Research professor Cameron Wake discusses glaciers, politics and climate change

By Tim Drugan-Eppich

Staff Writer

Titles like “How to build a Habitable Planet,” and “Climate Change 1995,” line the walls of an office in Morse Hall, with an entire shelf taken up by yellow books titled “Journal of Glaciology.” But there are not just books on the shelves and art on the walls, there is also a desk.  And sitting behind that desk is Cameron Wake.

A research professor in climatology and glaciology, Wake stands slightly over 6 feet with eyes crowded by smile lines. But there is an intensity in his face, weathered from many expeditions to some of the highest points on the globe, that comes out when he speaks about the deniers of his work, and the broader research in the field of climatology.

“The arguments that try to refute the well-established scientific evidence that humans are changing the climate system are ideologically driven,” he said. “They are not evidence based arguments.”

Wake’s current research is not on the ‘why’ question of climate change, but rather on the ‘how.’  Just recently, Wake and a team of researchers went to Denali National Park in Alaska, on the Mount Hunter Plateau, and drilled two 208 meter ice cores at 13,000 feet.  These cores were drilled from the surface of the glacier to the bedrock, unlocking centuries of climate data.

“We’ve seen the increase in melting at the glacier surface in the past several decades,” he said. “And we’ve been able to quantify the actual amount of annual snow accumulation going back 1000 years.  This is the first data set of its kind for central Alaska.”

The cores were analyzed as part of a long collaboration among UNH, UMaine, and Dartmouth.  Their findings will be presented for the first time in several presentations at the 2015 American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco this December.

Even though Wake has been doing this kind of research since he began his P.h.D. in Earth sciences at UNH, which he finished in 1993, his excitement for research has not wilted.

“One of the great joys is getting the glaciochemical data back and analyzing the story that the data is telling you,” he said. “It’s still a thrill.”

Wake first got into the discipline of paleoclimatology through a love of mountaineering.  But as he matured over his research career, what was just a desire to be in the mountains morphed into a passion for science.  

“After a few field research seasons on glaciers, I began to understand the value of the archive and the climate signals that were stored in the snow and ice of glaciers,” he said.  

Wake said that he still loves the adventure going into the field, loves planning for fieldwork, but the actual drilling is best when it is uneventful.

“You hope it is boring, because that means it is going according to plan,” he said. “You’re just sitting there in the cold hoping a core comes back up, but there are always challenges.”

The challenges that Wake faces on a more regular basis involve the political slant his research has taken.  Wake said this wasn’t an issue when he began his career, and when it became one, he was surprised.  The issue of course being the suggestion that climate change is not real, an example illustrated by Jim Inhofe (R-OK)- the chair of The United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works- in his book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens your Future.”  

In an interview with WMUR, Wake offered the idea that ideology can play a huge role in what people choose to believe.  For instance, if you believe that big government is bad, and a problem comes along that calls for big government to solve it, the easiest course of action would be to deny the problem even exists.

“We need to start with what the science is telling us, not ideology,” Wake said. “And the science is crystal clear on the issue that humans are in fact the main drivers of climate change today.”

Wake has done hundreds of interviews and talks around New England.  He decided to concentrate on this area because it makes the issue of climate change and its effects a little more real and understandable to people who live here.

“Talking about climate change from research on glaciers thousands of miles away didn’t resonate as well as I thought it should have,” he said.

In 2009, Wake was appointed to the Climate Change Policy Task force by governor John Lynch as the only academic on the committee.  Through that, he helped forge the state’s Climate Action Plan.

“There are some who can afford to stick their heads in the sand,” Wake said, referring to certain politicians.  “But the people I have been working with can’t.  Individuals and organizations that have to deal with the reality of climate change don’t have that luxury.”

Just a few of the examples given were firemen, police officers, planners, resource managers, emergency responders, and healthcare providers.  Wake emphasized that even the Pentagon, spent a great deal of space writing about the risk that climate change poses to our country’s national security in their 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Defense Reports

But Wake insisted that he, unlike some other climate scientists, is still optimistic.  The solution to our climate crisis will not come at the destruction of our economic system as some critics argue, in fact, quite the opposite.

“Greenhouse gas emissions have been flat or declining as the GDP is increasing in New Hampshire, in New England, and in the United States,” Wake said. “We have to transition from the tyranny of ‘or’ to the opportunity of ‘and.’”

An example of this was the largest economic expansion ever seen in our economy following the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Act in the 1970s.  Wake said that with the scaling up of renewable energy and energy efficiency, jobs will continue to be created.

“It is a big deal to transform the entire energy system on which your society is built,” he said. “Climate change is the innovation opportunity of the 21st century.”

Cameron Wake in Denali National Park Alaska on-site where Wake and crews’ ice drilling expedition took place.
Cameron Wake in Denali National Park Alaska on-site where Wake and crews’ ice drilling expedition took place.