FALMOUTH – Max Holmes’s great great great grandmother was born in 1820, long before concerns about climate change.
But Holmes, the deputy director and senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center, has a lot of concerns.
That’s why he has made a chart that begins with that distant relative and ends with his own children in order to chart the warming of the earth.
Holmes said using generations of his family as a visual representation of the speeding up of global warming was a way to “put a face on the issue of climate change.”
Back in 1820, the carbon level in the atmosphere had remained basically the same for 10,000 years, Holmes said. Then carbon levels started to increase, slowly and in recent years, very quickly.
Holmes used his family tree to illustrate that change during a recent event called “A Greener Tomorrow” that mixed culture, science and commerce with past, present and future.
He spoke at the restored historic site Highfield Hall & Gardens, on the edge of the 1,000-acre Beebe Woods in Falmouth, while staff from the Cape Cod Tesla dealership gave test rides in their deluxe electric vehicles and guests gazed at historic and contemporary museum exhibits.
“We don’t sell cars,” Holmes said of the Woods Hole Research Center, referring to the inclusion of Tesla in the event, but he said there is “some alignment in mission” as the research behind electric cars, along with advances in renewable energy could play a part in the urgent efforts to slow down global warming.
From diminishing forests in the Amazon to the thinning permafrost in the Arctic, the research center’s scientists are on the cutting edge of studies of the issue, he said.
The traditional way for scientists to plot the change in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is through a graph called the Keeling Curve. Holmes said he wanted to different way to tell the story.
He explained that his when his great great grandfather, Johannes Forrer, was born in 1847, the level of carbon in the atmosphere was at 284 parts per million by volume, a mostly similar level from the previous 10,000 years.
But when his great grandfather was born in 1873, the level inched up to 288.
By the time Holmes’ grandfather was born in 1903, that level was at 297. At the time of his mother’s birth in 1939, the level was at 311; and at the year of Holmes’ birth in 1965, the level was at 320.
Holmes’ son was born in 2005 when the level had risen to 380 and just a few years later, when Holmes’ daughter was born in 2009, the level was at 387. Now, just seven years later, it is at 403. Surpassing 400 was called in a New York Times article, “an unhappy milestone” that scientists believe will make it difficult to prevent a warming level of 2 degrees Celsius that was agreed to at international climate talks.
Highfield leaders say discussion of the weighty global warming issue marks the first of what they say will be a full range of events and activities geared toward the community as the museum embarks on a new era of engagement with the community.
Partnering with Woods Hole Research Center was a natural fit, said Highfield Executive Director Peter Franklin.
Over the past 20 years, the restoration of the Highfield mansion and grounds has gone from dream to reality, and now the leaders at Highfield are focused on making the venue “a destination with world class programming.” It therefore makes sense that Highfield would partner with the research center, which has been named the number 1 climate change think tank in the world, Franklin said.
The Woods Hole Research Center was founded in 1985 by renowned ecologist George Woodwell and Woodwell was among several dozen people in the audience for Holmes’ talk.
Philip Duffy, president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center, said he wanted to make two things clear at the Highfield event. “We need nature. It is essential to human prosperity and survival.” His second point was, “Global climate change is a threat to the biosphere and human well being and prosperity.”
The Woods Hole Research Center, he said, is focused not just on research about the climate but also, “to make a difference.”
Staff from the research center were scheduled to be participants in the latest round of United Nations climate talks in Morocco, set to begin just days after the talk.
Meanwhile companies like Tesla are positioning themselves to take advantage of the future, while Highfield Hall, a mansion built in the 1878, celebrates the past, an era Max Holmes’s great great grandfather, Johannes Forrer, would recognize.