Making 'History:' UC Prof Featured in New Cable Film on Climate Change

One of the largest classes taught at the University of Cincinnati this fall will take place Sunday, Nov. 11, at 9 p.m.

Fortunately, if you miss it, you can "attend" again at 1 a.m. on Nov. 12. And again at 5 p.m. Nov. 17, and at 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Nov. 27.

Those occasions are when the History Channel will be showing its new documentary on climate change, "A Global Warning?" Featured prominently in that show is one of the newest members of the UC faculty, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Kenneth Tankersley.

"I look at opportunities like this as just being a bigger classroom," says Tankersley, an archaeologist who studies Ohio Valley pre-history. He is also a veteran of several other documentaries. "When this film airs, it will be shown in 15 countries and many tens of thousands of people will be watching. It’s a way to communicate what we study to the public."

In this case, as the title suggests, the topic is climate change. Tankersley has traveled around the world examining the archeological record for input on the history of climate variation. What he continues to discover – in places as far flung as the Arctic in this latest documentary – is that every sign is pointing towards significant climate change.

"What I’m very interested in has always been how humans adapt to climate change," says Tankersley, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UC (the latter in 1982), and who came to UC this fall after seven years as the head of the Native American studies program in Northern Kentucky University’s anthropology department. "The archaeological record goes back globally more than two million years, and here in the Ohio Valley it goes back to about 13,000 B.C. During that time, there have been many, many periods of global change. And during each time, people have lived through them and adapted to them."

Which isn’t to suggest that what lies ahead of us is all sweetness and light. Not at all.

Ken Tankersley, Professor in Anthropology,Êwhose research on  climate change was featured on the History Channel. ÊKen inspects a 2000 year old Gorget (French term for armor).  This was found at Shawnee Lookout Park and was most likely worn by a Hopewell clan chief or mother.

Tankersley in his lab with a 2,000-year-old gorget, a kind of armor used by Native Americans found in this region.

Periods of rapid climate change produce great stress for the earth. These are times often marked by mass extinctions, disruptions in food cycles and – among humans – chronic warfare.

Tankersley believes we are in a period of rapid change now, and that those changes can manifest themselves much more quickly than most people realize – sometimes in as little as the span of one lifetime.

"Based on the work I’ve done and that of other scientists involved with the project, the record shows us how quickly this can occur." And Tankersley advises that, while the name global warming suggests one kind of outcome in people’s minds, there’s actually risk at the other extreme.

"Most people don’t realize it, but one of the dangers of global warming is that it can jump-start us into another Ice Age," says Tankersley. "Put all of that ice from the poles out into oceans, and you’re at risk for really altering the currents in those waters."

In other words, we would be well-advised not to mess with the Gulf Stream. That flow of ocean water helps keep Europe temperate – without it, parts of Europe are at the same latitude as places in North America where polar bears live, so the potential is there for very difficult conditions.

Ken Tankersley, Professor in Anthropology,Êwhose research on  climate change was featured on the History Channel. Ê

Looking at an artifact

"A Global Warning?" offers the latest in research by Tankersley. One topic he addresses is the theory advanced by some in the field that warm and cold cycles occur naturally and are predictable.

"All of the new data that you see in this film demonstrates that that is not true," Tankersley says. "There is no cycle. No two periods of climate have ever been the same. The only constant of climate change is change. There are no analogies to the past."

So, while we know what the past has brought, it’s our immediate future that is generating so much concern today.

"Everyone’s interested in what this means for the future," says Tankersley, who has previously been a part of documentaries for National Geographic, the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. "They’re especially curious about the economic side of things. The economy is a big focus of what I study, from the human angle. What we see when we have rapid climate change to the cold is that the resources people need to survive become very scarce."

That leads to a handful of predictable outcomes: people, plants and animals either adapt, they move or they go extinct.

The complexities of the relationships between those groups are the same questions that Tankersley first heard about in UC classrooms during the 1970s as an undergraduate student. He says he’s amazed they have remained as relevant today as they were then, and that he’s thrilled to be back at UC pondering them.

"I love the University of Cincinnati. It’s so nice to be back here," says Tankersley, who fondly recalls his intellectual curiosity being piqued by people like Professor of Geology David Meyer, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Barry Isaac and the late Professor of Geology Kenneth Caster. He was even directed to Indiana University for his doctorate by UC Provost Tony Perzigian, the same program where Perzigian had studied.

"I think it’s a dream come true, being able to return to the department and also because what I study is right here in the Ohio valley," Tankersley says. "I’ve been around the world, but actually what you can find here in this region in archaeology is fascinating stuff."

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