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Our planet with Dr Ella Gilbert

Dr Ella Gilbert explains how climate change is impacting the Antartic.
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We’re here today in the Reading Atmospheric Observatory to talk to Dr. Ella Gilbert, a climate scientist who’s experienced climate change firsthand with her research in Antarctica. She’s been featured in the Sunday Times on their Green Power List and has even been featured on Sky News. We’re going to be learning all about her research in the Antarctic as well as her research in regards to aviation and its impacts on climate change. Ella shares her research with the general public so that everyone can really understand the impacts of climate change in regards to her research. And we’re really excited to have her here today to explain all of this to us. So Ella, what really interested you about climate change?
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And can you tell us a little bit about your research? Most of it is because I absolutely loved the outdoors as a kid. And I love climbing trees. I love going swimming in the sea and just really loved nature and the natural world. But I also really like understanding how things work. So when I started understanding that climate and the atmosphere is so mechanistic, so one process leads to another leads to something else, it just seemed like a kind of natural coming together of two things. And climate change is just such a fascinating and important topic. So can you tell us a little bit more about your actual research? In the past, I’ve done quite a lot of Antarctic research.
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I’m really, really keen on the polar regions. I’m a massive cloud nerd so I’ve done a lot of work on Antarctic clouds, how that impacts melting at the surface. The way I like to explain it is it’s like taking the weather forecast, putting a magnifying glass on a specific region, and trying to understand the processes in the atmosphere that contribute to melting over ice shelves. So we recently published some work looking at how ice shelves in the Antarctic might behave at one and a half degrees of warming, two degrees of warming, four degrees of warming. And the conclusions are relatively stark. But my current research is looking at the impact of aviation on climate via the impact on clouds.
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So that’s where the cloud nerdiness comes back in. I’m really interested in figuring out how contrails that come out of the back of aircraft interact with existing high level cirrus clouds, which are those little wispy ones that you get really high up in the atmosphere, because they can have a net warming effect but we really don’t understand the processes that are going on in those clouds. And clouds are the number one source of uncertainty in our projections of future climate change so they really do matter. Brilliant. And what can the aviation industry do to combat climate change?
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So a lot of the time when you think about the climate impact of aviation, you would automatically go to the greenhouse effect of their emissions. And actually, the climate impact of aviation is much bigger than just their CO2 emissions, for example. The non-CO2 impacts are actually around double the CO2 impacts. So aviation and aircraft, they emit particles up in the atmosphere really high up so they also have an impact on clouds. So trying to understand the interplay between these, because some of them will warm the atmosphere, some will cool the atmosphere, and they cancel each other out. But there are all sorts of different complex processes going on that there’s a lot we still don’t understand. That’s really interesting.
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I think a lot of us think it’s just about the fuel and changing to better technology, but there’s so much more behind it that I didn’t even realise. So why is it then important for non-scientific people, non-researchers to be communicating these kind of ideas? Why is it important to communicate to the general public on these things? Ultimately, it’s because climate change affects all of us. It affects you. It affects me. It affects everyone. And if we’re going to make a wholesale systemic change in the way that we do things, everybody needs to be on board. Everybody needs to understand the severity and the scale of the problem. Everyone needs to know what’s at stake.
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Everyone needs to be aware of the kind of benefits that will come with that sort of change that will, a), tackle climate change but also a whole number of other things to make a better future. And if we’re all going to be making those changes, we have to do it together. So ultimately, if we can communicate the benefits and have some conversation about the risks, then people are much more likely to be on board with the whole thing. We talk about the greenhouse effects and its impact on climate, but would you be able to explain that for people? Sure.
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So the greenhouse effect is this phenomenon where you have atmospheric constituents, so little particles in the atmosphere, whether that’s water vapour or greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. And they absorb energy from the sun. The more and more of these greenhouse gases that we get in the atmosphere, the more of that absorption and re-emission happens. So that causes the atmosphere as a whole to warm up. And this is what’s essentially at the root of climate change. So what about the air and the weather? And how is that impacted? And then how does that impact us as well here on land? So climate change exacerbates extremes. That’s extremes of weather.
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Things like flooding, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, you name it, any kind of extreme weather phenomenon, climate change will make it worse. It will make it more intense when it does happen and it increases the frequency with which those events happen. And that has devastating impacts. We’ve talked about a lot of the doom and gloom, the kind of scary stuff that’s happening, scary stuff that might happen in the future. And we have been kind of on a positive note, of we’ve got time still. There’s still time to rectify this. So what is being done at the moment to– what are kind of the big things we’re looking at the moment for the future?
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So I think the things that are happening are on the scale of the international, we’re talking about climate negotiations. November, December 2021 is the COP26 climate summit. That’s going to be a really huge opportunity for us to revisit the pledges made in the Paris Agreement in 2015 which was where countries worldwide signed up to limiting climate change to 1.5 if not 2 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. This is an opportunity for them to actually stick to their guns and demonstrate how they’re going to achieve it, make it legally binding, stick to these pledges, and actually stand up for what we need to do.
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You often see corporations or governments placing the onus on us as individuals to change our light bulbs, to stop flying, and to feel guilty about what we’re not doing or what we are doing, whereas actually the biggest changes can come from those systemic and huge entities, those organisations. They’re the ones that can make the sort of changes that we need to get that wholesale transition towards a cleaner and greener society. Yeah. Absolutely that’s why it’s important to kind of make everyone aware of how drastic it really is.

Watch this video where Emily and Nick talk to Dr Ella Gilbert about her reasons for doing research into climate change. A self-professed ‘cloud nerd’ who has spent time in Antarctica collecting data, Ella explains the processes in the atmosphere that lead to the melting of Antarctic ice shelves and her investigations into how aircraft emissions interact with clouds to produce a warming effect. She explains what the ‘greenhouse effect’ is and how it affects the planet as well as her hopes for COP 26.

Ella really likes understanding how things work. Which natural processes do you find fascinating? We’d like to hear about them, please share your thoughts in the discussion area below.

About Dr Ella Gilbert

Dr Ella Gilbert is an atmospheric scientist and cloud and polar enthusiast, who is passionate about communicating climate science to the wider public. The research she refers to in the video is described in more detail in her Guest Post for CarbonBrief. Ella’s research interests include Antarctic weather and climate, high-resolution regional modelling, the surface energy balance, atmosphere-ice interactions and cloud microphysics. You can follow her on Twitter @Dr_Gilbz and get a feel for carrying out research in the Antarctic in Antarctica: Mysteries of the ice – her talk for kids.

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