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‘Weather buff, scientist and prophet’

03 April 2018

Richard Bintanja is Honorary Professor of Climate and Environmental Change at the University of Groningen and a climate scientist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI). He studies how climate, life and carbon dioxide affect each other, particularly in the North Pole region, in the present and in the future. At the start of the year he gave his inaugural lecture.

Text: Nienke Beintema. This article has been published in our alumni magazine Broerstraat 5, april 2018

He loved a three-day snowstorm as a small boy. He grew up on Ameland, which still breathes the polar adventures of the whalers. His favourite book is Moby Dick. What else could he do but become a ‘weather buff specializing in the polar climate.’ That is how Bintanja phrases it. He gave his inaugural lecture as Professor of Climate and Environmental Change at the UG on 6 February. His polar career has been a long one. In 1990/91 he took part in the first Dutch Antarctica expedition, and in 2015 he was in Spitsbergen for SEES, the ‘biggest Dutch polar expedition ever.’ In between he visited the polar regions multiple times. ‘There’s something about the polar region that takes hold of you once you visit’, he says. ‘The endless skies, the unpredictable world of snow and ice... It really does something to you.’

What is it about the climate that fascinates you?
‘That it’s so incredibly complicated. Everything is interconnected: temperature, sea ice coverage, ice caps, sea currents, algae, CO2... It’s not a linear system in which everything is related one-to-one. I want to understand how exactly the climate system works. Why the Arctic is warming up so fast, for instance, and the effects of this on the ecology and the rest of the world.’

So why is the North Pole warming up faster?
‘The Arctic is warming up as much as two to three times as fast as the rest of the world. In the scenario with the most warming, the North Pole warms up by a further 10 to 12 degrees until the year 2100, even double that in the winter. Warming would have an enormous effect on a country like the Netherlands, but the landscape and ecology would totally change in the polar regions. There is already 40% less sea ice coverage in the summer now than in 1980. Estimates show that the North Pole will be completely ice-free in the summer in about 25 years’ time.

Why is that relevant to the rest of the world?
‘A warmer North Pole sets all sorts of interesting mechanisms in motion that amplify warming. As ice coverage decreases, the earth surface reflects less solar radiation, for instance. The darker base from under the ice – land and sea – absorbs more of the sun’s heat. And then you also have the thawing of the tundra underground. This releases large volumes of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And the organic material that is stored at the bottom of the tundra starts to rot and is converted into CO2. That too increases the warming.’

Richard Bintanja
Richard Bintanja

How is your chair going to add to what we already know?
‘The common climate models calculate what the climate will do based on a given concentration of carbon dioxide. You can then vary this: if you enter another CO2 concentration into the model another climate trend appears. But the concentration of carbon dioxide itself also depends on all sorts of climate factors. Warmer sea water takes in more CO2, for instance, and faster growing vegetation takes up more CO2. And vice versa, CO2 is released as the tundra warms up. We want to include such interactions between the climate, biosphere and carbon cycle in the climate models.’

And Groningen is the right place to do that?
‘Yes, that’s what’s so great about this chair: we are connecting KNMI’s enormous expertise in climate models with Groningen’s expertise in gathering data in the field. These observations are hugely important in validating the models. I work closely with the group of Anita Buma [Professor of Ecophysiology of Marine Microalgae, ed.], for instance. They’re top scientists, with observations of unrivalled quality.’

How do you like Groningen itself?
‘It’s a bit closer than the Arctic at any rate, which is a bonus.’ Bintanja laughs effusively. ‘It’s a great city and I work together with great colleagues. In terms of commuting time, it doesn’t make much difference. From my home in Lelystad I’m in Groningen as fast as I am in De Bilt.’

If we could touch on the climate models again, will they really make the world better?
‘Yes, I think so. As climate scientists we are messengers. Prophets. If we carry on as we are, this is what will happen to the earth. We try to tell politicians and society why they should make changes. And that is possible with good, sound science. We therefore really do play an important role. Being the voice of reason, showing what really is going to happen in different scenarios. So that policymakers can make well-reasoned decisions.’

But are we too late already?
‘I do think we are very much on the late side. The rapid melting of polar ice is something that humanity has never experienced before. The number of polar bears is expected to drop by 30 to 50% in the coming decades. And that’s only the visible ‘cuddly’ animal. There are all sorts of less familiar species that are going to find things very difficult. And are going to be pushed off the planet because of climate change. But politicians still seem to be obsessed with short-term interests. Four-year government terms. There still seems to be a lack of real urgency.’

Isn’t it enough to make you feel despondent?
Bintanja is silent for a moment. ‘Not really, no. As a scientist my main interest is in how system earth works. Not so much in whether it becomes 2, 4 or 10 degrees warmer. I want to understand why it’s becoming 2, 4 or 10 degrees warmer. What the mechanisms are that amplify the warming. For my work it therefore doesn’t matter. I want to use this knowledge to contribute to debate in society. Provide the best possible information. That’s what makes this chair in Groningen so great.’ He smiles.

Richard Bintanja (1967) was made Honorary Professor of Climate and Environmental Change at the UG in 2017. He studied meteorology and physical oceanography at Utrecht University and earned his PhD at the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht (IMAU) for his thesis The Antarctic Ice Sheet and Climate (1995). He has been a senior climate scientist at the KNMI since 2008. He has published multiple articles in top journals such as Nature and Nature Geoscience. He has also written four novels, including Poolreizen (2006), and a book of short stories.

Last modified:03 April 2018 10.42 a.m.
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