See for Yourself

James E. Girard reviews Global Warming Facts and Our Future at the Marian Koshland Science Museum.

By James E. Girard | November 22, 2008

Global Warming Facts and Our Future
Marian Koshland Science Museum
The National Academies
500 Fifth St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
(202) 334-1548

Situated just a few blocks away from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academies of Sciences seeks to engage the general public in current scientific issues that impact their lives. One of the current exhibits in this intimate museum, “Global Warming: Facts and Figures,” explores the facts about climate change, including its potential causes, both natural and human, and the possible future effects of global warming. The exhibit asks the question, “What evidence can be used to make decisions related to climate change?”

The designers of the exhibit have taken care to place the museum’s beautiful environmental photographs and state-of-the-art interactive displays within gray metal grid work that makes the exhibit area an open, welcoming place. Huge graphic displays reaching from floor to ceiling plot the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration and average global temperature from the Ice Age to modern times. We are reminded how climate change is measured over long spans of time with an exhibit that shows visitors how to assess atmospheric carbon dioxide changes: it includes a radial cross section showing the rings of a Sequoia log, a sediment core from the ocean floor, coral cores, and the data collected by weather balloons. On display as well is the life-sized “Bessy the Science Cow,” who pokes her head out of an exhibit to remind us that there are greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide (e.g., methane) that contribute to global warming.

The most impressive feature of this exhibit, however, may be the many interactive displays that pose questions and ask museum visitors for answers. At large computer kiosks, visitors are asked to consider such responses to climate change as planting more trees, increasing energy efficiency, and protecting wetlands and coastal areas. Participants are then shown some projected financial, environmental, and quality-of-life trade-offs necessary for these responses to take effect, and they are invited to record which trade-offs they are willing to make. The computer then generates a comparison of a user’s responses with an average of responses of previous visitors. Visitors’ responses will additionally be compiled by Pennsylvania State University researchers as part of a study on ways to make these trade-offs part of public policy.

A display entitled “Climate Change Hits Home” shows the impact of global warming on the Chesapeake Bay. Global warming is projected to cause a rise in sea levels around the world due to warmer temperatures and melting glaciers, and current estimates of the amount of sea level rising by the year 2100 range between several inches and nearly three feet. The latter scenario would likely cause the loss of coastal ecosystems such as the Chesapeake Bay. To illustrate just how devastating sea level rise may be, this interactive display, which projects a giant map of the Chesapeake Bay region, allows visitors to raise the sea level and watch cities disappear.

Another display, “A Changing but Uncertain Future,” plots atmospheric carbon dioxide and average global temperature for the next 100 years using the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab model and the National Center for Atmospheric Research model. Both models predict that global warming will increase in the next century as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration increases, that warming will be greatest in northern regions close to the pole and that warming will be greater over land than over water. The two models disagree only on how great those increases will be.

Although the Koshland Science Museum welcomes primary schools to bring groups to view its exhibits, the information presented in this exhibit is too complicated to be easily accessed by young children and as such may not hold their attention. This is a serious exhibit that poses seminal questions that should be at the center of our social, economic, and political debate. It will help visitors understand the facts about climate change, and it will make them think about the future.