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The fish of Lake Tanganyika in central Africa have been feeding humans for thousands of years. This tropical lake is so massive that the warmer surface never fully mixes with the cooler water below — creating a one-way drain for the nutrients contained in dead plants and animals that sink to the bottom.

Of course, there has always been occasional mixing, as animals and underwater waves move through the lake. But global warming is driving a bigger wedge between Lake Tanganyika’s warm and cool water zones. As the surface warms at an accelerating rate, like oil on top of water, the temperature divide cuts off this mixing and  starves the surface waters of the nutrients needed to grow enough aquatic plants to sustain fish populations.

Peter McIntyre, associate professor and Dwight Webster Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in the Department of Natural Resources, has been studying Lake Tanganyika for 20 years.

“This lake used to produce 200,000 tons of fish per year. Now, it’s producing half that, at best,” McIntyre said.

“Even with a very small increase in surface water temperatures, the entire ecosystem is collapsing. And this is a key food source for 20 million people,” said Peter McIntyre.

McIntyre joined Cornell last year, as part of a slew of new faculty hires intended to strengthen Cornell’s capacity to understand and address the intensifying challenges caused by climate change. He now co-leads the Adirondack Fisheries Research Program, which is assessing the many ways that New York’s lakes and fisheries are being harmed by rising temperatures and shifting precipitation.

What’s happening in lakes is just one of many examples of how climate change has already fundamentally altered the ecosystems that we rely upon for survival.  Experts agree that it will get much worse.

CALS Impact

As a national leader in agricultural and environmental sciences, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) has a particularly vested interest in understanding climate change, since agricultural producers face the brunt of climate change impacts.

“As New York’s Land-Grant university, we are committed to continuously adapting and evolving to meet the needs of New Yorkers and our global citizenry, which includes addressing the effects of climate change on food and agriculture systems,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS.

As one of CALS’ key strategic faculty hiring goals, over the past eight years, Dean Boor has hired 15 new faculty whose research focuses directly on climate change.

Their work includes understanding the complex interactions between the atmosphere, ecosystems and climate. They are also pioneering solutions for climate resilience, including transitions to low-carbon energy sources and mitigating climate impacts on urban areas.

“Research from CALS faculty hires in climate science and related fields can lead to proactive and predictive strategies and more effective policies to reverse current trends, here in New York state and around the globe,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of CALS.

Dozens of CALS faculty also drive meaningful research by working both in the lab and on the ground to solve the unique climate-driven problems in New York state. From economists to plant scientists, they’re working on better ways to manage threats from variable weather, spreading diseases and insect pests, as well as safeguarding natural resources and human infrastructure.

Deep Climate Roots

David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology, has been studying climate change and its impact on farming and soil health for more than 30 years. He was part of a group of Cornell faculty that attended the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in New York City in 1995, which set the stage for the first UN Conference of the Parties (COP 1) in Berlin later that year.

Wolfe’s academic career began with studying how plants were responding to stressors like droughts and floods. His interest in climate change was piqued in the late 80s, when he saw a simple graph demonstrating that between 1960-1988, atmospheric carbon had risen “dramatically.”

He wondered: how would higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide impact plants?

“What we documented with potatoes, beans, and many other food crops is that, yes, the vegetative part of the plant grew better under high CO2. But if that was accompanied by any heat stress, it would negatively impact the reproductive mechanism – so there would be no beans to harvest, no potatoes to harvest,” Wolfe said. “We also demonstrated that weeds, and especially more aggressive invasive plants, would benefit more from higher carbon dioxide than our crop plants. It changes plant ecosystems.”

For Wolfe’s work with both soil health and climate change, he has traveled the globe, working with farmers, researchers, and governments in Canada, Africa, Indonesia, Mexico, and Europe to better understand the stakes and to advocate for mitigative actions. He co-authored the 2008 and 2014 National Climate Assessments sponsored by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and was lead author of both the Ecosystems and Agriculture chapters of the 2011 New York State “ClimAID” report. He’s also testified before the U.S. Congress several times.

“This issue is more politicized and polarized in the U.S. than anywhere else I travel, and we are quite isolated after our pull out from the Paris Accord,” Wolfe said. “I think we may be turning a corner, though. When I went to D.C. earlier this year, no one talked about it being a ‘hoax.’ Most of them are hearing from their farmer constituents that weather patterns are changing in very unusual ways that previous generations have not had to face.” 

Future Climate Leaders

Cornell students are also increasingly concerned about climate change and interested in being part of the solution. Launched in 2012, the number of students enrolled in the Climate Change minor has grown steadily, said faculty advisor Natalie Mahowald, Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and co-leader of the Climate Risk Working Group at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. Of the 92 graduates, more than 30 completed the minor last year, and another 50 students are currently declared.

“Most of our students are majoring in environment and sustainability, environmental engineering, or earth and atmospheric science, but the minor is available across the whole university, so we have students from fine arts, to development sociology, to animal science, to city and regional planning,” Mahowald said.

Lily Bermel ’21 is majoring in Environment and Sustainability with minors in Climate Change and Public Policy. She hopes that her future career will include international climate diplomacy, which will help balance the needs of smaller, developing countries, which are being hit hardest by climate impacts, against the responsibilities and resources of large, developed countries, which have the biggest carbon footprints.

And she’s already tackling those issues. As part of the course Global Climate Change Science and Policy, EAS 4443, co-taught by Mahowald and Allison Chatrchyan, senior research associate, Bermel and her classmates are partnering with different countries and other stakeholders currently participating in the UN climate change negotiations. Bermel’s group is producing research to aid delegates from the Kingdom of Tonga. She’ll also be attending the UN Conference of the Parties (COP 25) in Madrid next month.

“Climate change fundamentally touches every aspect of life, from individual livelihoods to food to national security, to businesses and supply chains, to biodiversity,” Bermel said. “It’s something that humans caused, but it’s something humans can fix.”  

 

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  

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