with different gases.

What he does is
he lets in a gas into the tube.

He starts with air.

Then he moves on
to nitrogen, to oxygen,

essentially to every gas
he can think of.

To Tyndall's surprise,
when he tested the two gases

that make up 99%
of the atmosphere...

Nitrogen and oxygen... the needle
on the voltmeter didn't budge.

Those gases had no effect
on the heat.

Tyndall then tested a gas

that exists in only trace
amounts in the atmosphere...

Carbon dioxide.

And when he does carbon dioxide,

he realizes that
the radiant heat from that end

doesn't make it through
to the thermopile.

In other words, what he's got,

he's got his hands
on a substance

which will trap heat in the sky.

♪ ♪

Tyndall had solved the mystery
posed by Fourier's glass box.

It was carbon dioxide
and a few other trace gases,

like water vapor, that trap heat
radiating off the planet.

These gases,
called greenhouse gases,

exist naturally.

Sunlight passes through them
and warms our planet.

That heat radiates back out
as infrared light.

But some of the heat gets
trapped by the greenhouse gases,

and they help warm Earth
like a blanket.

At the time
of Tyndall's discovery,

England was being transformed
by an industrial revolution

that has changed the way
we work and live.

That revolution was powered
by burning coal and oil.

Tyndall figured out
that carbon dioxide traps heat.

But even more importantly,
Tyndall realized

that when we dig up coal
and burn it,

it's actually releasing more
of these heat-trapping gases.

Coal and oil are formed mainly
from small plants and algae

and are mostly made of carbon.

After being buried
for millions of years,

when that coal or oil is burned,

the carbon reacts with oxygen
to form carbon dioxide.

That is released back
to the atmosphere,

adding more greenhouse gases.

These gases in turn
act like an extra blanket,

trapping more heat.

But how much of
this heat-trapping gas is there,

and what impact does it have?

To figure that out,

climate research would need
to be taken to new heights...

literally.

Ralph Keeling of the Scripps
Institution in San Diego

has come to Hawaii

to see just how much
carbon dioxide is in the air,

and if that amount is changing.

Perched on a volcano,

the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's

Mauna Loa Observatory

is one of the most important
atmospheric research sites

in the world.

It is almost like a pole
two miles high

sticking up from
the middle of the ocean.

So we are above
this cloud layer.

And for sampling carbon dioxide

and getting numbers
that are representative

of a really big picture,

it's nice to be away
from the surface,

so you are away from
all these local influences

that might change
the carbon dioxide levels.

Samples are continually drawn
from the air and analyzed,

which can reveal clues

about the health
and functioning of our planet.

We are basically measuring
a vital sign of the earth

by probing deep into
the core of the atmosphere.

This atmospheric measurement

was pioneered by Ralph's father,
Dave Keeling, in the 1950s.

His great innovation
was to figure out a way

to accurately measure the amount
of carbon dioxide in the air.

He developed an apparatus

that allowed him to do
more precise measurements

than had ever been done before.

But could such an extremely
sensitive measurement

be taken in this remote location

serviced by one unpaved road?

It was a remote site.

A lot could go wrong.

So it was a pretty nervous time

as to whether things
were really functioning.

At first,
everything ran smoothly,

and the measurements
were exactly as he expected.

But then something happened.

The generator in
the station failed.

And the next time
the generator came on,

the measurement
was drifting downwards.

And he was thinking,

"Oh, no, something erratic
with the instrumentation.

We don't really know
how this is working."

And then there
was another power outage,

and it started
in even lower level,

now it was drifting upwards.

It looked problematic,
to say the least.

Ralph's father, Dave,

didn't know what to make
of these erratic results...

But he kept going.

Several months later,

the measurements
started going down again.

Suddenly, the answer
dawned on him.

Instead of a bad measurement,
it was a whole new discovery.

By the beginning
of the next year,

he realized,
"Oh, this is just the seasons.

"I'm seeing the seasons.

"It's real.

It's not a bad instrument."

Dave Keeling's instruments
were working perfectly,

so much so that they had
detected a subtle interaction

between plants
and the atmosphere.

Trees breathe in carbon dioxide,

drawing it out
of the atmosphere,

and use the carbon
to grow leaves in the spring.

In the fall, when the leaves
die and decompose,

some of that carbon goes back
into the atmosphere.

This annual rise and fall
of carbon dioxide

is what Dave Keeling discovered.

It is the breath
of the world's forests.

♪ ♪

It never occurred to him
that he would see this.

It was one of these things
that was just waiting

to be discovered.

That breath can be seen today

with images created
from NASA's satellite data.

♪ ♪

These clouds are carbon dioxide
moving through the atmosphere.

Red shows the
highest concentrations.

Over the Northern Hemisphere,

you can see the forests
absorb carbon dioxide

in the spring and summer...

And release it in the fall.

The breath of the forests

explains the zigzags
in the Keeling Curve.

But the measurements also
revealed something alarming...

The zigzagging curve
was increasing each year.

You see the wiggle is already up
and down in the first few years.

And if you look at it over this
now almost 60-year time frame,

you see that
it's accelerating upwards.

The Keeling Curve established
without question

that the carbon dioxide
content of the atmosphere

was going up steeply,
sharply, rapidly.

But how unusual
is this rapid rise?

Keeling's measurements
go back 60 years,

but that's still only
a tiny window

on Earth's vast climate history.

To put that rise in perspective,

we would need a time capsule
deep into Earth's past.

Fortunately, there is one.

Only it's buried

in one of the most
inaccessible places on earth...

The interior of Antarctica.

The interior
is like being at sea.

It's just this immense
mass of ice.

It's just really
an astonishing thing to see.

But geologist Ed Brook
of Oregon State University

doesn't come here
for the scenery.

He and other polar scientists

are on the hunt for ancient air,

captured in ice.

♪ ♪

These expeditions can last years

and reach deep
below the surface.

The ice drill can drill down
into the ice sheet,

break off a core,

and bring it back
to the surface.

We take out ice yard by yard,

and the deepest ice cores
are over two miles deep.

Snowfall builds up
in layers each year

and is compressed
to form huge ice sheets.

So drilling down two miles

can reach back to snow
that fell a very long time ago.

And in those layers, there are
gas bubbles that are trapped.

And we can now analyze the
composition of those gas bubbles

and understand
what the carbon dioxide content

of the atmosphere was a hundred
ago, a thousand years ago.

In the Antarctic ice sheet,
we can go back 800,000 years.

Back in Ed's freezer,
samples of ice are selected

and prepared for analysis.

Clearly visible within them

are tiny, precious bubbles
of ancient air.

I never get tired
of looking at the bubbles.

It's remarkable that we have
this old atmosphere

in our freezers.

Crushing or melting the ice
releases the air.

♪ ♪

There's really nothing
like it in science.

Normally, we have to make

kind of indirect inferences
about the past.

But in this case, we have
these tiny capsules of air

that we can directly measure.

When Ed measures
the recent levels

of carbon dioxide
in the samples,

it confirms Keeling's data.

Over the last 60 years,
the trend is the same.

The ice core record

connects directly
with the Keeling Curve,

which is one of the reasons

we know the ice core record
is so good,

because the data show
the same thing.

But these ice cores can extend
the Keeling Curve back in time

and reveal that today's
concentration of carbon dioxide

is unusually high.

The current concentration of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

is higher than it has been
for 800,000 years.

But it also
shows something else...

An overall pattern

with levels of carbon dioxide
rising and falling.

The pattern repeats itself.

There are small variations, each
cycle is a little bit different,

but they're not
random-looking at all.

They're actually quite regular.

This regular pattern raises
an important question...

What does it have to do
with climate?

One way to get at that

is to compare carbon dioxide
levels with past temperature.

Andrea Dutton of
the University of Florida

is looking for clues about
Earth's past temperatures

in seashells.

I consider myself
a detective of the earth.

We're looking for clues

and the pieces
to put together the puzzle

of what happened in the past.

Andrea can analyze
the chemistry of the shells

to reveal Earth's past climate.

You can see growth bands
that show every year

in the life of this clamshell.

Like tree rings,

these layers reflect
how clams build their shells.

Encoded in each layer

is chemical information about
the temperature of the water.

As shells grow, they incorporate
oxygen from the sea water.

Oxygen comes in different forms:

one is oxygen-16.

It has eight protons

and eight neutrons
in its nucleus.

Another form, oxygen-18,
has two extra neutrons.

The colder the water,

the more oxygen-18
is incorporated in the shell.

This difference allows Andrea

to determine
the temperature when it formed.

I could take a clamshell
that is 50 million years old

and tell you how warm it was
in the summer

and how cold it was
in the winter

within a single year.

Each shell provides a brief
snapshot of Earth's climate.

But to build the full picture
of past temperatures

requires digging up
millions of other,

even more plentiful shells,
at the bottom of the sea,

where they have
accumulated over time.

Research vessels drill deep
into the sea floor

and pull up cores
of this sediment,

which are then
carefully archived

in vast libraries of mud.

The floor of the ocean is
essentially a tape recorder,

because there are organisms

that grow either
in the surface water

and fall down into the sediment,

or on the bottom of the ocean.

And we can take
those fossil shells,

measure their chemistry,

and reconstruct
what the temperature

of that ancient sea water was
so long ago.

Back in Andrea's lab,

she sifts through
the ancient mud,

searching for
these tiny fossil shells.

You spend hours
and hours and hours

picking out
these tiny little shells

so that we can analyze
the chemistry of those shells

to understand the temperature
in the past.

From this ocean mud
emerges a record of temperature

that goes back
tens of millions of years.

You can take different cores

from different places
all over the ocean

and synthesize them
in one grand record.

That record
shows temperature swings

from warm periods to ice ages

triggered by changes
in Earth's orbit.

But when these
temperature changes

are paired with levels of
carbon dioxide from ice cores,

a startling correlation emerges.

The two graphs
are a near perfect match.

When we look at the relationship

between temperature
and carbon dioxide,

they change essentially
at the same time.

As CO2 goes down,
so does the temperature.

As the carbon dioxide ramps up,
the temperature ramps up again.

Other lines of evidence
confirm this correlation

between temperature
and carbon dioxide.

When dinosaurs ruled the earth,

it was much hotter than today,

and levels of carbon dioxide
were higher too.

Carbon dioxide is
a major driver of climate.

Just as Tyndall's discovery
predicted,

a key factor
in regulating Earth's thermostat

is the level
of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

As carbon dioxide goes up,
so does temperature,

resulting in a warmer climate.

And the level measured today

is higher than it has been
in at least 800,000 years...

And rising fast.

So what is causing
this increase?

Earth's orbit
can trigger the increase

in temperature
and carbon dioxide,

but is not in the right phase
to do so.

There are other natural sources

that pump carbon into the
air, like volcanoes,

the decay of forests,
or huge fires.

And there is the carbon

that we have been pumping
into the air

since the Industrial Revolution

through the burning
of fossil fuels.

Which of these is the culprit

for today's rising
carbon dioxide levels,

and how can we tell?

Back in Hawaii, Ralph Keeling
is working to figure that out

by collecting
and analyzing samples of air.

Air may not look like anything

but it's rich
with different molecules.

There's just enormous amount
of information content

in one sample of air
if you can take it all apart.

Ralph collects air in
vacuum-sealed chambers,

releasing the valve
to pull in a sample.

Just as ancient seashells
have different types of oxygen,

air contains carbon atoms with
different numbers of neutrons.

By analyzing the ratio
of those different carbon atoms,

Ralph can determine

if the source of the carbon
is ancient or not.

Carbon released
from burning coal or oil,

made from deposits buried for
millions of years, is ancient.

Fossil fuels have been locked up

underground
for millions of years.

So when we emit fossil fuels
into the atmosphere,

we're emitting carbon
that is very different.

It has a very distinct
fingerprint.

This chemical fingerprint and
many other lines of evidence

leave no doubt
that we are responsible

for the skyrocketing levels
of carbon dioxide.

It is a slam dunk.

We know without question

that humans are responsible
for the big increases

in heat-trapping gases
in the atmosphere.

And that's not just theory,

that's not projection,
it's observations.

But ultimately the question is

how much will these changes
really impact our earth?

When Dave Keeling started
measuring atmospheric CO2,

in the late '50s,

the idea that humans
were profoundly affecting

the entire atmosphere

in a way that was significant
for the earth's climate

was almost unthinkable.

I still think even today,
some people resist the idea

on the grounds that, you know,

"How could humans
actually change something

as enormous as the earth?"

One of those doubters,
by his own admission,

was weatherman Paul Douglas
in Minnesota.

Like politics,
all weather is local.

We live in our bubbles,
you know?

We wake up,
we look outside the window,

and we take note of the weather.

Look at this sprawling
shield of cloud cover.

And it's hard
to broaden your view,

even for meteorologists.

We tend to be fixated
on one location.

But for Paul, unusual storms
and flooding in the Midwest

signaled to him
that climate change was real.

The worst flooding that
this area has ever seen...

The devastation is massive...

And it was affecting
everyone, everywhere.

Severe flooding
has been reported

across many northwestern parts
of the country...

Lucifer is living up
to its name...

The more I looked around,

the more I realized that

it was nationwide,
it was worldwide.

This isn't
a 30-year-down-the-road thing.

It is right now, it's happening.

What Paul came to realize

was how these global changes
in the atmosphere

could be affecting
his local weather patterns.

Climate and weather
are flip sides of the same coin.

You impact climate,
it's going to impact weather.

Weather is what is happening
in the atmosphere

at a given time and place...
Hot, cold, rain, or snow.

Climate is an average of that
weather over longer periods.

Climate is the History Channel;

weather is CNN Headline News.

It's a snapshot.

Paul says the connection

between climate change
and our local weather

comes down to how much heat
is in Earth's system.

Always the weatherman,

he takes to the green screen
to explain...

Uneven heating by the sun
of the earth

is what drives
the weather machine...

Intense direct sunlight
over the equator,

just a glancing blow of sunlight
over the northern latitudes.

Obviously much hotter here.

Cold air wants to flow south,

hot air wants to flow north.

But there's a twist,

and that twist is triggered by
the earth spinning on its axis.

The combination of heating

plus the spin of
the earth on its axis

creates the complicated
air circulations

that drive our weather.

It is fundamentally
these two factors...

Earth's spin
and heat differences

between the poles
and the equator...

That create
the weather patterns we know.

So if you trap more heat
in the system,

you change the weather.

You put more heat
into the system,

there are going
to be consequences,

like more extremes worldwide.

Weather that would have formed
anyway is now super-sized.

There are certain conditions

that may be enhancing
larger storms.

We can expect
more intense hurricanes

going forward
as our climate system warms.

♪ ♪

We're poking at
the climate system

with a long, sharp,
carbon-tipped spear

and then acting surprised,
shocked, indignant

when the weather bites back.

And the weather
will be biting back

with greater ferocity,
with greater frequency.

For Praedictix,
I'm meteorologist Paul Douglas.

As a meteorologist,
Paul has made a career

out of predicting the weather
for the next few days.

What we need now are predictions

about how our climate
is changing

over the next 50 years
or even hundreds of years.

We are more powerful than nature

in the push
we are putting on climate.

And we don't entirely understand

and cannot perfectly predict
all of the consequences.

It's not, "We're worried because
it's never happened before."

Earth's climate has changed.

What hasn't happened before
is to change it this quickly.

We are so far outside the range
of natural variability,

we have not seen carbon dioxide
levels like this

in the history of human
civilization on this planet.

We're really doing
an experiment on the planet

that hasn't been done
for about 40 million years.

Across the globe,
scientists are now racing

to understand and model
earth's climate system,

trying to figure out just how
damaging climate change will be.

From the ice sheets of Greenland

to the deserts of Australia...

and from Hawaii's
volcanic peaks,

to the depths of the ocean,

they are searching for clues
in the land, sea, ice, and air...

The key elements
of Earth's climate machine.

Our planet did not come with
a manual of how it all works,

and so much of science

is trying to kind of
take the planet apart

and understand how all of
these pieces work together.

The evidence is clear
that by burning fossil fuels,

we humans have changed the
composition of the atmosphere,

which is now trapping more heat.

How the other parts of the
climate machine will respond

will determine how much
our climate will change...

And how much the great diversity
of life that it supports

will be affected.

The stakes could not be higher.

The planet has been here for
four and a half billion years,

and it's still going to be here,

but it will be
a very different place.

What I'm really concerned about

is how humans will survive,

and how our lifestyles will be
affected by this in the future.

We are already feeling
the effects of climate change.

We don't have the luxury

of being a gentlemanly scientist
in the 1850s.

We have to make
a difference right now.

Can we figure out
the climate crisis,

before it's too late?

It's a planetary crisis.

And it's a crisis that we've
collectively created together,

but we're clever enough
to think our way out of this.

Flight instruments
are set for departure,

so we'll just haul
this baby out...

The efforts
to think our way out of this...

And understand what the future
may hold... are now underway.

Flaps are confirmed.

High above the Sierra Nevada
mountains of California,

Greg Asner of the
Carnegie Institution

at Stanford University

is on a mission to find out

what part the land plays
in Earth's climate machine.

Forests are a big part
of the earth machine.

To think about
the world without forests

would be like taking
a piece of the machine out,

and then the whole machine
won't actually work.

These forests are home to
the magnificent sequoia trees.

We're currently right
in this zone.

And these are the great forests
of the Sierras.

This is where the bulk of
the giant sequoia trees live.

Greg's plane is
a flying laboratory.

From 10,000 feet,

he uses lasers to reconstruct
the entire forest in 3D,

capturing a million
and a half trees an hour.

Looking good back there?

Yeah, it's looking good.

Yeah, super clean data.

♪ ♪

The technology
is a huge leap forward.

It's game changing.

You can't really see

what the trees are doing
with the naked eye,

but instrumentation lets us
peel away the foliage

and see the chemicals
in the foliage.

Greg's measurements
provide a clue

to one of the surprising
mysteries of climate change...

Why aren't things
actually worse?

We knew from Dave Keeling's
measurements

that the carbon dioxide
concentration

in the atmosphere was rising.

We knew roughly how much coal

and oil and gas we had burned.

And there was a certain amount
of carbon dioxide

that wasn't showing up
in the atmosphere.

Now the question is,
where did it go?

We can calculate

how much carbon dioxide
we are putting into the air.

And we can measure how much
carbon dioxide is in the air.

But, intriguingly,
those numbers do not add up.

The increase in the
atmosphere is only about 50%

of what we're actually
putting into the atmosphere.

So half of what we emit
isn't even staying there.

It's going somewhere else.

Given how much we are emitting,

levels of carbon dioxide should
be much higher than they are.

So where has all
the carbon gone?

Finding the answer is essential

to predicting
our climate future.

Yeah.

With his sensors,

Greg is able to detect
some of the missing carbon.

Okay, let's focus here
for a while,

and, yeah, keep that on top.

His instruments can peel back
the canopy of the forest below

to reveal the chemical makeup
of each individual tree.

In this image, the red shows
areas of high carbon;

the blue, low carbon.

Forests soak up carbon dioxide,
and they put it

into wood, leaves, roots...

You know, the basic
building blocks of the tree.

And that carbon
is held in that tree.

Although trees breathe in
carbon dioxide in the spring

and exhale it in the fall,

overall as they grow,
they store some of that carbon.

This helps cool the atmosphere
by reducing heat-trapping gases.

All around the world,
Greg is precisely recording

the carbon content
of millions of trees.

From this kind of research,

the impact of forests
has become clear:

they are helping us... a lot.

Trees are soaking up about a
quarter of the carbon dioxide

that we're putting
into the atmosphere per year.

And so without that subsidy,
without that service,

we would actually be in
a more precarious predicament,

making our atmosphere
even hotter.

The land... part of earth's
climate machine...

Is playing an essential role,

because trees
are absorbing about 25%

of the extra carbon dioxide

that is heating our atmosphere.

It turns out that the oceans
are doing the same.

Of every two molecules of CO2
that we put into atmosphere,

one of them gets absorbed
by the surface of the planet.

Half of it by the oceans
and half of it by land.

Without these,

the problem would be worse than
twice as bad as it is already.

And there is another way that
the oceans are helping us...

They are absorbing heat
from the atmosphere.

When we talk about warming
of the climate system,

we tend to focus
on the atmosphere,

but the lion's share of the
warming in our climate system

is in the ocean.

Viewed from space,

Earth has been described
as a blue marble.

Our planet is a water world.

And it is largely
uncharted territory.

The oceans really are
our final frontier.

It's 70% of our planet,

so we have to understand
what's going on there.

♪ ♪

There is no better place
to understand

just how the oceans
dominate our climate

than here in
the Southern Ocean...

The massive body of water
encircling Antarctica.

But getting that understanding
can be treacherous.

The Southern Ocean
is as mysterious,

and inhospitable,
as any place on earth.

The whole ocean is a mystery,

but the Southern Ocean
has been the ultimate mystery.

Stephen Riser of
the University of Washington

is on board the research vessel
Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Stephen is one of the leaders

of a multi-year
international effort

to investigate
how our oceans are changing.

He is now zeroing in
on the Southern Ocean.

It's a very difficult place
to work.

Even in good conditions,
the weather is terrible.

In the winter it's ice-covered,

so we largely have no idea
what goes on under the ice.

Nobody in their right mind
goes there in the winter.

Along with teams
from around the world,

he is building fleets
of underwater drones,

called Argo floats,
to do the work.

These robots
are pioneering explorers...

Designed to probe parts
of the earth never seen before.

Back deck, this is Bridge,
go ahead.

Hey, just checking in.

We're right about
a hundred meters right now.

In the Southern Ocean,

Stephen launches one
of these underwater floats,

and then it's on its own...
Hopefully for years to come.

The float is launched
at the sea surface,

it will signal to the satellite
that it's okay,

it will drop
to a depth of 3,000 feet,

drift for ten days,

then drop to 6,000 feet briefly,

and then as it ascends back
to the sea surface,

it will collect data all the way
up with all of its sensors on.

These sensors take
the vital signs of the ocean,

including its chemistry
and temperature.

Once at the surface,

the floats beam that data
to a satellite,

before diving back down
and repeating the cycle.

You never know
what you are going to get,

but every observation
is a gem in its own right,

because there aren't
very many of them yet.

We've been blind
about the oceans.

It's just been a dark room.

And the Argo floats are
like flipping on the lights.

For the first time, you can
actually see what's going on.

So far over 3,000 floats

have been launched
all around the globe.

They now pepper our oceans,

dutifully collecting data
on an unprecedented scale.

We suddenly have a
three-dimensional measurement

of the ocean

that's essentially continuous
in time over the last ten years.

In one summer,
we collected more data

than we had
in 50 years previously

of all of oceanographic
measurements.

With this information,

the Argo floats have transformed
our understanding of the ocean.

The water
in the ocean circulates.

At the surface, it is warmer,

but in the deep ocean,
the water is very cold

and has not been exposed
to the atmosphere

for hundreds of years.

It is in the Southern Ocean

that this deep, cold water
rises to the surface.

The Southern Ocean
is this gateway

between the deep ocean
and the atmosphere.

There's not many places
in the global ocean

where that deep water
can contact the atmosphere.

Once at the surface,

the deep, cold water
that scientists call old water

soaks up heat like a sponge.

That older water has not been
in contact with the atmosphere

for a long time,
since before the industrial era.

And so this is water
that hasn't seen any of the heat

that has been accumulating
in the climate system.

When that water does
come up to the surface,

it is able to take up
that excess heat.

The Argo floats reveal
that over the last 30 years,

the ocean has heated up

by an average of
a half degree Fahrenheit.

This may not sound like a lot,
but the impact is enormous.

When the oceans change
in temperature by a little bit,

that is storing
the same amount of heat

that the atmosphere would store

by changing in temperature
by a lot.

If we put all of that heat
into the lower atmosphere,

the atmosphere would heat up
by about 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's how much heat
we're talking about here.

We have already
warmed the atmosphere

a degree and a half Fahrenheit.

Without the help of the ocean,
it could be much hotter.

In all, a staggering
93% of the heat

that we're putting
into our atmosphere

is getting soaked up
by our oceans.

♪ ♪

This comes with consequences.

Heating the ocean
and adding carbon dioxide

are damaging to life in the sea.

As you change one component
of the climate machine,

you affect the others...
Which can have benefits

but can also lead
to devastating consequences.

And one of the most urgent
questions of all

is what will happen
when the warmer air and ocean

come into contact
with the polar ice caps?

In a helicopter over Greenland,

David Holland
of New York University

wants to find out
how warmer temperatures

are affecting this
actively shrinking glacier.

Today's mission is to place
motion trackers

directly on the ice.

We are going to go to
three locations on the glacier

and see if we can begin
to understand

how large glaciers disintegrate.

Constantly moving,

this glacier is filled
with crevasses,

which makes it
extremely dangerous.

So David has brought along
Brian Rougeux,

an experienced mountaineer.

It is dangerous in terms of the
helicopter being able to land,

and dangerous certainly in terms
of being able to walk around.

They reach the first location
David has picked,

but there is no way to land.

After 20 minutes, they find
a spot that could work.

Let's give it a shot.

But the ice here may collapse

under the weight
of the helicopter.

They must do what is known
as a toe-in.

A toe-in is where
the helicopter will come in

and set its skids down
on the ice but not power down,

so the ice doesn't get
its full weight,

just kind of touches down
just enough

to give me an opportunity
to hop out, get the gear out,

and then he's able
to take off again.

Without landing,
the pilot drops off Brian,

and lifts off.

♪ ♪

This is the Jakobshavn Glacier.

Ice as far as the eye can see.

It's difficult
to really put into words

what it feels like
to look around

and know that miles of ice
are surrounding you.

And then you have
in the back of your mind

the only way out of there
is that helicopter.

You're certainly not
walking out.

♪ ♪

On the western coast
of Greenland,

the Jakobshavn Glacier is one
of the fastest disintegrating

glaciers in the world.

The glacier meets the sea
here...

where icebergs break off
in a process called calving.

In 2015,
an iceberg twice the size

of the Empire State building
breaks off

and floats out to sea.

Speeding up a year of images
reveals the glacier advancing

as ice flows from inland.

But from space,
satellites show the glacier

is actually retreating.

In one decade it lost ten miles.

The Jakobshavn ice stream

is pretty much the fastest
glacier in the world

and it drains huge amounts
of ice

from the Greenland ice sheet.

And the draining of ice
from Greenland

appears to be accelerating.

It's almost like uncorking
a bottle of wine, right?

There's all this pressure of ice
wanting to flow to the sea

and as you remove
that resistance in the front,

that ice will accelerate.

Back on the glacier,

Brian has been working quickly
to install instruments

that can reveal how the ice is
moving behind the calving wall.

Brian signals to the helicopter,

and they swoop in
to pick him up.

It's a successful deployment.

The data from
the motion trackers,

and other high tech devices
like this radar,

are giving Holland new insights
into how glaciers disappear.

What he has found is surprising.

For glaciers in contact
with the ocean,

warmer air causes
some of the loss of ice,

but the real trigger for intense
calving is warmer water

coming underneath the glacier
and destabilizing it.

And David says that changing
winds and currents

are bringing that warmer water

up from the gulf stream,
increasing the loss of ice.

People have begun to understand
that half the ice loss

occurs through calving,
through fracturing of ice.

This calving is a concern,
because ice melts slowly.

But it fractures in an instant.

The fracture
and breakup of the glacier

could actually dominate
everything.

If that's the case,
then the retreat of glaciers

in could be much faster
than previously thought.

And the reason we care
is there's about 23 feet

of sea level equivalent locked
up in the Greenland ice sheet.

If it were all to disappear,
oceans would go up 23 feet.

That's not going to happen,
but...

well, in the near future.

But it is shrinking,

it is losing ice to the oceans

and oceans are rising
as a result.

The same loss of ice
is unfolding

on the other side
of the planet...

Only on a much bigger scale.

Locked up in the Antarctic
ice sheet

is a total of 200 feet
of possible sea level rise.

And this vast continent of ice...

Especially the western part...

Is breaking up faster
than anyone thought possible.

There is a huge amount of water
locked up in the Antarctic.

The only question under warming
is how rapidly that ice

could melt or slide
into the ocean.

♪ ♪

The melting or break up
of all that ice

would devastate much
of civilization as we know it

as sea levels rise
and flood cities and coasts.

♪ ♪

So how much sea rise
can we expect

from today's increasing
temperatures,

and how quickly?

♪ ♪

The answer lies
half a world away

in a remote corner of the
western Australian outback.

Andrea Dutton
of the University of Florida

has traveled here to work out
how high sea levels

could rise in the future
by looking into the past.

Earth has done experiments
for us in the past.

It hasn't warmed up
perhaps as quickly

as we've seen
over the last century,

but it has been this warm
before.

Okay, fire her up.

By drilling deep into this rock,

Andrea can travel back
to that time

when Earth was as warm as today.

Every time someone takes
the drill for the first time

they look at me and they say,

"That was really hard."

It is rock.

So it takes a long time
to collect a little bit of core

but it's worth it
because it give us

a really important window
into the past.

Oh!

Oh, there we go.

Now we're not mucking around.

Inside the cores,

she finds fossils
of ancient coral.

♪ ♪

There is only one way to explain
what that coral is doing here...

This whole landscape
was once underwater.

An ancient coral reef
extends more than a mile in

from today's coastline.

At one location, Andrea finds
some of these ancient fossils

exposed and rising
above today's waterline.

It looks like concrete,

but you can see little pieces
of corals poking up.

Corals only grow in the ocean.

So wherever there are
fossilized corals,

there must have been seawater.

The corals that we are looking
at need sunlight to survive,

so they live very close
to the sea surface.

We use that to our advantage

to understand
where that sea surface

was in the past by looking at
how high the coral is.

By mapping this ancient
Australian reef,

Andrea is able to tell
how high sea levels were

the last time Earth
was as warm as today.

You can see the waves breaking
on the shoreline below me.

Where I'm standing

I'm already more than nine feet
higher than that.

We know the seas must have risen
at least to that level

to keep these corals alive.

Andrea has found similar coral
formations around the world

from this time period that point
to even greater sea level rise.

Our research shows

that with just the amount of
warming we've seen today,

that the seas could rise
much higher...

Up to 20 to 30 feet higher
than today.

This enormous increase
is due in part

because warmer water
has a greater volume.

But it also means
that at that time

some of the world's great
ice sheets must have collapsed.

Today, sea levels that high

would devastate cities and
communities around the globe.

About a third
of the world's population

lives within 60 miles
of the coast.

What's not clear is how long
that process will take.

The big question is how fast?

Does it take us 500 years
to get there?

Well, that's one thing.

Or does it take us a hundred
years to get there?

That's three feet in a decade.

That's a lot.

In Antarctica we see
massive glaciers breaking off,

adding to the amount
that sea level is rising.

Two thirds of the world's
biggest cities

are within just a few feet
of sea level.

And you can't pick up a city
and move it.

So when will we start to feel
the impact of sea level rise?

Some people already are.

The Marshall Islands are
a nation of low-lying islands

in the Pacific.

They are home to 50,000 people
and a vibrant culture.

Today, they face becoming
a new kind of refugee:

a climate refugee.

We're only like two meters
above sea level,

so every time that there's
a high tide,

all this water gushes over
and crashes into our homes

and washes away graves.

You feel really small.

These floodings are going
to continue to the point

where we can't live there
anymore.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet
from the Marshall Islands.

For her family,
it is their homes

and their very way of life
that is at stake.

What's going to happen
to our culture,

our traditions?

We're hoping to not become
nomads.

We're hoping to not become lost.

There are songs and chants that
you can't hear anywhere else.

What will happen to those
stories that have survived

for thousands of years?

There's just things
that you can't find

anywhere else on Earth,

that you can only find
in the Marshalls.

From the Marshall Islands,

please welcome
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner.

Kathy has become
the voice of the Marshalls,

addressing the United Nations
with a poem to her daughter

about the world she will face.

Dear Matafele Peinem,

I want to tell you
about that lagoon,

that lazy lounging lagoon
lounging against the sunrise,

men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you.

They say you will gnaw
at the shoreline,

chew at the roots
of your breadfruit trees,

gulp down rows of seawalls

and crunch through your island's
shattered bones.

Her words are an attempt
to bring the realities

of climate change to people who
believe it will not affect them.

With only a passport
to call home.

It's kind of hard to connect
to an issue

that you don't see outside
of your own front door.

You know, I understand that.

It doesn't stop it
from being a reality, though.

If our island goes down,
who do you think will be next?

It's going to be
the rest of the world,

it's just going to start
with us.

The results of climate change
are in fact already striking

the rest of the world...

And much closer to home.

For those people
who don't believe

that sea level rise
is happening,

all you've got to do is come
to Norfolk, or Charleston,

or Miami, or New Orleans,
or San Diego

because you could see evidence
of this

in every one of those cities.

This walkway that was

once supposed to allow people
to walk

and enjoy the water
is now underwater.

Sea level rise is now a reality
even in the United States.

And low-lying cities
like Norfolk, Virginia,

are on the front line.

Today is a king tide...
One of the year's highest...

And an omen of what is to come.

This floods all the time.

So, like, when that happens,

we'll like take our furniture
and like stack it up.

It's been much higher
than this before.

It's sort of annoying to have
all this flooding all the time.

The flooding may be
annoying today,

but it will become a tragedy
if it continues.

Norfolk is an important
commercial port,

and home to America's
largest naval base.

You have Naval Station Norfolk,

the largest naval station
in the world.

Our national defense

is certainly impacted
by what's happening

in the community outside.

Sea levels here have risen about
18 inches since World War I,

about half of that related
to climate change.

For this
strategically important port,

the rising water
is literally getting in the way.

Folks live and reside
in the communities

right outside of the base,

and on a daily basis
they must get to the base

to perform the duties that are
vital to our national security.

Sea level rise means

there's just that much more
flooding.

And that means that there's just
that much more impact to roads,

logistics infrastructure,
moving cargo back and forth.

And so that just makes it
that much harder

for you to prepare that ship
to go

and for the crew
to prepare themselves to go.

According to retired
admiral Ann Phillips,

climate change
is a national security issue.

It's about readiness.

The Navy does see climate

as an impact to its readiness
and its ability to be resilient.

From a national security
perspective,

sea level rise is
a threat multiplier

or a threat magnifier.

But to the people who live here,

coastal flooding
has an enormous personal cost.

This house has flooded
three times.

I just don't know...

I don't know how we'd be able
to sell the house honestly,

I really don't.

Donna Woodward and Jim Schultz
doubted they could sell

their house
and so decided to raise it up.

It came down to deciding
whether we wanted to go ahead

and move out of the area

or put all the money into
elevating the house and staying.

It's happening now,
not in the future.

Today it's happening,
as we stand here.

So anyone who doubts it,
we invite them

to buy all of this property here

and to come live
and see for themselves.

Sea level rise affects me
in ways

I had not thought of.

You know, I need to be able
to get to work.

I bought a truck
that has a snorkel.

Sea level rise affects
everyone here personally

and that is going to continue
to accelerate.

We have no time to waste,

the situation is urgent.

For the people of Norfolk,

climate change is already
affecting their lives.

And across all of America,
the costs are mounting.

On a single day in 2017,

a satellite recorded
three mega-storms

bearing down on the Americas.

Meteorologist Paul Douglas's
weather team

has never seen anything like it.

It's terrifying.

This is easily going to be

a $300 billion year
for hurricanes.

2017 was the costliest
hurricane season on record.

Harvey alone caused catastrophic
flooding in southeastern Texas,

with financial damages
that rival Katrina.

And Puerto Rico was devastated
by Hurricane Maria.

Warmer oceans
don't trigger hurricanes,

but the hurricanes that do
spin up naturally

have a greater potential
to become extreme.

You can think of
warm ocean water

as the fuel supply for these
big heat engines

in these hurricanes.

In a warmer climate system,

hurricanes will have more
octane gasoline to draw from

in the ocean.

And that drives
these large powerful storms.

♪ ♪

Wildfires in the
western United States

have quadrupled since the 1980s,

exacerbated by drought.

We're seeing wildfires burning
greater and greater areas

the hotter and drier it gets.

♪ ♪

Effects like these are being
felt across the planet,

and some are even accelerating
the warming itself.

See that?

Yeah.
The red is bad.

When trees

that have been helping by
pulling carbon dioxide

out of the atmosphere burn down,

much of that carbon
is pumped back into the air.

Big climate events have had

massive implications for how
much carbon is not just stored,

but released back
to the atmosphere.

And in the Arctic, ice that
has been cooling the planet

by reflecting away
some of the sun's heat

is melting.

The loss of ice
means more warming.

It's a self-compounding effect.

As temperatures warm
and ice starts to melt,

the ice and the ocean system
absorb more energy,

which causes the temperatures
to warm more,

which causes more ice to melt
and so on.

Once it begins,
it wants to run away in big ways

that will further accelerate
climate change.

We're so completely
vulnerable to our climate.

We're just incredibly vulnerable
to changes in our climate,

especially rapid changes.

♪ ♪

As virtually all peer-reviewed
scientific research confirms,

the case for climate change
caused by human activity

is overwhelmingly clear.

It's real, it's us, the
risks are serious,

and the window of time
to prevent

widespread dangerous impacts
is closing fast.

A lot of times people ask me,

"Doesn't your work terrify you?"

And, yeah, it does.

It keeps me awake at night
sometimes,

thinking about my children

or what will become of my state
or my country,

or my relatives in the future.

It is a scary thought.

But what gives me hope
is that we understand this,

and we have
an incredibly good idea

of what is about to happen.

So we actually can do something
about it.

To do something
about our climate future,

we need to know what lies ahead.

It's kind of as if
you're driving down

one of our dead straight roads
here in Texas.

You can be driving
down the road,

even staying in your own lane,

if you're driving along
looking in the rearview mirror,

because the road is
completely straight

so where you were in the past
is a perfect predictor

of where you're going to be
in the future.

But what if you're driving
down this road,

looking in your rearview mirror
and a giant curve comes up?

You're going to run off the road

because the past is not a
perfect predictor of the future

if the road is changing.

To see the road ahead,

scientists at the Geophysical
Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

in Princeton, New Jersey,

are working to turn
our understanding

of how the land, sea,
ice, and air interact

into a powerful simulation
called a climate model.

Using nothing but basic physics,

we can actually produce in
our computers a virtual Earth.

With this virtual Earth,

scientists like Kirsten Findell

work to predict
where our climate is going,

before it's too late
to change course.

♪ ♪

The first step is breaking
the climate machine

into its core components.

Every climate model

has four major physical
components represented.

We represent the ocean,
we represent the land,

the sea ice, and the atmosphere
all around the earth.

Within those four components,
we also then break up the earth

into little grid boxes.

And then we can slice up
the atmosphere into thin layers

and slice down into the ocean
to thin layers in the ocean

and down into the soil.

Once they have divided the
system into manageable parts,

they use well-established
mathematical equations...

Grid box by grid box...

To run the model forward
in time.

These models are amazing.

They can produce weather
systems, even hurricanes.

They can produce droughts
and floods.

Worldwide,
there are dozens of models.

They predict how each part
of the climate machine

will change, like sea
surface temperature,

storm intensity, or the
extent of the ice caps.

Every detail is included.

But the path to perfect models
is still a work in progress

because Earth's climate machine
is such a complicated one.

The role that clouds play,
for instance,

is important
but poorly understood.

And the speed at which
ice sheets will break apart

is another big unknown.

We're definitely making progress

on making better predictions,

but there is still an enormous
amount about the climate system

that we don't fully understand.

But the models can be checked

against things we know,

like air temperature
over the past hundred years.

The models can be started
in the past, and run forward...

The blue line shows the average
of those predictions.

When compared with the actual
temperature record... in red...

Their accuracy is revealed.

Computer models don't exist
in isolation.

We calibrate them
against what we've observed.

We test them against the history
of climate change.

And we now know
they're pretty good.

The models can be used to run
a virtual experiment.

If we continue emitting carbon
dioxide on the path we are on,

what do they say our world
will look like in 2100?

This map shows how temperatures
could change.

The models predict the average
temperature could be

five to 10 degrees Fahrenheit
hotter.

That means in New York City,
days with temperatures

over 90 degrees
would more than triple.

And in the Arctic...
Which will heat up even faster...

It could rise on average
more than 15 degrees.

One of the things we understand

really well about
our climate system is that

if you crank up the average
temperature of the planet,

it is going to fundamentally
change your weather.

Their results suggest
we will see more

category four and five
hurricanes and the prevalence

of devastating heat waves
will be much more extreme.

The models also show
that by the end of the century,

it is likely the ocean will rise
one-and-a-half to four feet.

Without major changes,

this would put parts of cities
like Miami underwater.

And new insights are coming in
all the time.

The work of David Holland
and other scientists suggests

that if large parts
of western Antarctica break off,

eight feet or more
of sea level rise by 2100

is not out of the question.

All bets are off for Antarctica.

That is a place where very large
sea level rise

on the scale of a hundred years
is quite possible.

That doesn't mean
it will happen,

but it actually
could physically happen.

♪ ♪

The road ahead is a world
that could be increasingly hard

to live in.

The question now
is what can we do about it

to reduce the possible damage?

We're going to figure this out,

because in the end,

we are not going
to have a choice;

we're going to have to
figure this out.

The path ahead comes down
to three basic options.

We can do nothing,
and suffer the consequences.

We can adapt
as the changes unfold.

Or we can act now to mitigate,
or limit the damage.

The options are connected.

The more we mitigate,
the less we would need to adapt.

The more we adapt and mitigate,
the less we would suffer.

Society has only three options;

and if we want to minimize
suffering,

as should be our goal,

we need to maximize both
mitigation and adaptation.

Adaptation is perhaps
most urgent in the ocean,

which right now is bearing
the brunt of climate change

by absorbing most of the heat.

Billions of people
depend on the sea for food

or their livelihood.

As temperatures rise,

many species of marine life
are moving to cooler waters

threatening local fisheries.

And warmer water is killing off
coral reefs,

which support about 25%
of all life in the sea.

This photo was taken in Florida
in 1975.

This is the same reef now.

We've lost 50%
of the world's reefs

in the last 30 to 40 years.

That's... I mean even when
I say it, I have to be honest,

I still find it shocking
and I want to find a reason

for that figure to be wrong.

But it's not wrong.

The majority of the world's
reefs will be dead by 2050.

Ruth Gates runs the coral lab

at the Hawaii Institute
of Marine Biology,

and is working to save the reefs
by helping them adapt.

If there's any bleached corals
that we see

we want to get those tagged.
Sounds good.

Today, her team is out
monitoring the health of a reef

in Kane'ohe Bay.

Coral reefs may be a case study
in the devastating effects

of climate change,

but they also offer a lesson
in survival.

If 50% of the reef has died,

let's just turn that around
and talk about the fact

that actually 50% the reef
has survived.

Our question is why?

To help answer that question,

the team prepares
a sample of coral,

puts it in water and places it
in a cutting-edge microscope

that can view living coral
in real time.

Under ultraviolet light,
we can see the coral

filled with algae or tiny plant
cells that give it a red color.

They are essential
for the coral's survival

because they provide nutrients
the coral needs.

Where you see the bright red,

that bright red is the pigment

deep inside of the
tiny plant cells.

They power the system.

Ruth can turn up the heat of the
water and watch what happens.

The coral belches out
the plant cells

in tissue that looks like
a black cloud,

turning the living coral
from a vibrant red

to a lifeless, empty black.

But not every coral reacts
to heat in the same way.

Ruth and her team work
to identify and grow hardy coral

that can better withstand
the heat.

If we had a lot of time, this is
exactly what nature would do.

Essentially, it kills off
the ones that can't survive

the new conditions
and then it selects

for the best of the best.

She calls these winners
super corals...

Look at that!

And hopes to use them

to repopulate reefs
around the world.

There is no time to waste.

It's mind-blowing
to think about it.

You know, a species
who have been on the planet for,

you know,
over 200 million years,

wiped out in less than 50.

Gates says that if coral
is to survive, it must adapt...

And fast.

♪ ♪

And, ultimately, so must we.

Adapting to our changed climate
is already in the works

in places like
Norfolk, Virginia,

where streets
are regularly flooding.

♪ ♪

What are we going to do

to make sure that we can adapt?

What are we going to do
to bounce back and evolve?

What actually changes
from what we see now?

Colonel Jason Kelly of the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

is overseeing a plan
to cope with the rising water.

The city has to change.

Norfolk is reimagining itself
in a way that will

permit resilience.

The Army Corps of Engineers
has proposed spending

more than $1.5 billion

on an adaptation plan
for Norfolk

to keep it operating
for the next 50 years.

The plan includes
a five mile flood wall,

water retaining parks,
and surge barriers.

But adaptation can only go
so far.

Houses are still at risk,

and managing a few feet
of sea level rise

is a lot different
than the worst-case scenario

of eight feet by 2100.

Keeping all of that water in
the river will be a challenge.

It can be done,
but it's going to be

a very different city
if it's eight feet.

Across America,
cities are drawing up plans

to adapt to the impacts
of climate change,

whether that's too much water
from rising sea levels

and stronger storms...

or too little water,
from harsher, longer droughts.

You start to talk about
different ideas when you realize

that we have a big problem
on our hands

and we have to consider now
how to fix it.

But there is a way to avoid
the worst impacts

of climate change
in the first place.

The more we mitigate...

Or limit how much
our climate changes...

The less we will have to adapt.

That will require
shifting our economies

away from burning fossil fuels.

The good news is technology
is moving so fast,

there are many alternatives.

The scientific toolkit
finally got big enough

to crack this thing.

Wind and solar
are much further ahead

than anybody ever thought
they would be ten years ago.

They're growing
impossibly rapidly.

♪ ♪

The proof of that
rapid transition

can be seen in Findlay, Ohio.

Middle American, blue collar,

and home to a Whirlpool factory
spinning out dishwashers.

This is Whirlpool's
Findlay Operations.

We have roughly 2,700 employees
that work here,

and we make over 15,000
dishwashers a day.

At this factory cheap power
is essential to the bottom line.

We are constantly looking
how we perform better

day in and day out.

We looked at our energy cost
rising.

Can we reduce the cost

of the energy that we consume?

To get the energy
this factory needs,

Whirlpool decided to add a twist

to their production line
of dishwashers...

wind power.

There's enough wind energy
if you could capture it

to lighten the world.

The question is how much of it
can you capture.

Whirlpool turned to Jereme Kent,

a 32-year-old CEO of a company
that is taking on

the big utilities
by harnessing wind power

right at the factory door.

Our wind turbines directly power
the customers they serve.

We take utility scale
wind turbines

and we install them for
the biggest power users around.

In terms of how we operate here,
you would not know

that 15% of our power
is generated by wind energy.

Nothing has noticeably changed
at this factory,

apart from long-term
energy savings.

Wind is such good business
for Whirlpool,

they ordered seven more turbines
for other plants in Ohio.

We aren't doing this because
it's good for the environment.

We're doing this because
it's good business.

It happens to be good
for the environment.

It happens to be great
for the environment.

But that's secondary to the fact
that it has to have

a real business need if you want
to run a business around it.

Wind technician is one of
the fastest-growing professions

in America... And for
Jereme a dream job.

I got into this business

because this was
the coolest thing I could find.

You're telling me I get to go
out and play with cranes

that weigh a million pounds and
build a 400-foot-tall structure.

Okay, where do I sign up?

♪ ♪

These turbines
are over 40 stories high,

with rotors the size
of a football field.

Each can produce
enough electricity to power

up to 400 homes...
Or make a lot of dishwashers.

It's time to innovate
and it's time to change.

Instead of having one plant
that makes a thousand megawatts,

let's have a hundred plants
that make ten megawatts.

Or a thousand plants
that make one megawatt.

We're going to want to run
the production model...

Kent has developed
an innovative approach

to a tried and tested
technology: wind.

Others are developing
entirely new technologies.

♪ ♪

One of the best places
to see that in action

is at the
National Renewable Energy Lab,

or NREL, outside of Denver.

Think of it as an
invention factory

for carbon-free,
renewable energy.

They're working on
endgame technologies

that fully fill the gap
between where we need to go

and the track that we've been on

since the beginning
of the Industrial Revolution.

So where do we need to go?

Jet fuel made from plants,

taller, more powerful
wind turbines,

better batteries,

and the next generation
solar cell.

It's not every day that you
get a chance to really work on

a technology that could really
change the way we live.

And this is going to change
the way we generate electricity.

It's really exciting.

Hey, Rosie.

Joseph Berry and his team
are working

to re-invent the solar cell.

♪ ♪

The sun is the biggest energy
source we've got access to.

And if you look at
how large that resource is

in comparison to what
we use, it dwarfs it.

The problem is that

manufacturing and installing
today's solar

is still relatively expensive.

That's where Joseph

and the other scientists at NREL
come in...

They think they've found
a game changer

in a class of materials
called perovskites.

We love perovskites.

This is the coolest
solar material,

I'm going to say ever,
but certainly the coolest

solar material
in the last 20 years.

We can make it so easily,

we could make an awful lot
of it,

we can make it really cheap,
and we can make it really fast.

What perovskites can do
is remarkable.

Similar to the silicon
that is currently used

in most solar cells,

they take energy from the sun
and turn it into electricity.

But while silicon requires
exacting production techniques,

perovskites are easy
to work with

and can even come in a bottle.

Think of it like an ink.

The nice thing about
working with liquid things

is that you have a wide variety
of ways you can apply it.

We can even put it on
with a paint brush.

With just a few strokes
of perovskite paint

these solar cells can generate
power as efficiently as silicon.

That's what makes it
completely transformational.

Imagine being able
to integrate it

into essentially every
road surface, into fabrics.

We're really talking about
a future where solar

is integrated into everything
that...

everything, full stop...

Your house, your car,
your jacket.

The whole shebang.

♪ ♪

While perovskites
are still several years

from hitting the marketplace,
already it is cheaper

to create energy from solar

or wind than building
new power plants

that use coal or nuclear.

But the wind
doesn't always blow,

the sun doesn't always shine,

and changing our entire
existing energy system

is not going to happen
overnight.

Fossil fuels still account

for 80% of the world's
total power,

and many people rely on them
for their jobs and livelihoods.

What if we could still burn
fossil fuels,

but without emitting
carbon dioxide?

♪ ♪

That's an idea
they're developing

at Saskpower in Canada.

One of the four coal-fired units
here has been modified.

Instead of releasing
its carbon dioxide into the air,

it is captured and pumped
more than two miles underground

where it is effectively stored.

That facility takes CO2 and
injects it deep under the earth.

There aren't more of these
right now

because there's no
commercial reason to do them.

There's no economic incentive.

While carbon capture may be good
for the environment,

it's not good for business.

So is there a way
to make it pay?

There are many things
that can be done

scientifically and technically,
but the question is

how much does it cost and
is anyone going to pay for it?

Where others
see a waste product,

Lisa Dyson sees potential.

When people think of carbon
they often think of

fossil fuel emissions.

But carbon is everywhere.

We're made of carbon,
we're a carbon-based life form.

Carbon's in our food,
our yogurt, our ice cream,

our, you know,
cheese sandwiches.

Lisa has started a company
that uses microbes

to take carbon dioxide and turn
it into something we can use.

So we have carbon dioxide
bubbling into these bioreactors

and we have single celled
organisms...

These super-charged
carbon recyclers...

That are making complex
molecules like proteins.

The microbes ingest
carbon dioxide

and help convert it
into products like protein

or oil for food, plastics,
even cosmetics.

We do it because it's good
for the planet,

but we go to the companies
and we show them

how it will be good
for their business.

Lisa envisions a day
that our choices

for solving the climate crisis

are not just suffer, adapt,
or mitigate...

But also prosper...

By learning to recycle
carbon dioxide

into useful, everyday products.

If carbon capture
and renewable technologies

become more widespread,

carbon dioxide levels
will stop increasing.

But even reaching that goal
may not be enough

because we would still have
record high levels,

continuing to warm up
our planet.

We may need to find a way
to pull more carbon dioxide

out of the air than
we emit into it

to go into what's called
negative emissions.

We don't just have to
go to zero emissions.

We've actually got to go
negative.

We got to suck stuff out.

Fortunately, there is a way
to do this already built into

the climate machine...
Photosynthesis.

A very simple way to remove
carbon dioxide from the air

is called photosynthesis.

Plants do it every day for free.

For geologist Dave Montgomery
and his wife Anne Biklé,

solving the climate crisis
starts in their own backyard.

When we bought our house
in north Seattle,

the yard had really wretched
soil.

It wasn't what
my gardener wife wanted.

The first step was improving
the soil

by adding extra plant material

and enhancing
the natural process.

Plants pull carbon in from
the air and turn it into sugars.

They pump some of those sugars
down into their roots

to feed microorganisms,

which use the carbon
to build healthy soil.

And when the plants decay,

more carbon is added
to the soil.

But modern gardening
and agriculture

can disrupt this process,

and send the carbon
back into the atmosphere.

When Dave and Anne moved into
their new house,

the carbon content of the soil
was less than 2%

and looked like this.

About a decade later,
it's much richer

and packed with carbon...
Almost 10%.

Those are big changes,
going from a percent or two

to pushing 10%
over our whole yard.

That's tons of carbon
sequestered

as a consequence of gardening.

♪ ♪

And what works
for this small garden,

could work for enormous fields.

We could do the same thing
on the world's farmland

and sequester an awful lot
of carbon;

enough to take a bite out
of global fossil fuel emissions.

Come on.

That is precisely what
Minnesota farmer Dave Legvold

is now doing.

Good dog!

This is 40 years
that we've been on this farm

and I've been farming.

When Dave started working
on the farm,

he found the soil
was in bad shape.

It was abused for about
30 years.

And I watched my soil
washing downhill

and leaving my farm

and I thought,
"This is not good."

On most farms,
the soil is tilled... or plowed...

To reduce weeds and pests.

But in the process,
much of the carbon gets dug up

and released back
to the atmosphere.

Dave decided to go another route

called no-till farming.

Every time you harvest

you leave the residue
from that crop in place,

so there is a protective blanket
on the top of the soil.

So here we have residue
left from last year's corn crop.

Corn stalks, leaves, an
occasional corn cob.

Not tilling helped the soil
become healthier.

Despite the benefits, no-till
remains an unorthodox method,

so Dave has a fair share
of neighbors

who think he's a bit crazy.

The neighbors look at a no-till
field and they say,

"Oh, my goodness.

How can you grow a crop
in that shabby-looking field?"

But at the end of the season,

my yields are as good or better

than the fields
that have been tilled.

Not only is the soil healthier,

but it absorbs much more carbon.

No-till... combined with
other agricultural techniques...

Could capture
more carbon dioxide

than is emitted by all
of the cars in the U.S.

We need to fundamentally rethink
how we do agriculture,

focused on soil building,
soil health,

putting carbon back
in the ground,

and if we're able to do that
then agriculture could be

a major contributor
to very positive changes

related to global climate.

In the climate machine,
the land already absorbs

significant carbon dioxide
out of the air.

The right agricultural practices
could absorb even more...

As would planting more trees.

There are even high-tech
artificial trees in development

that could absorb up to
a thousand times the carbon.

There are many strategies
to address the climate crisis.

It's likely we'll need
all of them.

We need more renewables.

We need to surmount
the challenges

that face expansion
of nuclear energy.

We need to do better
at energy efficiency.

We need to learn how to remove
carbon dioxide

from the combustion gases
from fossil fuels.

We've got a lot of work to do.

For over 200 years,

in every corner of the globe,

scientists have probed
Earth's climate machine,

developing a deep understanding
of how it works.

They have proven
beyond reasonable doubt

that climate change
is happening.

And that burning fossil fuels
is the primary cause.

They have built computer models
that can predict the road ahead.

And they have come up
with ways to adapt,

or solutions to avoid
the worst of the impacts.

But there is one powerful
piece of the climate machine

so unpredictable
and inconsistent

that no computer model
could ever guess

how it will behave...

Us.

You know,
there are some people who say,

"Well, the future of
climate change is too uncertain

to justify action today."

But, in fact,
the largest uncertainty

about the future of climate
change is what we decide to do.

In terms of how temperature
is going to change,

what's going to happen to our
drought and our flood patterns,

how much sea levels
are going to rise,

one of the biggest uncertainties

are what are the choices
that we are making today.

Figuring out how to respond
to the climate crisis

is where science meets politics.

And the issue has become
highly contentious.

Up until about 2008,

there was bipartisan support
for climate action.

But it's been turned into

a political football,
and that's unfortunate

because Republicans' homes
are going to flood

just as readily
as Democrats' homes.

I know it's we're living in
a divisive era.

I know it's divisive out there
politically.

But the oceans are warmer.

That's not a model,
that's just going out

and measuring the temperature.

Meteorologist Paul Douglas...
A conservative...

Was once skeptical
of climate change...

How bad was your town hit?

But now is convinced
we must act.

Our text line is 81807.

We want to hear your stories
too.

We need to get past denial

and we need to find
some common ground.

We can debate policy,

let's not debate the facts.

♪ ♪

The scientific evidence is so
clear about where we're going.

But there is an astonishing
inertia.

We're not mitigating fast enough
to stop the train crash.

The technological solutions

make it inevitable that we will
solve this problem.

The question is just how much
damage we create

before we finally rein it in.

We can wait.

We can do nothing for 50 years,

but we will have dug
a much, much deeper hole

for ourselves to climb out of.

The evidence for human-made
climate change is solid.

Solutions for how to stop
or slow it are available.

The greatest uncertainty is us.

♪ ♪

This is not a problem far off
in the future.

Nearly two billion children
alive today,

like Matafele Peinem
of the Marshall Islands

and Aaron Myran
of Norfolk, Virginia,

will live to see what happens.

Depending on how we respond,

they could inhabit
a very different world.

This "NOVA" program
is available on DVD.

"NOVA" is also available
for download on iTunes.

♪ ♪