Feel the heat of global warming at Birch Aquarium


Most people have heard the warnings about global warming; a new exhibit at Birch Aquarium will give people the chance to issue the warning themselves.

“Feeling the Heat: The Climate Challenge” will open at Birch Aquarium on May 19. The exhibit presents the scientific facts about climate change while highlighting the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s half center of global leadership in climate research, as well as presenting ways that people today can help solve the climate challenge. The exhibit includes several interactive features, including the California 2050 Newsroom, where visitors can enter a mock television newsroom and read a simulated weather forecast for California in the year 2050.

“We actually have a mock newsroom where visitors can go in and read from a teleprompter, so they are very much connected to the information. That was an emphasis (for the exhibit),” said Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of the aquarium. “(The forecast) will say things about hotter temperatures, increased wildfires, less snowpack and therefore, less water.”

The exhibit is the culmination of a huge effort for the aquarium and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, of which the aquarium is considered the public face. More than 20 Scripps scientists worked as advisors for the exhibit, which has been in the works for over two years. The idea for the exhibit was originally conceived more than four years ago, Hillgarth said, and its opening was timed to coincide with new developments in the study of climate change.

“We knew four years ago that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report would be coming out in May 2007,” Hillgarth said.

A preview of that report, which is a compilation of climate change research performed by scientists around the globe, was released in spring and stated in more emphatic terms than ever that human activity is causing changes in our climate that will have dramatic repercussions in the decades to come.

“The exhibit is opening at a time when the world is talking about global warming,” Hillgarth said. “It is our responsibility as the public center for Scripps to provide our visitors the chance to learn the science of climate change.”

Scripps researchers have long been at the forefront of that science. Late Scripps scientist Charles Keeling was one of the first people to measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The graph of those levels was one of the iconic images in Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “An Inonvenient Truth,” and is also prominently featured in the exhibit.

Other features include images from around the planet that offer insight into enviromental changes that are already underway. Visitors will be able to magnify microscopic fossils to explore how scientists track temperature across centuries.

The exhibit’s designers also hope to educate the public about how they can help the situation. One feature of the exhibit includes a quiz that tests visitors’ knowledge about whether everyday activities contribute to climate change or help reduce its effects, as well as presenting ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Dr. Debbie Zmarzly at Scripps was the project scientist for the exhibit, and a huge part of her job was deciding what aspects of the huge subject of climate change to present in the exhibit.

“It was up to her to distill down the essence of the most important things,” Hillgarth said. “There is so much information. She addressed the problem of what was most important to tell.”

Other major advisors on the project included Richard Somerville and Tim Barnett, Scripps scientists who participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The exhibit is planned to be in place for three years, Hillgarth said, but certain aspects are expected to change over that time span.

“We have deliberately digitized some parts so they can be updated as new information becomes available,” Hillgarth said. “I think one of the exciting parts of the exhibit is that we have new knowledge coming in all the time.”

The climate change exhibit is the first of its kind in San Diego. It is appropriate that it take place at Scripps because of the critical role the oceans play in shaping global temperature, Hillgarth said.

“The oceans and the atmosphere are intimately connected,” she said. “If you change one, you change the other.”

Birch Aquarium at Scripps is at 2300 Expedition Way. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Call (858) 534-3474 for more information.