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A Sustainable World: Inspiring People to Act

Thomas Culhane, Katey Walter, and Jon Waterman share their insights on co-existing with the planet at the National Geographic Explorers Symposium.

  • Urban planner and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Thomas Culhane‘s nongovernmental organization Solar CITIES trains residents of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods to build rooftop solar water heaters and other renewable energy, water, and waste management systems. “Whether we’re talking about the specific challenges of energy water waste or the global challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change, many of the answers may lie at the household level…. My wife Sybille and I threw a party at which we invited all the guests to help us build a gray water recycling system, a solar hot water system, and a bio-gas digester. Now we no longer use drinking-quality freshwater to flush our toilet or water our plants, and we turn yesterdays kitchen garbage into today’s cooking gas and liquid fertilizer for our rooftop garden.
  • University of Alaska aquatic ecologist and biogeochemist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer Katey Walter studies what’s been described as a potential global warming “time bomb”: the release of huge volumes of carbon as methane and carbon dioxide from melting permafrost. The process results from, and in turn accelerates, climate warming, since both gases reinforce Earth’s atmospheric greenhouse effect. “How much methane will be produced from permafrost as it thaws in the future?” Katey asks. “Today, permafrost contains 950 billion tons of carbon. The atmosphere has 750, so there’s more carbon in permafrost than there is in the atmosphere. If all permafrost warms and thaws, which it’s projected to do within the upcoming centuries, that will double atmospheric carbon dioxide. But Siberian yedoma [frozen tundric dust from the last glacial age, with a carbon content 10 to 30 times higher than average deep soils] has half of that carbon, so if just fifty percent of the Siberian permafrost thaws beneath lakes—which is consistent with the pattern we’ve seen in the past—then we predict that 50 million tons of methane will come out of Siberian permafrost. That’s ten times more methane than is right now in the atmosphere.”
  • Award-winning author, filmmaker, wilderness guide, environmental advocate, and National Geographic Conservation Trust grantee Jon Waterman sees the world differently after years of isolated arctic fieldwork. “I’ve taken the opportunity over most of my adult life to travel in the north,” he says. “particularly in the far north. This has allowed me the luxury to think outside the box…. traveling alone, sometimes periods as long as a month alone without seeing other people, airplanes, or even boats in the Canadian Arctic, without cell phones and without satellite phones. Accidentally, I discovered that this model of self-sufficiency in which I like to travel in the north allowed me to perceive the land and the seascape anew, to even more readily approach animals that I couldn’t have approached with a team of people, let alone being by myself. So I began to perceive the animate and the inanimate as the same, often: Is this an iceberg or is this a whale’s tail? I found that this perspective gave me a new vision on how to travel through the wilderness.”