Written by: Siyi Shen, Global Environmental Law Graduate Fellow

Pace Law was honored to have Dr. Robin Bell present the Annual Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Lecture on Environmental Law on October 24, 2018. Dr. Bell is the Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

When you think of Antarctica, what comes to mind? The ice, the penguins, or the frozen silence? But do you know there are actually volcanoes and large lakes hidden beneath the Antarctic ice sheets?

Dr. Robin Bell has not only discovered the existence of a volcano and several lakes in Antarctica, she has also navigated her research on this “forgotten” continent with the vision of benefiting people across the globe.

If anyone was born to be a scientist, Dr. Bell falls into this category. When she was a child, Dr. Bell became obsessed with the TV show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, where the renowned explorer traveled the globe on his floating laboratory, Calypso. As she grew up, Physics became her favorite subject in school. She went to Middlebury College in Vermont, where she realized she could use Physics to understand how the planet works. Dr. Bell received her PhD in geophysics from Columbia University in 1989, and has continued to research and work at Columbia since then.

Walking into Dr. Bell’s office, boxes of papers are everywhere — on shelves, on the desk, and even on the floor. Each box contains a project she has worked on. Dr. Bell says she loves to dive deep into each project, even as she works to integrate across various topics. Among all of her research projects, Antarctica stands out the most — she even had an Antarctic Mountain named for her. This far-away land, and how it changes, impacts everyone. “I went to Mexico this week, and I looked at the coastline,” she recalls. “I suddenly realized I might be able to see where the beach was when the Antarctic ice sheets melted 125 thousand years ago,” she says with a laugh.

Dr. Bell’s exploration of Antarctica has led her in many directions. By studying mountains and water-flows in Antarctica, she has been able to develop a framework for understanding natural phenomena at the other side of the planet. For example, she discovered that when water runs uphill in Antarctica, it freezes to the bottom of ice sheets — a feature she also determined applies to ice sheets in Greenland. “Take what you’ve learned in one place, and use it as a guidebook to understand something else,” Dr. Bell says.

So why Antarctica? Dr. Bell believes it can help people around the world. For decades, Dr. Bell and her team have investigated the impact of climate change on Antarctic ice sheets and how it signals global climate challenges all people face.

To bring science to the general public, Dr. Bell believes scientists need to learn how to communicate, to listen to people’s stories, and to connect with them not only with data and graphs, but also with lines of evidence that people can observe. That leaves a question for lawyers and policy makers: how can we better communicate with scientists in the age of climate change? A starting point is to always keep an open mind — recognize that scientists may have different understandings from legal professionals to terms like “uncertainty” and “imminence” in the climate context. Listen to scientific analysis and learn the language of science. Ultimately, we need good science and good law to work together in combating global warming.

Please check here to watch the entire Kerlin Lecture delivered by Dr. Bell on “Change in Antarctica: What Does It Mean to Us.”