The Insider

Chief Climate Change Scientist

Lara Hansen dives off the island of Ofu in American Samoa to investigate the coral.
Lara Hansen dives off the island of Ofu in American Samoa to investigate the coral. (By Eric Mielbrecht)
By Sandra McElwaine
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Lara Hansen is on a mission to save the penguins from extinction, the coral reefs from fading, the glaciers from retracting and the polar bears from drowning.

In her office, surrounded by photos and memorabilia from her trips to Asia, Antarctica and Africa, the senior scientist for the World Wildlife Fund explains her primary focus: to redesign conservation strategies in order to meet the needs of an ever changing environment. She circumnavigates the globe to investigate, measure and mitigate the effects of global warming. Once in the vanguard, she is now at the center of a vital international issue.

"Everything on the planet is being affected by climate change," she warns. "It's not a problem of the future, it's a problem of now."

Married to a fellow environmentalist, with a 19-month-old son who frequently accompanies her on trips, Hansen grew up in landlocked Iowa fascinated by the sea. She headed to California after high school to study marine biology and acquired a doctorate degree in ecology and worked for the Environmental Protection Agency before joining the WWF in 2001. Her résumé lists teaching positions, awards, citations and research projects as well as books and journals she has published -- at the very end is a category labeled "Special Skills," featuring open water research diver, CPR instructor and EMT.

"I'm a scuba diver -- that's what I do for coral research," she explains. "I'm also an emergency medical technician. I'm waiting for someone to be pregnant, go into labor and be stuck in an elevator with them."

How did you become interested in the environment?

When I was 5 or 6, my father read me an article in Science magazine about ozone depletion, which is what causes increased ultraviolet radiation, and I decided at that point that was what I was going to do with my life.

Do you have a main concern?

The thing I work on most is coral reefs -- I have four or five field projects right now in American Samoa, Central America and the Florida Keys.

Coral bleaching occurs when sea water temperatures increase as little as one degree Celsius [roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit]. They lose their pigment. . . . Pollution can [cause bleaching] so we do things to decrease pollution [and other stresses] to make the coral more resilient to climate change.

Where are the biggest warming problems?

From pole to pole. At the poles, north and south, we see some of the most rapid warming -- ice disappearing everywhere. . . . It is the key habitat of the arctic. A lot of animals rely on it: Polar bears require ice -- they hunt on it; they are also drowning because of ice moving away from the shore. Seals are having the same problem -- they make their maternal dens on the ice [no ice, no den]. Adelie penguins are seeing their population moving and declining. . . . They are trying to find a new habitat to meet their needs. If we move down to temperate regions, we see glaciers melting around the world. Glacier National Park is expected not to have any glaciers in the next 15 years. The joke in the national parks is, they'll rename it Puddles National Park!

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