NOVA: DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE
Two-Hour Special Premieres Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at 8PM/7C on PBS (check local listings)
BOSTON, MA – Disastrous hurricanes. Widespread droughts and wildfires. Pervasive heat. Extreme rainfall. Something is up with the weather, and scientists agree the trend is not just a coincidence. It’s the result of the weather machine itself—our climate—which is changing, becoming hotter and more erratic. But some people are skeptical of global warming, and one-third of Americans doubt humans are changing the climate. NOVA, a production of WGBH Boston, cuts through the confusion and helps define the way forward in a special two-hour documentary: DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE. Why do scientists overwhelmingly agree that our climate is changing, and that human activity is causing it? How will it affect us through the weather we experience, and when? And what will it take to bend the trajectory of planetary warming toward more benign outcomes? Join scientists around the globe as they explore the dynamics of the air, land, sea, and ice—the major components of Earth’s weather and climate machine—and follow the innovators developing new ways to be resilient, and even thrive, in the face of enormous change.
“Climate change is one of the defining public issues of our times, yet public uncertainty about the science still abounds,” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA. “DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE takes viewers on one of the greatest scientific adventures of all time to understand the workings of our planet, what to expect in the future, and what we can do about it.”
NOVA’s investigation of our changing climate starts with how it affects us most directly: our weather. Are we actually noticing a change in the weather due to climate change? Charismatic career meteorologist Paul Douglas, of Minnesota, thinks so. Once skeptical, he started to detect a pattern over the years that was undeniable: bigger storms in his home state. But how are climate and weather related? And haven’t both always been changing? What is the evidence that our climate is actually changing and influencing our weather? These are the big questions that launch NOVA’s grand exploration of how the weather and climate machine actually works—and why scientists are convinced the planet is warming.
DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE examines why this latest trend is different from other cycles in Earth’s history and shows the evidence that we are the culprit. The film traces the pioneering explorations to understand our changing climate, which began more than 200 years ago, and reveals how scientists established carbon dioxide levels in the air as a major driver of climate and a key factor in regulating Earth’s thermostat. By burning fossil fuels, we humans have changed the composition of the atmosphere, which is now trapping more heat. The documentary then analyzes how the other key parts of the climate system-–the land, sea, ice—will respond, which will determine how much our climate will change, and the impacts. NOVA takes viewers “under the hood” of Earth’s climate machine, following geologists, ecologists, polar scientists, marine biologists, and other researchers around the globe who are delving deep into our natural world at a scale never before possible. Leading climate scientists and experts also offer candid insights throughout—including John Holdren, of Harvard University (and former White House science advisor), Katharine Hayhoe, of Texas Tech University, and Princeton’s Stephen Pacala. Ultimately, the film explores what humanity can do to avoid the suffering that climate change might bring—both by adapting to the changes already underway, and by using technology to mitigate the worst outcomes.
First, the film looks at the air. NOVA travels to the Mauna Loa Observatory, atop a volcano in Hawaii, to meet with atmospheric scientist Ralph Keeling. He reveals The Keeling Curve, which shows how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising sharply, steeply and rapidly. Pioneered 60 years ago by his father Charles David Keeling, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, the measurement is credited with bringing the world’s attention to this phenomenon. NOVA illustrates how we can read the chemical fingerprint of CO in the air’s composition and trace it back to fossil fuels burned by humans. In Antarctica, geologist Ed Brook, of Oregon State University, and other polar scientists drill deep into ice sheets to study ancient air trapped in bubbles in the ice dating back 800,000 years, which reveals Earth’s changes in CO levels over time. NOVA then compares carbon dioxide levels with past temperature. Geologist Andrea Dutton, of the University of Florida, analyzes the chemistry of tiny sea shells from mud cores drilled deep in the sea floor to reveal Earth’s past climate. Encoded in each shell is chemical information that reveals the temperature of when it formed. From the long cores of ocean mud emerges a record of temperature that goes back tens of millions of years—and it rises and falls with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The scientific community’s research confirms that carbon dioxide propels climate and temperature, and that humans are responsible for the currently skyrocketing levels.
How does this trigger the complicated and extreme weather patterns we are currently experiencing? Next, NOVA meets with the scientists studying the dynamic interchange between the elements of the weather machine that work together, balancing and reacting to each other, and determining climate. NOVA looks at what part the land, sea and ice play in Earth’s climate machine, revealing how much land and sea are currently buffering the effects of our emissions, with trees and oceans significantly helping absorb the heat and carbon dioxide. But at what cost? NOVA illustrates the domino effect on the weather machine in the form of increased droughts, intensifying storms and rising sea levels.
Over California’s Sierra Mountains, ecologist Greg Asner, of Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, works at 10,000 feet in his “flying lab,” using lasers to reconstruct the entire forest in 3D. His measurements provide a clue to one of the mysteries of climate change: why things aren’t worse. Trees are helping us a lot—with the world’s forests soaking up 25% of the extra carbon emissions heating up our atmosphere. In the treacherous Southern Ocean, Stephen Riser, of the University of Washington, is deploying fleets of underwater drones, called Argo Floats—pioneering robot probes that are part of an international effort to investigate how our seas are changing. Seventy percent of our planet is oceans, and studies show they are helping by absorbing a staggering 93% of the heat from the atmosphere. It has helped slow the warming, but the consequences can be dire. The world’s oceans are acidifying, sea life is dying, and polar ice caps are melting.
Ice is the other component of the climate machine. NOVA takes a helicopter over Greenland with David Holland, of New York University, and mountaineer Brian Rougeux, for a dangerous trip to research the rapidly disintegrating Jakobshavn Glacier. The loss of polar ice is causing sea levels to rise in ways that could devastate cities and communities around the globe. About one-third of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast. Within the next century, sea level rise of up to eight feet could force people in areas like the Marshall Islands to become climate refugees. In the U.S., low-lying cities like Norfolk, VA, Charleston, SC, Miami, FL, New Orleans, LA and San Diego, CA are on the frontlines and at great risk.
NOVA applies the same climate model to explore ways to cope with and prevent the potentially devastating future. DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE spotlights some of the most motivated and brilliant minds on the planet who are working on solutions to change our course. In terms of the air, it will require a shift to clean energy and away from burning fossil fuels that pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the development of alternative methods and innovative technologies to remove some of the carbon already there. NOVA shows a company practicing carbon-capturing methods in Canada by pumping it miles underground, and also visits a Whirlpool factory in Findlay, Ohio using cheap wind power for big energy savings. Jereme Kent, a 32-year-old CEO, is providing the long-term energy savings by installing utility scale wind turbines for businesses that are big power users. Wind technician is one of the fastest growing professions in America. The film then heads to the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), outside of Denver, an invention factory for carbon-free renewable energy, where Joseph Berry and his team demonstrate why they believe perovskites, a game-changing class of materials, will allow them to re-invent solar cells, manufacturing them more cheaply, quickly, easily and abundantly than silicon.
The land already soaks up significant CO out of the air, and DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE shows how sequestering carbon through the right agricultural practices could absorb even more. There are even high-tech artificial trees in development that could absorb up to 1,000 times the amount of carbon. NOVA also visits Minnesota farmer Dave Legvold, who employs a no-till farming approach, which creates healthier soil and absorbs much more carbon than ordinary farming methods that use extensive plowing. No-till, combined with other agricultural techniques, could capture more carbon dioxide than is emitted by all of the cars in the U.S.
In the oceans, coral reefs support about 25% of all life in the sea. In the last 30-40 years, we’ve lost 50% of the world’s reefs, and the majority will be dead by 2050. To save them, Ruth Gates, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, is working with her team to identify and grow hardy “super” corals that can better adapt and withstand the heat in order to repopulate reefs around the world.
To combat rising sea levels and frequent flooding, some U.S. cities are already adapting. Colonel Jason Kelly of the US Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing a plan to reimagine Norfolk, VA to cope with the rising water--including a five-mile flood wall, water retaining parks, and surge barriers.
NOVA also looks at the many new advancements still to come—by innovators such as Lisa Dyson, who is working with “super charged carbon recyclers”–microbes that ingest CO and help convert it into complex molecules to create useful, everyday new products, like protein and oil for food, plastics, and cosmetics.
By decoding our climate machine and how it works, NOVA reveals an empowering truth: the fate of humanity is in our own hands. The stakes could not be higher, for us and all the creatures that live on this Earth. To alter our planet’s course, we need to act swiftly.
DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE is a NOVA production for WGBH Boston. Writer, producer and director is Doug Hamilton. Co-producer is Caitlin Saks. Senior Executive Producer for NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.
National corporate funding for NOVA is provided by Draper. Major funding for NOVA is provided by The David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.
Major funding for DECODING THE WEATHER MACHINE is provided by the Ives Family Fund and The Kendeda Fund.
Now in its 45 season, NOVA is the most-watched primetime science series on American television, reaching an average of five million viewers weekly. The series remains committed to producing in-depth science programming in the form of hour-long (and occasionally longer) documentaries, from the latest breakthroughs in technology to the deepest mysteries of the natural world. NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston. NOVA airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET/PT on WGBH Boston and most PBS stations. The Director of the WGBH Science Unit and Senior Executive Producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.
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