London Science Museum Launches Climate Gallery

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There are few more exciting, gee-whiz experiences than visiting The Science Museum in London.  Airplanes, huge space rockets, early medical instruments and a massive IMAX theater display the breadth of human understanding and technological advancement. So “Atmosphere,” the museum’s new $7 million gallery dedicated to the science of climate change, presented the museum with the  challenges of making a rarefied and statistic-heavy science appealing to a general audience who might get distracted by the huge, shiny machines that hang from the ceilings on the way into the museum.

“Research with our own visitors has shown much confusion about the science behind climate change,” the museum’s director Chris Rapley told Ecocentric on a recent tour of the gallery. “Addressing this was the motivation of the development of the new gallery.”

The centerpiece of the effort to make climate change science sexy is a collection of natural time capsules that help scientists chart climate change through history: a giant tree ring (growth circles), stalagmite slices (yearly growth brands again), fossilized shells from foraminifera (their chemical composition varies with water temperature) and, most exciting, a cylinder of Antarctic ice that contain air bubbles which document the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through the past 700 years. “To look at a piece of ice and realize that part of it came from snow that fell in 1410–that is very exciting,” Rapley says.

The second challenge was to prevent the exhibit, which will be viewed by countless school children, from degrading into misanthropy and despair over man’s role in altering the planet’s ecosystem. The gallery tackles this challenge in two ways: it reminds us that it was humans, such as Joseph Fourier way back in 1824, who first came to understand the earth’s energy balance, detect something foul was afoot, and then figure out it was human activity that was forcing swift changes to the climate. This section includes the original air sampling flask that Charles Keeling used to collect air from a mountain summit in Hawaii in 1958—a process that continues today and which offers the longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the world. “No one should feel there is any blame associated with climate change; we dug up oil, coal and gas to help make the world a much more prosperous place. And it was our own expertise as scientists that helped us recognize that climate change was becoming a problem,” Rapley says. (It might be worth mentioning here that the gallery is sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell, something some British environmental groups have criticized).

The gallery also has a smaller, rather disappointing section that includes a hydrogen-powered car, a domestic energy monitor and a sketch for an “artificial tree” that can suck carbon from the atmosphere. The section attempts to illustrate that humans have the capacity to overcome huge challenges through innovation.”Obviously, we don’t have a technological solution to climate change yet,” Rapley concedes. “But what you see as you walk through the other sections of the museum is that the one unbounded and limitless thing is human ingenuity.”

(Click here to read TIME’s story on whether environmentalism has lost its spiritual core).