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Earth: The Operators' Manual, a documentary project funded by PBS and the National Science Foundation, debuts this week.

Raleigh photographer Art Howard documents signs of climate change 

When geoscientist Richard Alley visited Tasman Lake, New Zealand, 30 years ago, there was no lake, only Tasman Glacier. The glacier has receded more than four miles since then.

Photo courtesy of Art Howard

When geoscientist Richard Alley visited Tasman Lake, New Zealand, 30 years ago, there was no lake, only Tasman Glacier. The glacier has receded more than four miles since then.

He's taken his cameras to the North Pole, the depths of the oceans, every continent (including Antarctica) and 45 countries, which makes Raleigh's Art Howard as good a witness as there is to the visible facts about climate change and global warming.

For all the brilliant images he's amassed, however, and a long list of awards he's won for his photography and videography over a 30-year career, the determined environmentalist in Howard knows that for many Americans, the very idea of climate change—whether it's happening, whether humans are causing it—is a hotly debated proposition that not even the most stunning pictures can "prove."

That's why Howard jumped at the chance to work with Richard Alley, an internationally renowned geoscientist, as videographer on a project called Earth: The Operators' Manual, funded by PBS and the National Science Foundation, which debuts this week.

The conveys both the visual evidence that Earth is warming and the science that demonstrates why it's happening. It also explains why it's a critical problem for humanity—one that humanity can overcome if—and this is the point—we can break out of the political stalemate that exists on the planet but principally in the United States.

For this project, Howard, Alley and the crews assembled by Geoff Haines-Stiles Productions went to China, Brazil, Spain, Morocco, Denmark and New Zealand over eight months.

In New Zealand, they photographed a shrinking glacier that Alley studied as a graduate student 30 years ago. Since then, the glacier has receded some four miles due to climate change—a cause-and-effect that Alley can demonstrate.

Alley's research focus is ice, specifically the ice cores that, when extracted from a glacier or polar ice cap, contain a frozen history of the earth's atmospheric and temperature changes over hundreds of thousands of years. The layers in an ice core, like the rings in a tree trunk, allow scientists to count back through the years and measure, for each layer, the temperature of the air bubbles trapped within it and the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

With Howard's camera on him, Alley descends a glacial crevasse to show how the cores are collected. They then travel to a government lab in Denver where ice cores from around the world are stored and studied. Ice cores dating back 400,000 years show that carbon dioxide levels and the earth's temperature have risen and fallen in tandem over the millennia in a predictable range—with CO2 levels in the air always between 180 and 280 parts per million.

But at the end of the 20th century, Alley says, CO2 levels exploded upward, blowing past the 380-ppm level. Given the way atmospheric temperatures have tracked CO2 up and down for all of recorded history, there's every reason to believe that they will continue to do so—and the Earth will warm dramatically.

Seeing this, Howard says, "is like a slap upside the head to me" that the problem of climate change is critical. And the cause? Two words: fossil fuels.

In China, Howard shows how an urbanizing population of more than 1 billion people is building the equivalent of another New York City every year. "They project that in the next 20 years, they'll build as much commercial real estate in China as we have now in the United States," Howard says. "And it all has to be lighted and heated."

To generate electricity, China is building coal-fired power plants at a furious pace, pouring CO2 into the atmosphere at rates rivaling the United States. Unlike the complacent U.S., though, China is investing huge sums of money in coal gasification, a process designed to capture carbon emissions before they go up in smoke, as well as in nonpolluting solar- and wind-generated power.

Elsewhere on the planet, more than 1 billion people live without electricity. But they want it, as Howard shows in a visit to a mountain village in Brazil, and they have a right to get it. "I see it as a moral issue that they have a chance to reach a higher living standard," Howard says.

Like China, Brazil is harnessing renewable energy sources including hydropower and biofuels to improve living standards without endangering the planet. Howard found that the sugarcane grown by Brazilians as an ethanol fuel source is far more efficient fuel for automobiles than the corn we use. "They get eight gallons of ethanol for every gallon of oil they burn to produce it," he says. "We burn a gallon of oil to produce half a gallon of ethanol."

Enormous solar-panel arrays in Seville, Spain, and wind turbines on Samsø Island, Denmark, are evidence that the answer to global warming is within our reach, and much of the world is reaching for it. Interestingly, as Howard illustrates, so is the U.S. military, which is using portable solar panels for base electricity. One reason: In Iraq, where bases ran on fuel oil, the military found it was using 400 gallons of oil to deliver one gallon to a base—and getting soldiers killed trying to deliver it.

As his friends in Raleigh know, Art Howard is a quiet, modest man whose work speaks for him. In Alley, a Penn State University professor and member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he's paired with a loquacious partner once described by The New York Times as a cross between Carl Sagan and Woody Allen. It's a good combination.

Earth: The Operators' Manual begins with the first hour of a three-hour program. Five science museums around the country are participants in the project, including the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, which hosts a preview event on Thursday. A book by Alley, a DVD and resources for classroom teachers are also available. More information can be found at the program website, earththeoperatorsmanual.com.

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