News | March 15, 2016

Seeing our environment through the eyes of a scientist

Among his colleagues, William H. Schlesinger is renowned as a leading ecologist and environmental chemist. Among subscribers to his blog, Citizen Scientist, he is a regular source of insights into what science tells us about our impacts on the environment and what we can do to rein them in. He will share some of those insights and more as featured speaker at the presentation of SELC’s 2016 Reed Environmental Writing Awards on March 18, part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.

The former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University and a member of SELC’s Board of Trustees, Schlesinger has a passion and a talent for translating science into knowledge we can use to inform our decisions—as individuals and as a society. What will you learn from reading Citizen Scientist? Some examples:

  • Air pollution really can kill you; globally it causes an estimated 3.3 million premature deaths each year.
  • Trees cool us down not just with shade, but also by releasing water vapor.
  • Melting ice around the South Pole could push up sea levels 15 feet globally.
  • Heavy use of nitrogen fertilizer produces a powerful greenhouse gas that may be chipping away at the ozone layer, increasing our exposure to damaging ultraviolet light from the sun.
  • Bacterial cleansing in wetlands takes nitrogen out of runoff before it reaches waterways.
  • Pavement and other built surfaces cover more area than remaining wetlands in the United States.
  • If ocean acidity levels caused by carbon emissions get too high, sea creatures can’t form their calcium carbonate shells. 
  • As much as 12.7 million tons of plastic waste reaches the sea each year.

The blog also sounds a steady drumbeat on the dangers of denying human-induced climate change: “We have a few short years—perhaps only a couple of decades—to do something about the rise of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere,” he observes. “Doing nothing about climate change will make us look like a ship of fools.”

Schlesinger’s fervor for sharing the lessons of science grows out of his love of teaching. After leaving Duke to serve as president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, he began reaching out to a new audience of learners with Earth Wise, a daily feature on WAMC Northeast Public Radio out of Albany. He retired from the Cary Institute in 2014, but continues his outreach with Citizen Scientist.

His blog posts always come with reference citations—just what a reader would expect from a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences who has produced more than 200 research publications and is co-author of the leading textbook in his field. So when Schlesinger makes a statement about what CO2 emissions are doing to the planet or the effects of unchecked population growth, you can bet it’s based on solid science.

The 2016 Reed Environmental Writing Awards will be presented at 10 a.m. Friday, March 18, at SELC headquarters on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall (201 West Main Street).