The Field Museum’s “Climate Change” exhibit begins with a 60-foot illuminated timeline showing how the increased use of modern appliances such as cars, airplanes and computers has increased the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and pushed Earth to its limits.
Written in large letters above the daunting timeline are the words: “Using fossil fuels has a cost we hadn’t understood — until now.” The rest of the museum’s temporary exhibit is devoted to explaining just what that cost is.
“For our generation, there is probably no more important scientific issue that we need to think about in our lives,” said Janet Hong, project manager for the Field Museum. “It’s not something to debate.”
The start of the dimly-lit exhibit, which runs through Nov. 28, explains the basics of climate change with an eight-minute video showing how increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, released from burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases, have caused Earth’s average temperature to rise. The exhibit explains that the average rise, 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, can seem small because extreme changes in world temperatures, like those in the Arctic, are not seen in an average. But the seemingly small increase has huge consequences.
Large, rotating globes with Earth’s image projected onto them show visitors how average climates have changed using colors: shifting reds and yellows represent parts of the globe that are heating up fastest. Other globes demonstrate ocean currents and storm patterns, and how those, too, have changed on a global scale.
Much of the exhibit features interactive displays where visitors can get a hands-on understanding of what Earth’s rising temperatures mean for all living things, especially humans.
One display features an eerie diorama showing how much of Manhattan would be underwater if sea levels were to rise 10 to 16 feet, which would devastate New York and destroy many island countries.
A shocking but real specimen of a bony polar bear climbing over mounds of garbage teaches visitors the consequences of melting ice caps. Scientists believe that soon polar bears will run out of room in their native habitats and be forced to invade human territory.
Other displays focus more on plant life. Huge cross sections of trees dating back to 1772 are put under magnifying glasses with the rings labeled so viewers can understand what environmental factors, such as droughts or fires, caused the trees to die after almost 300 years. A diseased coral reef, pale and misshapen, was also re-created to show visitors the effect rising temperatures have had on oceans.
It’s not all bad news, though. The exhibit focuses heavily on simple ways people can make changes in their lives to reduce their carbon footprints. One of the highlights is a series of interactive touch screens that let users choose small actions like changing light bulbs to energy-saving Compact Florescent Lamps, driving less and planting trees, and then shows them on a large screen what the impact would be if large cities made the same commitment.
Some visitors have already taken steps.
“Oh, we use mass transit, cars with good gas mileage, those energy-saving lights, insulation, minimum-flush toilets,” said Janet Fouts, 68, who traveled to the exhibit from Springfield.
Saving our only planet won’t be that simple, though. The end of the exhibit emphasizes — with graphs, models and video— that a combination of conservation, renewable resources, nuclear power, natural gas and carbon capture is the only way to make dangerous climate changes into more manageable climate shifts.
Teachers Grace and David Barger, a couple who traveled from Tennessee specifically to visit the museum, said they are a minority in their town for believing in climate change. However, David Berger plans to lend his students traveling to Chicago his membership pass so they can learn about the effects of humans’ energy consumption on the planet.
“Maybe it will make them think about their world more,” said Grace Berger, 64. “Because it’s not our world anymore, it’s y’alls.”
The Field Museum, located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., us open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. All access passes are $23-29 for adults, $19-24 for seniors, and $16-20 for children.