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Smithsonian tackles global warming

by: Frank Davies    17 April 2006

WASHINGTON - While hammering home the impact of global warming and the potential harm "to life on Earth," two Smithsonian Institution exhibits opening this weekend carefully sidestep the hot political issue of what should be done.

"We don't take one point of view or another," said Christian Samper, director of the Museum of Natural History. "But this is certainly topical, and we want to spark a discussion about what to do."

Global-warming activists have called for sharp reductions in the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and the majority of scientists agree it is a serious problem.

The administration, however, has downplayed the consequences of climate change, and President Bush has said that mandatory limits on carbon dioxide could hurt the economy.

The rapid warming of the Arctic is "like the canary in the mine," showing the rest of the world what may be next, warned Ernie Hilsenrath, a NASA program scientist who worked on the exhibit.

One exhibit shows the dramatic human consequences of global warming in the Arctic, and the other graphically charts recent changes in the atmosphere, including images of "pollution hot spots" captured in the latest NASA satellite photos.

Photos illustrate how the seasonal melting of the Greenland ice sheet has increased 16 percent from 1979 to 2002. Hunters, fishermen and herders say the warming trend has made the weather unpredictable and endangered their livelihoods.

"We can say nature is mixed up now," Veikko Magga, a reindeer herder of 50 years, says in the exhibit, which includes video and audio clips.

Data from NASA's Aura satellite, launched two years ago, show the impact on air quality of several sources of pollution, from the burning of tropical forests in the Amazon and Africa to the industrial output of East Asia.

The caption under a smoggy photo of popular Shenandoah National Park reads: "Our national parks are a good place to get away from ozone pollution, right? Wrong."

Scientists from NASA and other agencies have complained in recent months that the administration has stifled their ability to speak openly about global warming. James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the administration tried to cut off his access to the public after he advocated cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, a contributing factor in global warming. Last month, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin issued new guidelines making clear that researchers are free to speak their minds.

"We had no difficulty in presenting our scientific findings," said Philip DeCola, a NASA program scientist.

NASA scientists hope the Smithsonian displays will motivate the public to think about the issue and support changes in policy.

The museum is the most popular natural-history museum in the world - with 5.5 million visitors last year - and the timing might be right. As NASA Web editor John Weier has written, global warming "has become as rooted in our public consciousness as Madonna or microwave cooking."

Hilsenrath pointed out that the Aura satellite has shown that a change in human behavior can make a difference. The data indicate a gradual improvement in the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere over Antarctica, 10 years after the banning of damaging chemicals.

"To do something, the public needs to be informed," Hilsenrath said. "That's part of our job."