What do you do as a geoscientist?
I’m a climate scientist interested in past archives of climate change. I explore warm climates of the past to help understand future climate change. I look at the ocean’s role in moving around heat and carbon in the earth’s system.
What is your data, and how do you obtain it?
I work on marine sediment from the bottom of the ocean. Within this sediment are tiny fossil shells, the size of a single grain of sand. The chemistry of these fossil shells, formed by protists called foraminifera, can be used to reconstruct temperature, ice volume, carbon chemistry, and many other properties of the ocean. In the laboratory, I chemically clean these shells to remove contaminants and analyze them by mass spectrometry. Using the minor and trace elements of these shells I’m able to reconstruct climate conditions from a warm period approximately three million years ago, the Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to be similar to today with human inputs.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
My research contributes to our understanding of climate change by understanding the most recent period of sustained warmth. One focus of my research is to understand the tropical Pacific Ocean through time and how it influences global climate. The importance of the tropical Pacific is exemplified by the ocean-atmospheric changes during an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which alters global climate. Today, the tropical Pacific is characterized by a western warm pool and an eastern cold tongue. The thermocline, the uppermost layer of the ocean within which temperature decreases rapidly with depth, plays a critical role in this tropical Pacific temperature pattern and ENSO development. During the warm Pliocene, records show the eastern tropical Pacific was warmer than today. My research shows the thermocline was deep which contributed to the warm temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific. This altered tropical ocean-atmosphere dynamics which we call El Padre (figure below).
What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
I’ve cultivated a group of phenomenal collaborators that I enjoy working with. We ask questions that are relevant to future climate change and are inspired by each other’s dedication.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Take a programing class! I started coding in graduate school and although I am by no means a master coder, I’ve been able to explore datasets and examine relationships in climate data.
To learn more about Heather’s research, you can follow on her on Twitter here or visit her website.
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