Good Life

Geologist searches for a global warming fix in TV special

The backdrops for Penn State professor Richard Alley’s latest lesson are bayous, icy crevasses and stretches of sand dunes. His co-stars are glowworms and camels.

Alley takes his skills for making learning fun out of the college classroom and brings them around the world in a one-hour television program that will air at 10 p.m. Sunday on PBS.

“Earth: The Operators’ Manual” not only looks at the impact of climate change, but focuses on what is already being done about it and what solutions are possible. Geoffrey Haines- Stiles, who produced Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” series, is writer and director of the program, which is the first of three planned shows.

“Optimism and climate change are not usually words found in the same sentences,” Haines-Stiles said.

But they are in “Earth: The Operators’ Manual.” And Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences at Penn State and an internationally recognized geologist, is there to explain why there’s reason for optimism.

To do that, he goes bungee jumping down a glacial crevasse, gets close with a herd of cows in Pennsylvania and explores what he calls a “glorious” cave in New Zealand that’s home to glowworms. The energy efficient creatures make

light to lure in their prey. Alley also tours places like a desert in the southwest United States where solar panels could create sustainable energy.

“The amount of energy that’s available is absolutely incredible,” Alley said. “It’s all there. The question is how to use it.”

To explore that, Alley and the film crew visit places already producing green energy, such as a solar power plant near Seville, Spain, and a geothermal generating station in New Zealand.

The show features another Penn Stater, Rear Adm. David Titley, U.S. Navy oceanographer. Haines- Stiles said 2010 was the first year the Pentagon singled out climate change as a “threat multiplier” in its four-year defense review.

“When the Pentagon says, ‘Yes, climate change is real,’ it might get people to pay attention who otherwise might be skeptical,” Haines- Stiles said.

He read Alley’s book “The Two Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change and Our Future” and found the phrase about the need to create “an operators’ manual for the planet” particularly interesting.

He met Alley at a meeting after that, and said they began kicking the idea for the show around. The project received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Alley said the longer it takes to make changes, the more expensive it gets and the harder it will be to respond.

“I’m a registered Republican, play soccer on Saturdays and go to church on Sundays,” Alleys says during the program. “I’m a parent and a professor. I worry about jobs for my students and my daughter’s future.

“Our use of fossil fuels for energy is pushing us towards a climate unlike any seen in the history of civilization, but a growing population needs more and more clean energy. I believe science offers us an operators’ manual with answers to both of these huge challenges.”

A book by Alley that’s a companion to the program is scheduled to be released this month.

Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648.


“Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” a one-hour show on climate change and sustainable energy hosted by Penn State professor Richard Alley, will air on PBS (WPSU Channel 3) at 10 p.m. Sunday. More information is on the web: