Ruthie Halberstadt, Glaciologist


Ruthie doing field work in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica, helping to collect a permafrost core that records ice sheet dynamics during the mid-Miocene (a very warm time period ~14 million years ago, the last time that atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today).

What do you do, and how does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

I study ice sheet dynamics in Antarctica, which means that I am interested in the processes that influence how ice mass gets moved off the continent and into the ocean, in either solid (iceberg) or liquid form. The term ‘ice-sheet dynamics’ may be confusing if you think of Antarctica as a giant frozen ice cube. Instead, think of the Antarctic ice sheet as a giant cone of sand – when you pour dry sand on the top of a sand pile with steep edges, rivulets of sand start to form. These ‘streams’ move sand from the top of the pile out to the edges. In Antarctica, the same process (gravity) creates fast-moving corridors of ice – we even call them ‘ice streams’.

OK, so what about the ‘dynamics’ part? Now imagine that your pesky little sister takes a shovel, and removes a chunk of sand at the edge of the pile. Sand will flow into the newly-created hole, right? The same thing happens when warm ocean temperatures melt ice at the edges of the Antarctic continent: ice streams speed up and move more ice off the continent and into the ocean. Warm air temperatures can also increase surface meltwater production which can drain into crevasses and promote iceberg calving, also causing ice streams to drain more ice into the ocean.

These processes add to the total volume of water in the ocean. Therefore, what happens to the Antarctic ice sheet in the future will determine the rate and amount of global sea level rise.

What are your data, and how do you obtain them?

I use computer models that simplify the interactions between ice sheet and the climate, in order to reconstruct ice-sheet dynamics. We need to be confident that these models can adequately represent past time periods, though, before we can trust the computer model predictions of future Antarctic mass loss and sea level rise. Therefore, we validate these computer models by comparing them to geologic records of ice sheet behavior. My previous research project interpreted ice sheet dynamics and retreat patterns by mapping features that fast-moving ice-streams carved into the ground throughout the last glacial cycle. This information is used to calibrate the ice sheet model, ensuring that the model is physically realistic and reconstructs the same ice sheet retreat pattern as I interpret from the geologic record.

The  animation below shows a computer model projection for future sea level rise up to the year 2500. Here, the model assumes business-as-usual carbon emissions until the year 2100 (following ‘Representative Carbon Pathway’ RCP8.5). Even though the model’s carbon emissions are held constant after the year 2100, it takes the Antarctic ice sheet decades to centuries to fully respond to the high-CO2 forcing, leading to a huge amount of sea level rise. You can see the ice sheet (blue) get thinner and retreat, exposing the land (brown) of the continent underneath. I made this animation as part of a project to predict future sea level for the city of Boston; you can learn more about this project here, and see the full video I made here.  This is an example of how ice sheet computer models are used to predict future impacts of our modern decisions about carbon emissions.


What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is the international community. When I go to conferences, or participate in field work, I am always in the company of international colleagues who become friends. I learn so much about science, but also about culture and history I would not be exposed to otherwise. Another favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to travel to amazing places, like Antarctica!

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

My biggest piece of advice to young scientists (and to everyone) is: ASK STUPID QUESTIONS. Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question, but no, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid. It means that you care more about understanding a concept and broadening your mind than what the people around you think. It’s hard – I still struggle with this, especially in a public setting like a class or lecture – but it’s so important. Asking stupid questions is by far the #1 easiest way to learn anything new, and often leads to the best conversations you’ll ever have. If you have a stupid question but feel embarrassed, just remember that there is a 99% chance that someone around you is wondering the same thing but is too shy to ask.

8th Grader Fossil Fun!

Adriane here-

Here at University of Massachusetts Amherst, I do a lot of science outreach with kids of all ages! Early in the summer, I had the opportunity to show 45 8th grade students fossils from all major times in Earth’s history and teach them how we can use fossils to determine how the Earth has changed through time. My advisor, Mark, was also there to help teach the kids!

The front table had all Paleozoic (~550-250 million years ago) fossil; the middle table contained Mesozoic (220-66 million years ago) fossils; and the back table contained Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago) fossils.

The first thing Mark and I did was to gather fossils from the three major eras in Earth’s history: the Paleozoic (time), Mesozoic (~250-66 million years ago), and Cenozoic (66-0 million years ago). We created three major tables in a classroom, one table for each era. I then labeled each fossil by the time period in which it belonged (and each era was associated with a different color paper) and what the fossil was. There are three white boards in the classroom, so we assigned each group a white board to write down their observations on. When the kids arrived, we broke them into 3 groups each, and let each group observe the fossils at each table for about 3-5 minutes. Then the groups switched tables so that all groups saw each table of fossils.

We asked the group to make observations about their fossils from each era. Questions we had them consider were things such as: Where did they begin to see animals with teeth? In what era were animals mostly invertebrates? What kinds of animals did you see in each era (dinosaurs, mammals, etc.). The students wrote these observations on their white boards. Of course, some of our questions and their answers were biased by the specimens we had available (for example, we have TONS of Paleozoic brachiopods and trilobites, but no fish or other vertebrates with teeth).

Students writing their observations about the fossils from the three major eras on their white boards.

After all the groups had seen all the fossils, we then asked them to assemble by their boards and think about the differences among the major eras. They came up with some great answers, such as that the land animals with big teeth (such as mammoths, horses, and bison) dominated the Cenozoic, and the majority of shelled animals were dominant during the Paleozoic. And of course, they were totally tuned into the fact that the Mesozoic was the age of dinosaurs.

At the end of this exercise, we then gave the students and their teachers a chance to ask us any remaining questions they had about geology or fossils. Both the students and teachers asked really great questions! One of the teachers asked if all mass extinctions were caused by major climate change events (they were, except for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, which was caused by a major impact). My favorite question of the day was from a girl who asked why all geologists wore earth-toned clothes! It turned out that both my advisor and I were wearing forest green shirts, so we found this quite amusing 😊

All in all, it was an excellent day spent with the students! They really enjoyed being able to pick up and hold the fossils, and learn about how paleontologists use them to interpret changes in Erath’s climate through time.

Advising High School Seniors

Adriane here-

Jordan and Sophia in front of one of the display rocks at the granite counter tops outlet.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to help advise two high school seniors. Both students, Sophia and Jordan, attend a private school here in western Massachusetts. As part of their graduation requirements, all the seniors that attend the school must participate in a two-week internship with a local company, college, university, hospital, etc. to gain some employment and/or lab experience. Sophia and Jordan have both been accepted into universities beginning this fall, and both want to work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields. So it made sense that the girls work at UMass in labs to gain some hands-on experience.

The high schoolers initially contacted our department head, Professor Julie Brigham-Grette, in the Geosciences Department at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Brigham-Grette has worked with high school seniors from this particular high school in previous years, and thus the teachers at this school know her well. That is how the students knew to contact her. I was able to be involved with the girls and their internship because Dr. Brigham-Grette knew I was doing a lot of lab work, was around this summer, and could use the extra help. And indeed, I did need the extra help around my lab!

Sophia at the microscope in my lab looking at foraminifera.

Dr. Brigham-Grette and I met before the students started to discuss what projects we wanted them to work on. We made a list of four major tasks. The first was to identify the types of rocks that our classroom desk tops are made of. My department purchased the counter tops (which were cut down to desk-top size) from a local company. The second task was to begin building a blog to tell students and people about the different rock types and what minerals they contained. The third task was to help me organize and label all my samples from the four ocean sites I’m currently working with. The fourth task was to learn how to weigh and wash sediment samples. The students were only with us for two weeks, so we had plenty of tasks to keep them busy and learning!

The first day the students arrived, I had both of them work with me. The first thing I did was to show them around our department, which included peeking into the different labs and explaining the major types of science that our professors and graduate students conduct. Then we went to lunch on campus (fun fact: UMass Amherst is ranked #1 in the country by the Princeton Review for Best Campus Food). After lunch, I taught Sophia and Jordan how to read the labels on my samples (for an overview of how we label our sediment samples from the deep sea and how to read them, see this post). Then, I had them color-code each sample with different colored dots. I’ve done a number of different analyses with my samples, so it’s useful to know which sample I’ve used for which analysis. The students were able to finish this task of sorting and labeling by the third day! From this activity, they learned how to read sediment samples and how scientists collect the sediment cores.

On the second day, I began teaching the students how to process my sediment samples. These samples were from sediment cores we collected last summer in the Tasman Sea. The way I needed to process these samples differed from what I normally do. First, we needed to weigh the entire sample when it was dry (which is basically a chunk of dried mud). Then, we needed to wash the dried mud sample over a sieve in the sink to collect the tiny microfossils contained in the mud. After the sample was washed, we then dried it in the oven overnight. Once completely dried, we re-weighed the sieved sediment. With the weight of the mud sample and the weight of the fossils, I can then calculate what weight percent of the mud is from foraminifera, the microfossils I work with. This number also tells me how much carbonate (the mineral that my microfossils make their shells out of) accumulated in the oceans at any one time! Sophia and Jordan both donned lab coats and glasses and worked together to get a good amount of the mud samples weighed.

Jordan with the rock tables in one of our classrooms. Each table top is a different rock!

In the afternoon, we split Sophia and Jordan up: Sophia stayed with me in my lab, and Jordan went with Dr. Brigham-Grette to begin identifying the desk top rocks in one of our classrooms. I had already weighed and dried some of the mud samples before the students started working with us so I could teach Sophia all steps of sample processing in one day. Sophia spent the afternoon washing sediment over the sieve. By the end of the day, Jordan had compiled a list of names for most of the rocks in our classroom!

The rest of our time with the students included them bouncing between my lab and the classroom to ID desk top rocks. After about a week of both girls working with the desk tops, they had created a spreadsheet with information about each rock type, such as the types of minerals in each rock, the age, the name of the formation from which each rock came from, and where the formation was located. However, we were still missing a lot of this information, especially the age, name of the formation, and where the rock actually came from. So, Dr. Brigham-Grette and I decided to take the students to the company where the Geosciences department purchased the rocks. I had never been to a  countertop outlet, but needless to say, we all had a blast! The company, Granite Creations, had an awesome selection of different rocks used for countertops on display outside of their warehouse. Every rock slab was polished and absolutely beautiful! Dr. Brigham-Grette and I nerded out for about half an hour looking at all the rocks and trying to identify the minerals in each. After taking tons of selfies and images of the rocks, we then talked to the sales representatives about the information we needed. They didn’t have all the information at hand, but were very happy to take our information and look it all up for us!

One of our last days with the students, we still wanted to teach them how to set up a website/blog about the rock tables they’d worked so hard to identify, and introduce them to some HTML coding. So, since I have now been involved in creating three websites, I sat down with the students and Dr. Brigham-Grette and showed them how to make static pages on a site, and how to make blog posts. After the framework of the site was up, we let the students add in information and images. The site it far from finished, and different people in our department will continue to flesh out the information in the coming months, but here’s the site: Geo Rock Tables. We were thrilled with the layout and images that Sophia and Jordan picked!

Dr. Brigham-Grette teaching Jordan and Sophia about the different minerals in a rock slab at the counter top outlet.

All in all, Sophia and Jordan worked a total of 40 hours with Dr. Brigham-Grette and I at UMass. From our four main activities, the students learned a lot: how to process sediment samples, what data can be obtained from weighing the mud and sieved sediment, the importance of scientific ocean drilling, how to set up a website and blog, introduction to HTML coding, and the different types of rocks used in the countertop industry. They also gained valuable work experience, such as showing up to a job on time, learning how to do tasks, and learning how to successfully execute those tasks. I was very proud of the work both students accomplished while they were with us, and was sad to see them go! Because of Jordan and Sophia’s hard work helping me process my sediment samples, I was able to begin other analyses with them, and am currently ahead of schedule on a particular project!

Some personal thoughts: Not all high school students get the chance the explore a field, career, or job they might be interested in before committing to college or trade school. But I think exploring different types of careers is great for students, and gives them an idea of what type of career they’d like to go into.

If you are a high school student, or a parent/guardian of a high schooler, and think they’d be interested in working in a lab, reach out to your local university! If your student loves animals, for example, go to your local college or university’s website and find their Biology department. Each department should have a page that lists the professors (commonly under ‘Faculty’). Look for the department head, and shoot them an email asking if your student could intern with a professor or graduate student. I guarantee that there is at least one graduate student or professor who would jump at the opportunity to have an extra set of hands help in the lab over the summer!

Imposter Syndrome in Graduate School

Megan here-

Graduate school is one of those experiences that can bring out the worst in you. Sure, there are a handful of encouraging moments; like when you read a paper and actually understand it, or finally figure out what your advisor was asking you to do (even though you can’t actually do it, at least you now know what it is that you can’t do). Victories are few and far between, and the continual obstacles and failures take a toll on students. Filmmaker and once-PhD student Duncan Jones said it best: “When I was at graduate school you wouldn’t have recognized me I was so different — and not a nice person: a grumpy, surly, upset, confused, lost person.”

A theme among graduate students is feeling lost and confused, and consequently becoming upset that you’re lost and confused. You develop insecurities and wonder if you’re even supposed to be a Master’s or PhD student at all. The feeling grows and persists, all while undermining your confidence. This is the Impostor Syndrome.

What exactly is the Impostor Syndrome?

It’s a sense of incompetence, self-doubt, or anxiety accompanied by abundant evidence that you’re actually quite competent, intelligent, and hardworking. You are constantly second-guessing your qualifications and sometimes feeling that you’ve fooled people into thinking you’re smart. In fact, this sometimes-debilitating condition is quite common among successful people, and I’ve found it to be considerably persistent in my geology graduate career thus far.

Much of graduate school is admitting what you don’t know.

It’s true, you have to acknowledge what you don’t know in order to move on. Once you’ve done that, you recognize the information you need to learn, the skills you must master, and the tools you should develop. But in that process of identifying knowledge deficiencies, I’ve found that I end up feeling less intelligent and less capable. Letting my weaknesses undermine my confidence is easy. Thoughts of “I’m not cut out for this” or, “I’m not smart enough to be in this program” can work their way into your head and really throw you for a loop.

Despite this constant fear that I’m not doing anything right, I somehow still love graduate school.

I really mean that. Graduate school is this wild experience in which you probably have no idea what you’re actually doing or why, but you get to learn about the very topic that interests you most. You’re surrounded by equally ambitious peers, you work with revered professors, and you have an advisor whose fundamental job as an advisor is to make you better at what you do. There are definitely frustrating, disheartening, sit-in-your-office-and-contemplate-whether-geology-matters moments. And when Impostor Syndrome gets the best of you, here’s some advice.

My advice:

  1. Use logic against negative thoughts. Whenever these “impostor” thoughts begin to brew in your mind, try to remind yourself that Impostor Syndrome tends to affect successful people. Consequently, you must be successful and competent too. Check out this comic from PHD Comics for a good laugh and a nice reminder that you’re not alone.
  2. Practice internal validation. Many people thrive off of external validation, like praise from their peers or professors. Try complimenting yourself and focusing on acknowledging the effort you’ve put into your research.
  3. Avoid comparing yourself to others. Every student has had a different educational experience leading up to graduate school. When we compare ourselves to our peers, we often identify insufficiencies in ourselves and end up feeling unintelligent or incapable. Instead, recognize your skills and abilities, then use this opportunity to collaborate with your peers.

If all else fails and you need to commiserate with others, PHD Comics is a good place to turn. Check out their Impostor Syndrome comics (here, here, and here) and don’t be afraid to get lost in the hilarity PHD Comics has to offer.

Boy Scouts Oceanography Badge at UMass

Adriane here-

Caroline leading the discussion on reasons why studying our oceans and its animals is important.

Every year, University of Massachusetts Amherst hosts hundreds of local Boy Scouts on campus through the program Merit Badge University. This is an awesome program that introduces the boys to different careers and fields of study. Most years, the UMass Geosciences department participates in the event. In previous years, we have helped the scouts earn their Geology and Mining in Society badges. In addition, we have also hosted local Webelos Cub Scouts in the department to teach them about local rocks and geologic processes.

This year, a small group of graduate students, including myself, worked with the boys to earn their Oceanography badges. The Merit Badge University program is spread over two Saturdays: one in February, and another in March. The boys are required to attend both weekends to fulfill the requirements for their desired badges. The first week was co-led by our Time Scavengers collaborator, Raquel, who focused on teaching the boys about our oceans and the different properties of these huge bodies of water.

Benjamin leading the discussion on underwater topographic features while the boys draw their underwater scenes.

I participated in the second week, along with two other graduate students, Benjamin and Caroline, and my two undergraduate students, Adam and Solveig.   We taught the boys about climate change and its effects on the ocean, marine life, and plankton, and they learned about seafloor features and the different branches of oceanography.

The first activity included the boys breaking into 4 small groups. Each group was assigned a branch of oceanography (physical, chemical, marine ecology, and marine geology) to research. Then, each group presented their findings to the rest of the participants. We also had the students come up with reasons why they think oceanography is important to study.

Adam helping a scout identify planktic foraminifera!

The second activity included a short presentation on climate change, and how increasing atmospheric CO2 is affecting our oceans and marine life. Topics we discussed included ocean acidification, ocean warming, and ocean stratification, as well as the effects of pollution on marine life. We were all pleasantly surprised with how well-versed the boys were on the subject, and many had their own climate change or pollution stories to share.

The third activity of the day included teaching the boys about the different types of underwater features, or topography. Benjamin gave a short presentation, then we had the boys draw their own underwater scene with the most common seafloor features included. The boys had a great time drawing their underwater scenes while chatting!

Solveig (right) looks through the microscope to confirm a scout’s (center) identification of a radiolarian, while Benjamin (left) listens to his reasoning!

The last activity of the day included teaching the boys about marine ecology. For this section, the boys were required to learn about marine plankton, food webs, and how the ocean produces and holds so much life. To get the boys thinking about what makes up the food chain, we set up microscopes around the room with samples of marine sediment and pond sediments. This way, the boys could see the vast number of marine plankton that make up the sediments. These plankton also make up the base of the food chain in marine systems! We created a short handout with pictures of some common plankton, such as planktic foraminifera, benthic foraminifera, and radiolarians. We also encouraged the boys to look for other odd things, such as echinoderm spines, ostracods, and fish teeth! Everyone (including us graduate and undergraduate students) had a blast looking through the microscopes!

We ended the event by quickly talking about the ways in which scientists can study the ocean. Unfortunately, we had so much fun doing our other activities, we didn’t have much time to discuss the various ways in which we do this! However, we were able to complete all the requirements for the Oceanography badge, so all of the scouts we taught earned this badge this year!

Marsha Allen, Cosmochemist and Hydrogeologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?

I never thought I could or would be a scientist, because I never knew that it was actually an option for me. I knew I wanted to be educated and it was along that journey I fell in love with geology at Mount Holyoke College. Under the mentorship of Dr. Harold Connolly at the American Museum of Natural History in 2009 and Dr. Steve Dunn at Mt Holyoke College, I started my first research projected analyzing a Calcium Aluminum Inclusion found within the Allende meteorite. CAI’s inclusions are the oldest rocks to form in our solar system approximately 4.5 billion years ago.

Having something that old in my hands caused so many emotions, and I wanted to understand all of the processes that formed the minerals to the creation of the rock as it moved away from the sun.

I also completed my masters’ thesis on analyzing three samples of the Chelyabinsk meteorite that impacted Russia in 2013 at Brooklyn College under the mentorship of Dr. John Chamberlain. For that project, I used the mineralogy and petrographic features to quantify the amount of impact events and mineral evolution the meteorite experienced after breaking away from its parent asteroid.

I recently started my PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst specializing in my other passion hydrogeology with Dr. David

An image from Marsha’s research on the Chelyabinsk meteorite. The image on the left is a thin slice of the meteorite, with chondrules (black spheres which are mineral grains that grow in meteorites), and fractures (black lines) caused by the meteorite impact. The images on the right are the same thin section under the microscope in XPL (cross-polarized light, which is used to enhance minerals under the microscope; the different colors are different minerals).

Boutt’s research group. My dissertation project aims to quantify and understand the seasonal trends of recharge to the water storage on the island of Tobago, by creating an annual water budget. It will be based on the islands annual precipitation, runoff, evapotranspiration, stream and river discharge, and infiltration into the subsurface using a transient flow groundwater modeling and geochemical analysis.

X-ray map showing different minerals within a thin section (very thin slice of rock) taken from the Chelyabinsk meteorite. The different colors represent different minerals: red is silica; green is calcium; and blue is aluminum.

What do you do?

In a nutshell, I am trying to quantify the amount of water stored in the subsurface of the island as time passes. This means that the hydrologic water budget depends on the changes of variables such as precipitation, evapotranspiration, and runoff.

I am also learning how to use isotopic ratio of hydrogen (tritium) to determine the age of water. This is important since you have an understanding of whether the water from a well is recharged by rainfall or by a deep (i.e. old) underground source.

How does your research contribute to the betterment of society?

Today, it is becoming more imperative to understand and use potable water sustainably. We see many countries or regions of the world experiencing drastic shifts in climate leading to severe droughts or massive flooding related issues. My research is directly related to climate change, since its behavior completely shifts the amount of groundwater stored in the subsurface. Thus, quantifying the amount of water stored in the subsurface at any period in time is important to sustainable water management for all countries.

Marsha doing field work in Death Valley, California, as part of her PhD research.

What are your data, and how do you obtain it?

In hydrogeology, we use a combination of data types and sources to complete an analysis. Some of these are: geological maps, well information (i.e. hydraulic conductivity and depth to water table) precipitation samples and amounts, surface water samples, and remote sensing just to name a few. All of these types of data and samples are then analyzed through various processes to produce the final result.

What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?

I would tell any budding scientist to make sure to study a topic they are passionate about, because it actually makes the entire process enjoyable. I think it is also important to be well rounded and have a strong foundation in all science topics.

Sampling Tasman Sea Sediment Cores

Adriane here-

One of the rooms in the College Station, TX core repository. Cores are stacked from the floor to the ceiling. The cores that are loaded onto the carts are waiting to be sampled. Cores that were drilled in the 1960’s as recently as this year are stored in this facility!

Back in January, I was in College Station, Texas on a trip related to the scientific ocean drilling expedition I was on last summer (see my previous posts about ship life and my responsibilities on the ship as a biostratigrapher). Part of the trip was dedicated to editing the scientific reports we wrote while sailing in the Tasman Sea, and the other part of the trip was spent taking samples from the sediment cores we drilled.

While we were sailing in the Tasman Sea, our expedition drilled a total of 6 sites: some in shallow waters in the northern part of the Tasman, and some in deeper waters towards the southern end of the sea. In total, we recovered 2506.4 meters of sediment (8223 feet, or 1.55 miles) in 410 cores.

The cores were first shipped to College Station, Texas from the port in Hobart, Tasmania. Eventually, they will all be stored at the core repository in Kochi, Japan. While they were in Texas, several of the scientists from the expedition met up to take samples from the cores for their own research into Earth’s climate in geologic time.

Here, we are taking samples from sediments that are more firm. We’re using 10 cubic centimeter (cc) plastic scoops, which is one of the standard sample sizes for paleoceanographic studies.

I requested samples from two of the six sites we drilled in the Tasman Sea. All of my samples are younger than about 18 million years old, in the period of geologic time called the Neogene. All in all, I requested about 800 sediment samples! Not all of these samples will be used for one project. Instead, they will be used in several different projects, such as to determine evolutionary events of planktic foraminifera in the Tasman Sea and investigate changes in sea surface temperatures during major climate change events of the past.

Another team of researchers working on an older section of a core. In general, the older (deeper below the seafloor) the sediments, the harder and more compacted they are. The sediments in this core are so compacted, we had to use hammers and chisels to get out samples.

To begin sampling, students who work at the College Station core respository set up cores at each workstation. There were 6 workstations: one for each site that we drilled. A team of 3-4 scientists were assigned to each station to sample the cores. We had approximately 1 week to take ~14,000 samples! Luckily, I was able to sample one of the cores from which I requested samples from!

Every workstation had all the materials that we need to sample: gloves, paper towels, various tools (small and large spatulas, rubber hammers, and various sizes of plastic scoops). In addition, each station was also given a list of all the samples every researcher had requested for a specific site. This way, we could cross the samples off the list as we took and bagged them.

My team, which consisted of two other scientists that I sailed with, Yu-Hyeon and May, began sampling the youngest part of our assigned site. Because these sediments were located right at or below the seafloor, they were very soupy! As we moved through the cores (back into time), the sediments became less soupy, and eventually pretty hard. We never encountered sediments that were so hard we had to use a hammer and chisel to get out the samples, but other teams did.

From left to right: Yu-Hyeon, May, and I holding up one of our cores from the Tasman Sea.

After scooping/hammering out the samples, we then put the samples into a small plastic bag. These bags were then labeled with a sticker with information that includes what site the samples came from, the core from which is came from, the specific section in the core, and the two-centimeter interval in that section. This way, the scientists know exactly at what depth (meters below sea floor) the sample came from. It is crucial to know the depth at what each sample was taken, as depth will be later converted to age using various methods (for one using fossils as a proxy for age, see my post about biostratigraphy)

Because the sediments my team and I sampled in were so soft, and we had requested a lot of samples from the core we were working with, we were able to quickly take a lot of samples! I could only stay and sample for two days (I had to fly back to UMass to teach), but in that time, my team and I took so many samples, we broke a record! We currently hold the record for most sediment samples taken in one day at the Gulf Coast Repository in College Station!






Brazos River Fossils of Southeast Texas

Adriane here-

A simple location map (inset) and aerial view of the Whiskey Bridge fossiliferous outcrops on the Brazos River.

At the end of January, I was in College Station, Texas sampling sediment cores from my recent IODP expedition (more to come on that soon!) and editing our science chapters. It just so happened that while I was in Texas, I also celebrated my birthday. Of course, I had to do something extra fun, so my friend and I (who also sailed with me last summer in the Tasman Sea) went fossil collecting!

College Station is a relatively small town in southeast Texas, made famous as it is the home of Texas A & M University. There’s plenty of bars and restaurants, dancing spots and cowboy hats (seriously, I’ve never seen so many people wearing cowboy boots!). But if you know where to look, College Station is also home to another gem: Eocene-aged (~41 million years ago) fossils!

My snazzy rental car I drove around College Station !

It just so happened that while I was visiting College Station, I was given a 2018 silver Camaro by the rental car company. Needless to say, we were paleontologists cruising around in style! So my friend and I hopped in the car in our best fossil-collecting gear and made the 15 minute trip to find the ‘most fossiliferous site in Texas’. The outcrop itself is under the Whiskey Bridge on the Brazos River, a bit closer to Bryan, TX than College Station, really. The parking area was located near the bridge, which required pulling off the interstate on a dirt road to get to. Once we were there, it was a short hike under the bridge, and we were instantly in fossil haven!

A view of the outcrop on the Brazos River, under the Whiskey Bridge. Notice how fine-grained and dark the sediments are towards the bottom, then get coarser (chunkier-looking) towards the top. The coarser-grained sediments indicate a sea level fall.

During the Eocene, this part of Texas was covered by a shallow sea, probably between the shore and the shelf-slope margin, with the shoreline estimated to be about 50 miles away. So, this area was never very deep, but comparable to the continental margin of the east coast U.S. today. Because the water was deep enough that energy from waves didn’t reach the bottom, fine-grained sediments accumulated here. Most of the outcrop was very fine-grained and dark in color, which geologists would call a mudstone. The dark color indicates that the rock is high in organic material from animals, plankton, algae, and bacterial that lived in the upper water column when the sea was here. There are also sandstones preserved at this location, indicating that sea level dropped at one point, and that major storms likely brought in thin sands from shore.

A close-up view of the fine-grained sediments that contained fossils.

It’s partly due to the fine-grained material that tons of delicate, tiny fossils were preserved in the strata. The dominant fossils that can be  found at this location are invertebrates, including gastropods (snails), bivalves, scaphopods, bryozoa, and corals. There are few vertebrate fossils preserved, such as shark teeth, gar teeth, otoliths (fish ear bones), and squid beaks. Even rare trace fossils (preserved movements and burrows from animals) can be found, including coiled worm tubes. We didn’t have much time to collect, as we were just supposed to be gone for about an hour over lunch.

Even though we didn’t have much time at the outcrop, we sure did leave with some awesome fossils! Most of what we found were gastropods- species of Pseudoliva, Latirus, Protosurcula, and Turritella. All were small, with some only being about 3 mm in length! There were few clam shells, as they were mostly delicate and fell apart when we tried to pry them out of the sediments. I felt pretty lucky to have found a fish otolith, or inner ear bone (I didn’t realize that’s what it was until I took it out to write this post)! Towards the end of our trip, my friend found a large (~2 inch) shark tooth! It was her first time finding one, so that was pretty thrilling! Content with our finds, we hopped in the car, muddy and happy, to head back to sample cores in College Station.

A small preview of the fossils found under the Whiskey Bridge on the Brazos River. All of these fossils are invertebrates, except the rounded fossil at top center; that is a fish ear bone!

But unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of our journey that day. After being on the interstate for 2 minutes, I was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding 3 mph over the speed limit. The officer asked us where we were going, and that he was only going to give me a warning. I then had to get out of the car to get my license (it was in my book bag in the trunk, with my fossils) when the officer asked what was in my bags. Happy for the distraction, I enthusiastically showed him my fossils and began prattling on about the Eocene, in hopes he would lose interest and let us go. Instead, he was totally interested in the geologic facts I was spouting at him! He then said, ‘I wondered what you two were doing under the bridge’.

So as it turns out, driving a new Camaro onto a muddy dirt road near a bridge is a great way to gain the attention of state troopers.  I’ll be sticking to my muddy, beat up Jeep for future fossil collecting trips 🙂

Click here for a link to field trip guides, fossil ID guides, an outcrop guide, and a link to a paper about the Whiskey Bridge outcrop!

What does climate change mean for New York City?

Impact of climate change on New York City’s coastal flood hazard: Increasing flood heights from the preindustrial to 2300 CE

Andra J. Garner, Michael E. Mann, Kerry A. Emanuel, Robert E. Kopp, Ning Lin, Richard B. Alley, Benjamin P. Horton, Robert M. DeConto, Jeffrey P. Donnelly, David Pollard

Data and Methods: This study employs various models to understand the future impact of climate change from tropical cyclones. These cyclones create storm surges, which are abnormal rises in water that often lead to flooding. To model storm surge heights in the past (1970-2005), this study uses data from about 5,000 storms. For predicting future storm characteristics for the next few centuries, the study assesses about 12,000 storms. Researchers use storm data to run a variety of simulations that have varying parameters. For example, they can modify the trajectories and wind speeds of tropical cyclones, and the frequencies and intensities of storms to model different scenarios.

They then used the storm models to quantify potential flooding in New York City by combining estimates of storm surge heights with anticipated sea level rise. Such changes in sea level are governed by mass loss of glaciers and ice sheets, thermal expansion, ocean dynamics, and water storage on land. Again, they modified these parameters in a number of models to predict flooding from future storm surges. This study focuses on two specific scenarios from previously developed models: Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 8.5. Various modifications to RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 are used to make predictions about the future of storm-related flooding in New York City.

FIgure 1. Projected sea level rise from present day to 2300. Climate projections RCP4.5 (yellow) and RCP8.5 (orange) have much lower projections than the red and maroon projections that represent enhanced Antarctic Ice Sheet melt. By 2300, sea level near New York City could rise by a maximum of 15.7 meters (51.5 feet).

Results: This group found that the maximum wind speeds of tropical cyclones in the future are much greater than the maximum speeds we see today. From this they conclude that future tropical storms will be much more intense, and the storm surges that reach New York City will be greater. They also found that the tracks of tropical cyclones will shift with time, and the density of tracks near New York City will increase.

For the next century, this study estimates sea level rise for New York City to be between 0.55 and 1.4 meters (Figure 1). From 2100 to 2300, they predict possible rises of 1.5 to 5.7 meters. If they increase the potential ice loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, those values drastically increase to a maximum sea level rise of 15.7 meters by 2300. Remarkably, these values simply estimate relative sea level rise without the added effect of storm surge. Toward the end of this century (2080 to 2100), flood heights are expected to be 0.7 to 1.4 meters higher than modern New York City floods (Figure 2). By 2300, storm surges could cause floods that are 2.4 to 13.0 meters higher than modern values.

Figure 2. These four different models show flood height versus density. Each model compares modern heights to RCP4.5, RCP8.5, and both scenarios with enhanced Antarctic Ice Sheet melt. With all models and all scenarios, the average flood height is expected to increase.

Why is this study important? At present, an increase in the intensity and frequency of storms would have a negative effect on coastal zones like New York City. However, in a future with higher sea levels, the effects of tropical cyclones and storm surges could be catastrophic. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases, rising temperatures, and consequential melting of ice will create a future with significantly higher sea levels. As storms develop and create surges of higher water, their resulting floods will be larger than anything New York City–or any other city–has seen before. Comprising of nearly 50 million built square meters and over 8 million people, this coastal city is a climate change target. The hazards associated with sea level rise in such a large and populous area are unimaginable. This study only looked at the effects on this one city; but there are places around the world that risk losing everything to climate change and sea level rise.

The big picture: Sea level will rise as human-driven climate change continues to warm global temperatures and melt ice sheets. The combined effects of higher sea levels and more intense tropical cyclones will create storm surges with the potential for catastrophic flooding in major cities like New York.

Citation: Garner, A.J., Mann, M.E., Emanuel, K.A., Kopp, R.E., Lin, N., Alley, R.B., Horton, B.P., DeConto, R.M., Donnelly, J.P., and Pollard, D., 2017. Impact of climate change on New York City’s coastal flood hazard: Increasing flood heights from the preindustrial to 2300 CE. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1703568114

Mock United Nations Climate Negotiations Game

Andy here-

A key question for society is how do we transfer the ability to understand other people’s perspective, to value one another? How do you teach somebody to care about other people?

I tackled that in a physical science class this semester. Since I teach Historical Geology, we spent time on climate change. Specifically, I implemented a climate change game in the class in which the students organize and lead a mock-United Nations climate negotiation.  The exercise is designed to teach students climate awareness and the impacts of climate change on the global system. All of the materials to teach this exercise are available online for free.

At the end of our exercise one student wrote:

I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk.

I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.

Want the same outcome and understanding from your students? Here’s how:

I teach a 60 or 30-student Historical Geology course at Sam Houston State University. It covers a multitude of different subjects; from evolution, to the birth of the solar system, to the climate system. One of the aspects of climate science that I wanted the students to leave with was an appreciation for modern climate change, and how it affects individuals in developing countries (this course was taught in a Hurricane Harvey affected region). While this course doesn’t shy away from controversy, this is the first time that we had to address our modern political (ir)reality head-on.

Our activity was a mock-UN climate negotiation game. World Climate Simulation is a well-respected activity. It’s been used in a number of different contexts from high schools to practicing for UN negotiations, and is available in several different languages.

In my course we played the 6-region version. There were delegations from the United States, European Union, Other Developed Countries (Russia, Australia, etc.), China, India, and Other Developing Countries. Each student gets a page (front and back) write up about their region and its position on climate related issues.

The goal of the exercise is to keep the world to 2°C of warming and to have $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund. Using this game in class gives students a taste for the complicated nature of these negotiations and an understanding of how the climate system works. The game in particular highlights the difficulty of being in a developing nation, by making abundantly clear the inequity between groups. The students also see, by experimenting themselves, how quickly emissions have to peak and reduce to keep us at 2°C. Gaming wise, in the end, the students should get that the key is to reduce the consumption of developed nations, and for those nations to include enough money into the Green Climate Fund to allow the developing nations to skip the fossil fuel age.

Here’s how the game works in practice

The facilitator (the teacher/instructor) opens the summit with an address asking the delegates to feel the full weight of their duties, and to consider the world they would like their children to live in. Then, they attempt set several positions:

  • Year to peak emissions
  • Year to begin reducing emissions
  • Yearly percentage of reductions
  • Contributions to the green fund

After the group sets their initial position they begin arguing with the other groups. After 20-25 minutes the summit reconvenes, the facilitator asks them to present their positions in 2 minutes each. Then there is a discussion of if they think they have made it. Lastly, their positions are transferred to C-ROADs, a complicated-enough climate model (click here for model), and the delegates can see how they did.

I had two helpers help me facilitate the course, Time Scavengers Editor in Chief Susanna Fraass and an upper-level geology student. They were most helpful the first day, as set up can be overwhelming when you’ve got 60 irritable undergrads. Each group has a placard to show their area. The more developed countries get snacks and tablecloths, while the Developing nations have to sit on a tarp. In one section the India delegation got a table and no chairs, while the Chinese delegation got too few, so several had to stand. Susanna walked around the room recording interesting events or statements from students while the upper-level geo student either made mischief as a fossil-fuel representative or helped with running C-ROADs and ensured everybody was ‘on-task’.

Group dynamics obviously play a big role in this. I found that in the smaller class ~5% of the students opted out and just played on their phones, while in the bigger one it was closer to 15-20%. I made attendance for the week of the negotiation 5% of their grade, so there were students that were less than enthusiastic about being in class who normally skip. In the coming semester I will probably have a few of the students in the larger class play the two lobbies, Environmental and Fossil Fuel, in order for them to have more to do. 10 students-per group was too many. The Fossil Fuel Lobby gets candy to sway emissions levels, while the Environmental lobby gets to make signs and organize a demonstration.

The way that the two iterations of the game preceded was very different. The 30-student class ended up modeling how climate negotiations proceed in 2017, while the 60-student class modeled circa-2015 negotiations. In the 30-student class, the US stayed at their table in the back of the room requiring other students to come up to them to discuss policy. When discussing policy, they were inflexible in their positions, even going so far as to attempt to run a scam on the Developing Nations. The US told the Developing Nations they would reimburse them for their additions to the Green Climate Fund (the developing world is to be the recipient of those funds, not pay in). They made a big statement about how they were going to engage their philanthropic community and advocate for individuals from the US to donate. None of that actually is included in the game, so it was in essence, ‘hot air’. In that vacuum the EU stepped in and attempted to lead negotiations with the rest of the world, though somewhat ineffectively. That is not a comment about the ability of the EU to negotiate in that class, one student in particular was giving her all. It’s more an observation that the ire in the room was directed at the US and most actions seemed to be inspired by anger in the directions of the US representatives roleplaying the Trump administration.

In the 60-student class the US took an active role in negotiations, mirroring the Obama administration’s more active role. In the middle of the second round of negotiations the US hosted a miniature G-20 summit behind their table, or a ‘G4’ where the US, EU, Developed Nations, and China tried to hammer out a deal. A EU representative found the website for the climate model and she was attempting to solve the problem for their maximum benefit while still trying to keep to 2deg C. She quickly reached a conclusion and then led her group in refusing to budge from their initial bargaining position. Though their initial position was fairly aggressive with its targets, the rest of the class did not agree with their inflexibility. Their inability to write their position on the board correctly also was met with shouts of displeasure from the other delegations.

The larger class also made for some more entertaining shenanigans. China, apparently unsatisfied with their ‘G4’ deal, changed their position on the board after seeing the other’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The room exploded in shouts, 30-40 students were pointing at each other while watching the transcription of positions onto the chalkboard. India and the US got into a shouting match with a representative from India saying, “We’re just trying to feed our people!” and the US representative throwing up his hands saying, “I’m just telling you what we need to have happen, man.” The Developing Nations, sitting on the ground in front of the board, snuck in to change the Green Climate Fund, adding a zero to a group’s contribution. The game builds in tension, and having to stretch it over multiple periods dissipates that tension, unfortunately.

Neither class solved the problem, but they got to 2.4 °C and both had 100-110 billion dollars in the Green Climate Fund. That’s far better than the real negotiations, as they’ve gotten us to 3.4 °C and ~10 billion. The quick influx of money makes it apparent that the students do not really fully understand the massive sums of money that are required within that fund, as they rather quickly built that up. From a purely gaming standpoint, the goal of the Green Fund is that the Developing Nations require massive capital investments to skip over the fossil fuel age. If the US, EU, and Developed Nations add money in too quickly, then the leverage for the Developing Nations is gone. It misses the difficulty of trying to decarbonize the developing nation’s economy.

At the end, there’s a discussion of why peaking emissions now is key to solving the problem, how the Green Fund money gets distributed, among other aspects. After I talked for a bit I had them talk through their positions, if they had individual goals while engaging in the game. This didn’t really work, but it did give me a chance to talk about the differing US positions in the different classes.


I had all the students write answers to three prompts:

1. What did you learn?

2. How do you feel?

3. What actions will you take?

We then passed the cards around so that each student passed cards 5 times, essentially making their card anonymous. They could then say their own comment or their card’s comment.

In the 60-student class it became quickly apparent I was being ‘trolled’ by the comments the students were choosing to share, which made the conversation fairly negative. It started as comments about the EU delegation refusing to negotiate, and then quickly turned to quoting the Trump administration’s position on the Paris Agreement (which would have been a good teachable moment, but I admittedly was flustered), followed by comments about how time could have been better spent reviewing for their final. Classes have their own energy, and that section had moments of general antagonism throughout the semester, though usually minor, so I should have been better prepared. I think with practice this portion could be engaging and useful, but it requires the facilitator to be ready to handle a variety of comments and to reposition the comments quickly. While I like having the activity come at the end of the semester, it does lend to a stressed student body.

The other, smaller, class had a much more genuine response. I expect a big portion of their genuine response was because of a statement from an international student prior to the card writing. She described how the activity had been gratifying, having been in the country during the Obama administration and seeing the change to today’s administration. She described the tone of the American diplomacy abroad these days, and described it in reference to the US position in the game we’d just played. That class was also more good-natured in general. They brought up empathy, and how they learned about needing to peak emissions early, for example.

Student response cards:

  • I don’t know what actions I could take.
  • I think the world is screwed.
  • I feel kind of scared with how our countries are handling climate change.
  • 1. We need to get our sh*t together. 2. Scared for our future. 3. Be more conscious.
  • How do you feel? Absolutely exhausted.
  • I learned that no matter how much we try the world is screwed because of climate change.
  • 1. From this I learned that this world is dying. I don’t like how sh*tty it is. 2. Sh*tty about how many people may or may not die.

37% of the cards were what I categorized as nihilistic or frightened. This is, frankly, not an unexpected response to an activity like this. I spent a lot of time talking about impacts in order to impress upon them the importance of engaging with this activity. Some of the folks in this group however, saw that this was a problem and said “It will take a lot more money to fix these climate problems. Not worth the money.” They also stated that they felt “Fantastic”. While that was one particular student, one might expect that statement from a more conservative audience. I attempted, in the moment, to describe the economics of climate change as a loan we take out that our children have to pay back with considerable interest, I’m not sure that analogy really stuck.

Some of these cards are also a peak into a group of students who are interested in the issue, however do not know what to do. While we talked about various responses to modern climate change, I am very wary of appearing like I’m advocating for a particular action. Many of the cards state the students are unsure of actions they individually can take, or that individual actions are ineffective. This is a particular point that I will try to address in the future, to describe the nature of climate as a collective action problem requiring that individuals, yes, do their part, but that the onus of action needs to be on governments to enact and enforce legislation.

What did you learn:

  • I learned how important these issues actually are. Our world is strongly impacted and if there is no change we will be drastically hit with consequences. How do you feel: Lost for words at the fact that the US is truly hated. What will you do: I will try to take part in the change.
  • I learned about the view of points of an outside nation towards the US, this experience gave me a chance to look from the outside in. I also have a better understanding of world climate, and how to go about finding a solution. I will continue to find ways to go green and continue recycling and not litter.
  • 1. That several nations really can’t help as much simply due to the amount of poverty in their nation. 2. That it will take more open minded plans to actually make a serious difference. 3. I will try to keep my mind open to interpretation of how other countries function and operate.
  • I learned that the developing nations make a big difference with their changes. I feel frustrated and disappointed. I will talk more about the issue. Look for petitions folks.
  • I learned that getting all of the countries to come together is damn near impossible. We don’t care about each other enough. We need to see the bigger picture that is all of us as a whole. Be the change you want to see in the world. Live as green as possible.
  • I feel if we [are] to really understand each other and realize we need to have the same goal to better our world, we would come together.
  • I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk. I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.
  • I feel so small.

The last group is the most optimistic. While there is considerable anger expressed by the group, they wrote about the need for a group solution, and expressed frustration that it was so difficult for people to actually ‘care about each other enough.’ These are the folks that want to accomplish something to positively effect their lives. It’s roughly a third of the class. Given the pre-class surveys that I gave them at the beginning of the semester, there’s considerable movement on student interest in climate change and their desire to engage with solutions.

Advice for employing this game:

Make sure you have something to have a positive action they can take with their new desire to fix the climate. I have not solved that problem given the classroom setting, but I hope to by this time next semester.

10 students in each group is probably as large as I’d go with students. I know there are modifications for large groups in the facilitator guide, so check there if you have large sections. I think having a larger “Other Developing Countries” block and forcing them to negotiate within themselves before bringing their position to the UN would be fascinating, but too complicated.

Build a case for optimism. I had a lot of students walk out of that room without hope. That’s counter productive, when the goal of the activity is to give them an understanding of the scope, a feeling that they’re in this with lots of others, and then a guiding hand in what they can to do help in their way.

Inequity is key. While it may seem like a small detail, making the developing countries uncomfortable, and the US/EU feel like royalty adds tension.

The first round requires a decent amount of learning on the fly. While both sections caught on quickly, 5-10 minutes of additional time in that first negotiating round is very useful.

Be prepared for an adversarial comment within the ‘debrief’ period if this is an in-class activity. While the vast majority of the comments that I looked through were supportive of the activity, there are several that think it was a waste of time. Such is the nature of having 90 students engage in a, sadly, politically controversial game.

The main advise I have, however, is to do this. It is a phenomenal way to engage a class in learning about their world, and what is happening to it.