Scientist Keeps an Eye on the Planet and Beyond

Posted: January 3, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

If you think that movies about extreme global warming, such as “The Day After Tomorrow” or “An Inconvenient Truth,” are all about gloom and doom, try spending an hour with Menas Kafatos.

Kafatos, director of the Center for Earth Observing and Space Research (CEOSR), consistently warns the scientific community and the general public about the dire future our planet faces if we continue doing things the way we have. On his list of consequences are the possible extinction of polar bears, global disputes over water resources, increased severe weather and an influx of tropical disease.

“This is not about pessimism,” Kafatos stresses. “It’s about being realistic.”

Menas Kafatos
Menas Kafatos
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Because the problems facing our planet are global, Kafatos partners with scientists all around the world. He is director of the International Space, Earth and Environment Consortium, working with scientists from Mason and other U.S. universities, NASA and other federal agencies and countries in Africa, Asia and Europe.

He also is a cofounder of the International Consortium for Interdisciplinary Science, which examines interdisciplinary approaches to linking biology with physics, as well as quantum processes with brain dynamics.

In addition, Kafatos is helping to develop an international conference of scientists from Europe, Asia and the United States to examine the spread of pollution worldwide. This includes exploring how harmful particles from dust storms, fires, power plants and auto exhaust affect regional processes and feed back into the climate. Scientists from NASA and the World Meteorological Organization will also be involved.

“Global solutions and international agreements involving all societies are of paramount importance,” he says.

Despite his worry for the planet, he is hopeful that people are finally beginning to pay attention to global warming.

“We are all part of the Earth, and there are choices we make as people, as societies, that affect our future,” Kafatos says. “For us to continue business as usual is like insisting to watch television in a room while the rest of our house is on fire.”

This distinguished professor of Earth systems science and Earth observations has been teaching and researching at Mason for 32 years. Hazards and natural disasters are major areas of Kafatos’s research. He and his team at CEOSR keep their eyes on the continually increasing severe weather patterns and hazards on the planet, from super typhoons in Korea to forest fires in California and Greece.

The CEOSR researchers take satellite data and add computer modeling to analyze warming trends and the resultant effects. Their research shows that a link may exist between the increase of natural disasters on Earth and global warming. What is happening now at the climate variation level, Kafatos says, is affecting natural hazards, such as fires, aerosol pollution, hurricanes and dust storms. In turn, these disasters are feeding back and accelerating climate change.

“The severity and increase of natural hazards are like alarms. These alarms are telling us to pay attention because if we do not, there will be disastrous consequences.”

The consequences to which he refers are more floods and more droughts. Another potential consequence is higher sea surface temperatures, which strengthen tropical storms and hurricanes.

CEOSR researchers post-analyze major storms, such as Hurricane Katrina, to determine the causes of their severity. Kafatos and his team also are working on using satellite data to possibly forecast earthquakes around the world.

Kafatos casts his gaze beyond our planet as well. In his cosmology research, he works with the Indian Statistical Institute on data analysis of quasars, the most distant objects in the universe. Quasars are millions of times brighter than our galaxy, and Kafatos examines the distribution and properties of these objects he believes to be super massive black holes. He also works with physicist and Mason professor Yakir Aharonov and his team on boundary problems of the universe as related to quantum theory.

Whether it is his analysis of our Earth or beyond, Kafatos’s accomplishments have had a major impact on science and science policy for decades. Now, he hopes that his work will have a positive affect on the next generation and the future of the planet.

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