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Bringing Climate Change Home: Science on a Sphere and the World of Objects

In this November 2018 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander considers how NOAA’s Science on a Sphere system, scheduled to arrive at the Museum in late 2019, could be combined with physical objects in the Museum collections to illustrate the history and future effects of global climate change. What new forms of learning and inquiry might come about through integrating digital imagery with material things, as future generations wrestle with the causes and implications of our changing climate?CALIPSO, a joint mission between NASA and the French space agency, CNES, provides new insight into the role that clouds and atmospheric aerosols (airborne particles) play in regulating Earth’s weather, climate, and air quality. (image courtesy NASA's Golbal Climate Change website)

Our climate science colleagues tell us a startling parallel between the present moment and the world 55 million years ago, the era known as the “Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum”— the last time worldwide Carbon Dioxide levels were as high as they are right now. By studying how global systems rapidly altered during the last thermal maximum, scientists are increasingly able to model how our world will transform over the next thirty years, as they project climate dynamics out to the year 2050.

At the MSU Museum, we anticipate that our forthcoming permanent installation, “Science on a Sphere” (SoS for short) will allow us to move back and forth in time, giving our visitors remarkable insights into climate change past, present, and future. SoS, a spectacular system from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), offers the powerful illusion of a sunlit planet rotating in space, onto which are projected complex datasets distilled from thousands of remote sensing platforms, including distant satellites, earth-based observatories, and underwater sensors. We will be able to chart dramatic shifts in storm patterns, ocean currents, sea level rise, food production, desertification, and changing animal migration patterns across land and sea. (If our fundraising drive continues apace, we hope to open this new gallery in October 2019).

This remarkable teaching tool will be even more powerful when combined with physical objects housed in the Museum’s scientific and cultural collections. Integrating digital projections and tangible things will allow our visitors to enter directly into the present-day drama of scientific discovery, an epic quest that can be said, without exaggeration, to be essential to our species’ survival.

66 Million Years Ago

We might start with specimens that help illustrate the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-P) boundary (also known as the Cretaceous–Tertiary, or “K-T,” boundary), the period of mass extinction about 66 million years ago which eliminated the last of the dinosaurs (unless we count birds). Geological layers dating to the extinction event showing a thin layer of concentrated iridium spread around the globe; samples of iridium layers could be displayed to provide highly suggestive evidence of a major “bolide” (exploding meteor) impact. (Iridium, a heavy element, is relatively sparse near the earth’s surface but is more plentiful in objects from outer space.)

Cooler temperatures and a significant decline in photosynthesis following the impact (perhaps intensified by mass volcanic eruptions) may have posed insurmountable obstacles for some large species, while offering increasing opportunities for mammals, including our distant ancestors. Fossils and casts in our collections (some of them touchable by visitors) could be paired with dramatic three-dimensional moving images on SoS, showing the reconstructed atmospheric impact of the bolide strike and patterns of dinosaur extinction. The “Picture in a Picture” function on SoS will allow our students and faculty to create original three-dimensional animated films on the globe, zooming in on specific paleontology excavations around the world. In time, our students might even be able to design an interactive video game in three dimensions, aiming a laser pointer at different points on the earth, to see with their own eyes the atmospheric, oceanic and seismic effects of asteroid impacts on various locations on land and water.

What about the Birds?

In some cases, combining physical objects with new SoS presentations will cast light on problems scientists are still arguing about. Unsolved mysteries, after all, are often the most exciting aspect of a museum visit for our audiences: we want young people to know that fascinating challenges of scientific discovery await their generation.

For instance, scientists remain puzzled by the survival of many bird species following the K-P mass extinction event. Why did the larger flying dinosaurs die out pretty rapidly, while ancestors of modern bird families seem to have established themselves within a few million years after the major dinosaur extinctions? Our students and their teachers might develop original SoS three dimensional films, combined with biological specimens from the collections, to propose explanations for birds’ evolutionary pathways. The theorized massive asteroid impact and/or associated mass volcanic eruptions might have temporarily eradicated major forest systems, eliminating habitats for tree-dwelling flying animals but opening up new opportunities for ground dwelling birds, which were then well positioned, as it were, to colonize later emerging forests.

This kind of exhibition would call attention both to gaps in our current knowledge as well as exciting new scientific developments. Light-boned birds rarely leave behind a detailed fossil record. SoS displays however, could effectively illustrate the reconstructed lineages of modern bird families, through evidence from molecular genetics, going back tens of millions of years. The students’ 3-D visualizations, flipping back and forth between planetary views of bird species distributions and zoomed-in imagery of DNA sequences, could be combined with our modern bird skeletal specimens, to engage our young visitors with up to date scientific inquiry: just what might have given the ancestors of modern bird species “the edge” in colonizing a profoundly different global environment around 60 million years ago? We’d bring the story forward to our most recent discoveries, including newly identified species of owls in southeast Asia, described by our ornithology curator Pam Rasmussen: to what extent can we trace these beautiful animals back to the survivors of the K-P boundary?

Mammals Heading North

Closer to our neighborhood and our time period, we might explore the impact of changing climate on small mammals in the Great Lakes Region since the retreat of the glaciers 10,000 years ago. As demonstrated through research by mammalogy curator Barbara Lundrigan and her colleagues, mammal specimens assembled in Michigan museums over the past hundred years provide a picture of changing population dynamics. As temperatures warmed, species that were once largely restricted to southern parts of the Great Lakes Region, such as white- footed mice and southern flying squirrels, extended their ranges northward, in some cases replacing the northern species that once lived there. Using SoS, students could digitally map out changing climate and mammal distribution patterns based on museum records, and link these dramatic projected images to actual specimens. Visitors could move back and forth between the northern and southern physical specimens and the projected images on the sphere, tracing for themselves the story of how shifting temperature ranges are transforming our region’s ecosystem.

The Fabric of our Lives

In turn, the extensive cotton-made artifacts in our cultural collections, from clothing to quilts, can illustrate the increasing impact of climate change on cotton production the world over. Declines in rainfall and in available water for irrigation in some regions of the globe are limiting moisture uptake into the plant’s flowers and bolls. Intensifying flooding in other areas can overwhelm the tap root’s capacity to absorb nutrients. Rising Carbon Dioxide concentrations can accelerate plant growth but associated rising temperatures could limit insect hibernation periods and increase damaging pest infestations. Student-authored animations on the sphere can illustrate the global spread of cotton cultivation since the plant was domesticated around 3500 B.C., and show projected decrease in production in the coming decades, under conditions of overall warming, unless new crop varieties are rapidly developed.

Pollinators, at Home and Abroad

SoS will also allow us to put an original spin on our artifacts from the Kipchornwonek Ogiek communities of the highland Mau Forest, the largest indigenous forest in East Africa. As demonstrated byOgiek bag to store honey, MSU Museum collection, 1956 the anthropological research of Roderic H. Blackburn, who has generously donated a beautiful collection of Ogiek materials to the MSU Museum, Ogiek lineages have long been centered on bee-keeping practices within the forest, making hives that are placed high in trees, a mode of livelihood that is increasingly endangered by climate change, logging, and other threats to habitat. The Blackburn collection includes skillfully made honey bags, used for transporting honey back to camp to make mead, and honey barrels, designed to be buried for long-term storage deep in the forest, safe from inquisitive honey badgers.

Environmental challenges now faced by Ogiek beekeepers are illustrative of regional and global crises in pollination, as many zones on the planet face striking declines in pollinating insects. Working with the Blackburn collection, our students will be able to author dramatic SoS visualizations, zooming out from three dimensional images of indigenous beekeeping artifacts to remote sensing images of the changing ecology of the Mau Forest, and then out around the globe to explore diminishing colonies of honey bees, associated partly with climate change-stimulated pathogens as well as herbicides.

The Museum is eager, in this light, to partner with MSU Extension’s remarkable “Heroes to Hives” project, which encourages combat veterans to develop bee-keeping skills and become committed and knowledgeable stewards of local ecosystems. Our students and curators will use SoS and object displays to showcase the rise of a mutually supportive network of veteran beekeepers, and relate this emerging Michigan community to international networks committed to restoring and enhancing habitat for pollinating insects all around the globe.

New Stories Ahead

With nearly a million objects in our collections, there are innumerable stories to be told about the impacts of climate change and about the ingenious human solutions that might yet be developed as our species confronts nearly unimaginable challenges in diverse ecosystems the world over. I like to think that in doing this work, the Museum can follow in the pathways of the indigenous Ogiek foragers of Kenya, who pursue some of the oldest life-ways of our species, adapting themselves to nature’s bounty even as they ingeniously and sustainably modulate local ecosystems under difficult environmental challenges. Conjoined to our specimens and artifacts, the glowing orb of Science on a Sphere can serve as a beacon for all of us, casting light through the thick forest cover as we chart our way forward, through the mysterious terrain of our modern Thermal Maximum.