Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Adriane, Jen, or another collaborator will post here biweekly to showcase what they did over the past week or so. The goal being to show what exactly goes into being a scientist. It’s not always fun field work or museum trips, often we are rummaging through data or staring into a microscope!
This summer, I will graduate from with a bachelor’s degree in Geology, and then begin a Master’s program in Elementary Education. My favorite thing about being a Geology student was the fact that we had so many opportunities to learn in hands-on settings, from taking field trips to just getting to hold different rocks and fossils in the lab. As a future educator, this experience showed me exactly how important it is for science instruction to involve meaningful and tangible experiences for students, not just lectures. For the last few months, I have been working on an independent study project with two graduate students, Jen and Maggie. To combine my passion for education with my love of geology, we decided to assemble a set of resources that educators can use to effectively integrate fossils into the K-12 classroom as an educational tool.
Paleontology education is a great way for students of all ages to learn about Geology. The use of fossils makes learning fun and hands-on. For many students, the thought of fossils brings to mind images of giant dinosaur skeletons. However, most of the fossils discovered by paleontologists are very small!
Microfossils like foraminifera, or forams, have so many exciting uses for the scientific community. These planktonic marine organisms are usually the size of a grain of sand. They’re small, but mighty! Due to their small size, it can be difficult and expensive to effectively teach about forams in most classrooms. Typically, a microscope would be required to view them, but the cost of this technology is prohibitive for most school settings. Even if microscopes are present in the classroom, it can be difficult to be sure that all students are able to see and identify the specimen through the lens. In our lab, we have a set of enlarged plaster models of forams that are used to teach about the various foram morphologies (shell shapes). I think these models make great tools for teaching about microfossils, but first we needed to make them accessible for science classrooms.
By using a 3D laser scanner, we were able to make digital 3D copies of our models. With access to 3D printing technology, anyone who has these digital files can print out their own set of foram models! All of the scans that we made are able to be accessed on an amazing website called myFOSSIL. This website is a platform for social paleontology, which means that anyone can share their 2D and 3D images of fossils. These images can also be accompanied by educational resources like lesson plans. The website is completely free to use, and you are not required to set up an account in order to view any of the fossil samples. Find our 3D fossils by clicking here!
Foraminifera in the classroom
To go along with our foram models, we created several lesson plans to guide educators through these resources. All of the lesson plans are written in order to be used with a variety of age groups. The subjects include introductory information about forams, an ecology lesson, and a high-school focused lesson on paleoclimatology. We even wrote one lesson that focuses more on English Language Arts (ELA) skills for younger students, by discussing science content, and diversity in science, through an ELA lens. The goal with these lessons is for each to be accessible to a wide range of ages and ability levels. For middle and high school students, there are a wide range of expectations for students to understand science concepts. These are outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards, and cover topics from earth science, to biology, and even engineering. These were a little easier to touch on in our lessons because 6-12 grade students have distinct and exciting milestones that they are expected to reach in their scientific development. However, for K-5 grade students, science classes are more about setting a foundation to build upon later. For this reason, elementary lessons about forams focus more on teaching students to think, research and communicate like a scientist would, using Common Core Standards as a framework. The amount of detail that each teacher decides to go into on science concepts can vary by age, ability, and other factors that we could talk about all day. However, having the opportunity to do hands-on activities with data and fossil models is a great opportunity, and a lasting experience. While high school classes might focus on more formal research projects, elementary classes could dress up like scientists to tell their classmates and parents about what they learned. There are so many possibilities!
As a science teacher in training, this project was tremendously helpful for me in thinking about the expectations that I might have for my future students and planning for the ways that I could differentiate these resources to be exciting and educational for students across all ages and abilities. I also think that using these lessons in any classroom would help other teachers to delve into the ways that we teach students to think of themselves. Some of our students are encouraged to pursue science from a very early age, others are not. With these resources, there are fewer barriers to accessing science education. On a large scale, this could be an amazing stepping stone for a future generation of scientists. On a small scale, I feel like I was able to better myself by working on this project, and I hope you enjoyed hearing about it.
I am beginning to finish one of my dissertation chapters, which means I am starting on a new research project! But first, let me explain (for those who may not know) what a dissertation is: A dissertation is a compilation of three papers, or as we in academia call them, chapters. Each chapter is meant to eventually be published in a scientific journal, as each one is a separate research project or study. Some PhD programs may be different, but at my university, we usually have 3 chapters in our dissertations; in other words, in order to gain a PhD, we have to conduct 3 separate research projects.
The new project that I am beginning is to reconstruct the ‘behavior’ of the Kuroshio Current Extension. This current, which I’ll call the KCE, is a western boundary current. Western boundary currents flow along the western edge of ocean basins. The KCE flows along the east coast of Japan, on the western side of the Pacific Ocean. Western boundary currents are quite important because they transport really warm waters from the equator northward to higher latitudes. This warm water that is transported towards the poles provides water vapor to the atmosphere. Thus, these currents, to some extent, control weather patterns (such as rain). But western boundary currents, and especially the KCE, are very important areas for wildlife as well. Where the KCE is forms what is called an ecotone. An ecotone is a region where two biological regions come into contact. Here, within the KCE, species that live in warm waters are able to mix with species that live in cooler waters. This makes for a very diverse (a lot of different species) area within the KCE. Even corals, who can only tolerate warmer waters, are found at their furthest poleward extent in the KCE region. And associated with corals and coral reefs are fish and their predators. So, the KCE region is an important region to local Japanese fisheries.
By now you might be wondering why all this background on the KCE matters. Because the area within the KCE is so important from a climate, biological, and economical perspective, it’s important to understand how the current will behave (shift to the north or south, increase or decrease transport capacity) under climate change. Right now, we have direct measurements of the KCE that indicate the current is beginning to slowly shift northward. But how much will the current shift? How will this affect the food chain in this region? To begin answering these questions, geoscientists often go back in time to investigate these systems during times of elevated global warmth. Thus, I will be reconstructing the sea surface temperature at three sites that cross the KCE during a more recent warm period in Earth’s history, called the mid-Pliocene Warm Period.
In 2001, there were three sites in the ocean that scientists collected sediment cores from. These three cores were collected to the north of, directly under, and to the south of the modern-day position of the KCE. I’m using sediment taken from the cores collected at these three sites to reconstruct the position of the current from 5 to 2.5 million years ago. But how will I do this?
To reconstruct sea surface temperatures, we need to measure stable isotopes of carbon and oxygen (read more about these two proxies on our ‘Isotopes’ page). Namely, oxygen is the most commonly used proxies to reconstruct temperature, and carbon is more commonly used to determine how productivity (or, more simply, how many nutrients were in the water column) through time. We measure isotopes of carbon and oxygen from the shells of planktic foraminifera.
The first step in this study is to ‘pick’ planktic foraminifera. This means that within each sediment sample within my 5-2.5 million year time interval, I sprinkle sediment into a tray and, with a paintbrush, literally pick out a certain species of foraminifera. The species that I’m using in this study is called Globigerinoides ruber. I just call them ‘rubers’ for short. This species of foraminifera is useful because it is still alive (extant) in today’s oceans, and because of that, scientists know exactly where this species likes to hang out in the water column. Rubers live in the upper part of the surface ocean, so they effectively record the conditions of the ocean’s surface, which is great!
Once I have picked out enough specimens from a sample (which ranges from 10 to 20), I weigh the specimens in an aluminum tray on a very sensitive scale. I need about 150 micro grams of rubers per sample for a good isotopic measurement.
After I have weighed the specimens, I then take my paintbrush and put them, one at a time, into a small plastic vial that is numbered. I also have a spreadsheet where I record all of the information, such as the number of specimens picked per sample, the empty weight of the aluminum tray, the weight of the tray and specimens (so that I can then calculate the weight of just the specimens), and the vial number that corresponds to each sample.
I put the specimens in a vial with a very tight snap-cap because I will send all my samples to another university for isotopic measurements. We could do the measurements at my university, but the machine that we use to do this is not properly calibrated to make measurements off of foraminifera. But lucky for me, I have some awesome collaborators that do have machines that are finely tuned to take isotopic measurements from foraminifera!
Once vialed, the samples will be mailed off to the University of Missouri for isotopic measurements. It usually takes anywhere from 1-3 months for my collaborator there to run all my samples. When he is finished, I’ll receive a spreadsheet with the measurements. I’ll plot these data through time. Then, the fun part: I get to make interpretations about my data! I’ll use these data to track changes in the KCE through time, and also to correlate evolution and extinction events of planktic foraminifera to changes in sea surface temperature through time!
For the past two years, I’ve been conducting research into planktic foraminifera (‘foram’) evolutionary events in the northwest Pacific Ocean, specifically across the western boundary current known as the Kuroshio Current Extension (which I’ll call the KCE from now on). This is a dynamic area of the ocean, and is unique in that forams from warm waters are able to mix and mingle with cold water forams. This mixing of warm and cool species may lead to evolution of new species, but this process is poorly understood. So, part of my dissertation is to determine how important these western boundary currents, specifically the Kuroshio Current Extension, is in the creation of new plankton species. In doing this study, I am also creating a way to tell time using planktic foraminiferal biostratigraphy. OK, those were a lot of big words, so let me explain:
Biostratigraphy is composed of two primary words: bio, meaning life, and stratigraphy, which is a branch of geology concerned with the relative order of rocks and putting time into the rock record. So in short, biostratigraphy is using life to put time into the rock record, or using fossils to tell time. In my case, I use planktic foraminifera to tell time (read more about how I do that here). Commonly in biostratigraphy, we (paleontologists) create zones, which are blocks of time that are constrained by the evolution and extinction events of animals or, in my case, plankton. In the northwest Pacific, there are currently no detailed planktic foram biostratigraphies. Part of my research is to fix this problem!
To conduct a biostratigraphy and thus look at plankton evolution and extinction events, I’m working with sediment that was taken from three sediment cores. These cores were drilled from the north, directly under, and to the south of the modern-day position of the KCE in the northwest Pacific Ocean. The sites go back in time to ~15 million years ago, which is quite young compared to the rest of Earth’s history (4.6 billion years!). Each site contains minerals that aligned to the Earth’s magnetic pole when they were deposited on the seafloor. The direction in which these minerals align were measured by other scientists when the cores were drilled. It turns out that each core records almost all of the Earth’s changes in its magnetic pole. This is important because other scientists through the decades have worked hard to date each of these magnetic reversals. Thus, I can use these ages to construct an age model for each of my sites (an age model is where I assign an age to a certain depth in the core where a magnetic reversal happened; what I end up with is a plot where I can calculate the age at any depth in the core). This age model is important because I can then use it to determine precisely when a foram species evolved or went extinct at any of my three sites.
The first step was to determine at what resolution I wanted to look at foram evolutionary events. I went with 30,000 years, on average. This means that every extinction or evolutionary event has an error of plus or minus 30,000 years. This seems like a lot, but in reality, it’s pretty good! After determining the resolution I wanted, I then used my age model to determine where within each core I wanted to request sediment samples from. All of the cores I use are stored in a facility in College Station, TX (read more about it here), and any scientist can order samples from the facility for free (it’s awesome!). The samples arrived within 2 months after I ordered them.
After I had sorted, sieved, and dried each sample to obtain foraminifera, my samples were ready to be used! I started at the warmest site, the one located to the south of the KCE, in the youngest sample. I sprinkled sediment from the sample onto a tray, looked at the sample under the microscope, and picked out with a small paintbrush every species I could identify. These specimens were placed on a specimen slide (a rectangular cardboard slide with 60 boxes) that had a thin layer of glue over it. In this way, the specimens from each sample stay on the slide, and can be looked at by researchers for years to come. I also have slide maps, or pieces of paper with 60 boxes printed on it where I label what species is in each box on the glued specimen slide. Picking one sample takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how many species are present in the sample.
It’s important to note that I did not look at all the samples that I ordered from College Station, TX. Instead, I did a ‘preliminary pass’ through every 10th or so sample. When I found a sample where a species evolved or went extinct, I then looked at the sample between that one and the next, and repeated that process over and over until I had constrained the event to +/- 30,000 years. I then repeated this process for the other two sites.
Once I had all the data, I plotted it up into several figures and spreadsheets to see where all the evolution and extinction events are taking place. Then, I looked at when several species that are commonly used to define zones among sites (these species are used because they are resistant to dissolution when ocean waters become acidic, they are large and easy to identify, and they occur in high numbers in each sample) evolved or went extinct. It turns out that although the three sites I’m using are close together (they span about 5 degrees of latitude), an evolution or extinction event in one species happened at different times across cores! This is a really cool result, as it means changes in the position of the Kuroshio Current Extension could have caused a species to migrate away or not able to live in the area anymore!
In addition to constraining plankton evolutionary events, I was also able to create zones for use in biostratigraphy bound by these evolutionary events. This is the first study that will have constrained plankton evolutionary events in the northwest Pacific Ocean at a high resolution, and the first time mid-latitude planktic foraminifera zones are calibrated (directly plugged into) the Earth’s magnetic record! I hope to publish these results later this summer in a scientific journal!
One of the famous first stories of modern geology involves the publishing of a geologic map of England by William Smith in 1815. This was one of the first geologic maps made by a geologist doing fieldwork, which often involves camping out in an area for a few days, weeks, or months to find out as much as possible about the area to be mapped. Geologists walk around the area to be mapped and take measurements of what types of rocks are there, how thick each layer is, whether they are tilted or faulted, etc. They may also take samples of the rocks to do chemical tests or look at them under a microscope. Field geologists look at the morphology (shape) of the landscape in order to map the locations of ridges, depressions, and other features and determine the processes that formed them.
My experiences in geology as an undergraduate major were largely field-based, going on many field trips to various places and taking notes and measurements at different locations. But how do you make a map when your field area is on average 140 million miles (225 million km) away from Earth? I had never considered studying geology in a field area anywhere other than Earth, but shortly after starting my master’s degree I had the opportunity to work with a team of collaborators to create a geologic map of a small region on Mars. Geologists can now create maps of planets, moons, and asteroids using high-resolution images from spacecraft orbiting Mars, Mercury, the Moon, and many other bodies in our solar system. I was excited to begin this project, but first I had to learn a whole new set of skills than what I had used in field camp as an undergrad.
There are several software programs scientists can use to make maps using images and other types of geospatial data. These software programs are collectively called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS software is used in many different fields for different kinds of projects and analyses. For example, biologists might use GIS to make maps of where certain species of animals live in relation to cities, lakes, highways, etc. Geologists might use GIS to produce maps showing the location of certain types of rocks or geologic features.
For my master’s project, I used a mosaic (several images digitally “stitched” together) of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (MRO) Context Camera (CTX). To identify a feature in these spacecraft images, it needs to be big enough to have at least two pixels across it each way (so a minimum 2×2 grid). CTX images of Mars have a resolution of 6 meters (m) per pixel, which means they can be used to find features about the size of a large room. When I upload these images into my GIS program, I can zoom in and out to see features better. When I find a feature that looks interesting, I can mark its location and shape by making a new “layer” and drawing on the image. I use different layers for different types of features, and each layer can be turned on and off so I can see where different features are in relation to each other.
My first step in mapping was actually not mapping, but reading lots of previously published papers about the geology of my study area and about the particular type of feature I wanted to map. I am mapping a type of ridge on Mars called a wrinkle ridge. This ridge is formed by tectonic contraction and is found in layered igneous or sedimentary rock units. Once I had read as many papers as I could find on wrinkle ridges and made several tables summarizing the various types of information on them, I could finally start mapping. It took quite a while for my eyes to get used to looking at these images and to pick out the features I was looking for. However, wrinkle ridges have several common distinguishing characteristics, mentioned in many published papers, that I used to double-check my visual identification. When I had gone over my whole study area several times and marked any feature I thought could possibly be what I was looking for, I went over it again and narrowed down the number of features using my list of common characteristics. Learning to identify wrinkle ridges and other features visually is a good skill and I spent a great deal of time trying to do so. However, it is also important to make my results understandable and reproducible by other scientists. Thus I need to be able to clearly show how I identified a feature as either a wrinkle ridge or not. With my list of common characteristics, I decided how many of them would be required to determine if a feature is a wrinkle ridge, and within those determined to be wrinkle ridges I further divided them by how many characteristics they had into certainty levels: Certain, Probable, and Possible. This process allows my work to be reproduced or at least easily followed by any future scientists studying the same type of features.
I’ve been working on this project for about two years now and while it’s been a lot of hard work and tired eyes, it so rewarding to see my map finally coming together. While I’ve been mapping one type of feature, other scientists in my research group have been mapping different types of features and we are about to put them all together and make one complete map. When we have all our mapping together on one map, it will be published as an official United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologic map. Stay tuned!
A dissertation defense can come in many forms but in essence the point is to showcase your research from the past several years of your career. Our department has a three chapter format for dissertations and, usually, these are each publications that have already been published, recently been submitted, or will soon be submitted. Even though you have completed a lot of difficult, complex scientific work, you still have to cater your defense to your audience.
If you don’t cater your talk to your audience, they will quickly lose interest and zone out. You want to make sure to engage and not talk over their heads. So my dissertation had a lengthy, jargon-rich title, “Respiratory Structure Morphology, Group Origins, and Phylogeny of Eublastoidea”. Rather than titling my defense talk with this ridiculous title, that would only excite a few people, I chose something simpler and more effective: “Phylogeny as a Tool in Paleobiology”. From this you can get an understanding that I am talking about paleobiology (=ancient life) and using phylogeny (=evolutionary histories) to test research questions.
The paleontology group in our department is quite small, two faculty and a handful of students. There is a larger sedimentology group that understand fossils quite well but much of my department lacks an understanding of the fossil record (in great detail) and don’t necessarily understand how to read tree/branching diagrams. Knowing this, I started the talk with a few sentences on the overall importance of my talk, why anyone (even my mom) should care about the talk and then I spent time on background information. Information on the group I use to test questions, how we read tree diagrams, and what kind of patterns we look for within the trees.
I then split my talk into three sections that were similar to my dissertation chapters. Since I was focusing on using phylogeny as a tool in deep time, I left out some of the other complex methods that would have taken away from the overall theme of the presentation and focused on the evolutionary histories and what they could tell us about these animals in the past. I made sure each slide had enough text but not too much – viewers get invested in text and think they should read it, which often takes away from what you are actually saying. I also made sure to include visually appealing images – I still haven’t mastered color blind palettes so if you have suggestions please let me know. These images had to start simple and get more complex and I had to make sure to explain each of them thoroughly.
For all talks I give, I write up a corresponding script (thanks, Alycia!). Writing a script helps me organize my talk and gives me an idea of what I want to say during the presentation. I practice a lot – because I know that I won’t get nervous if I *know* what I’m going to say. The first several times I practice I read directly off the script, trying to get used to saying the words and using the slides to visually demonstrate what I am saying. I practice at least a handful of times and usually by myself, I get nervous with only a few people in the room so it throws me off! Everyone is different so I suggesting finding the best way for you to practice so you are confident, maybe it’s with a group of people or maybe it’s by yourself!
Hints for giving successful presentations:
Know your audience
Have someone look through your slides or watch your talk to make sure your organization of the talk makes sense
Use a laser pointer or animations but not like a crazy person, move the laser slowly, and don’t have things flying from all directions on your slides
Be confident, you are likely one of the experts in your field, discipline, topic, whatever and the audience wants to listen to you or else they wouldn’t have come
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.
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.
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.
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!
Teaching about climate change this year took a toll on me. I’m normally a resilient and fairly hopeful person, but diving into the current and future impacts of climate change commonly leaves a person shell-shocked. How do climate scientists cope with existential dread?
Scientists are people too. Some of us are young, many of us have kids. It is difficult to stare this problem in the face day in and day out, without feeling like you are watching a slow motion train wreck, with your elected officials stepping on the gas rather than using the brakes. I’ve decided that I’m going to share those feelings with other people. We’re starting with the current impacts. A second post will follow with the basics of climate modeling, and finishing with what we think will happen next.
What follows here is a small, incomplete collection of current climate-driven impacts and assorted links to other information. I’ve tried to keep it to just impacts that are established in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). These are things that science can firmly establish as happening right now due to climate change.
Hydrological (Water) Cycle
We can currently say there are substantial changes to where and how rain and snow fall because of climate change. These changes have altered our ability to use water, both in quantity and quality. If we look at Michigan as an example, it has an increase in yearly precipitation of 2/3 of an inch per decade since 1960. Massachusetts has seen >1 inch per decade (data here). Other states are not as lucky, and are currently seeing a decrease (e.g., California). Our freshwater is increasingly contaminated due to both low (drought) and high (flood) conditions in many locations in the US. 10% of counties are currently under high or extreme risk of a water shortage.
We, as humans, are at the start of these changes as well.
If you’re curious what the US government has to say about water use changes, click here for the National Climate Assessment Water Use (from 2014) page. It also has very scary maps!
IPCC:In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence).
Click here to explore the National Climate Assessment site’s findings from 2014 on water supplies.
We can also say that animals, plants, and other organisms have had responses to climate change. Coral reefs are the easy and moderately better-knownconnection, what with nearly 50% of the Great Barrier Reef corals dead in the northern section. Polar bears are similarly simple. With the arctic warming faster than the globe, 3/19 tracked polar bear populations are shrinking, while we don’t have enough data to say anything about the other 9/19. At least one of the ‘stable’ populations has shrunk since 25 years ago (stability is a ~12 year average). More warm winters mean more ticks in moose territory. A warmer West coast means stressed salmon. And so on.
While a projection (estimation based on current data), which I’m trying to save until later, click here for a map visualizing how species will need to move to maintain their proper habitat in a climate-shifting world.
IPCC:Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change (high confidence).
Climate change also has a negative effect on crop growth. Unlike what Lamar Smith has written (R-TX, head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology), we do not expect there to be a benefit of increased CO2 in plant growth. Temperature effects far outweigh the small growth boost of higher CO2, and will lead to decreased seed yields. Climate change will shift where things grow; in some areas of India that used to get more snow there are new potato crops growing now with the milder winters. That’s good, but it’s quite the outlier. Wheat, rice, maize, soybean, barley and sorghum all respond negatively in rising temperature. Wheat production has already dropped 5.5%, and Maize by 3.8%. That is with our limited (in the face of what is projected) temperature changes so far.
Click here for an article by Scott Johnson that goes into more detail.
IPCC:Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).
Extreme Weather Events
Climate change also increases the chances of having extreme weather events. Importantly, we can’t say that an individual hurricane is directly a result of climate change. We can say, however, that they are more likely. We can say that they’re made stronger, when they do happen. Harvey and others aren’t because of climate change but they’re more likely to happen and be worse because of it. Storms like Harvey, or Maria, or Irma, or Ophelia (which even hit the UK!) are more likely, and therefore more frequent, because of our warmer world.
Wildfires (click here for more details) are also made more common, due to drier conditions in some areas. So are floods, where there’s an increase in precipitation. And heatwaves. And on, and on.
This will obviously stress our systems to care for those affected. Given this summer and fall, I shouldn’t really need to back up that claim with supporting data.
IPCC:Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence).
Climate change has cost us money, and it will likely continue to cost us. We can say this with a high degree of certainty. Wildfires, floods, storms, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, all have a monetary cost. The insurance industry is well aware of the increasing trend in the costs, and so keeps track. We can divide the cost of these natural disasters into things that will be altered by climate change (wildfires, floods, storms, droughts, so on) and those not affected by climate change (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.). This acts as a nice check against our buildings being more expensive, disaster relief being more expensive, or something like that. When we do this, all of the climate-related costs are increasing dramatically (click here for more details), while those not affected by climate change are only increasingly slightly. The number of climate-related (or extreme-weather) disasters is increasing, while the number of earthquakes is flat.
IPCC:Direct and insured losses from weather-related disasters have increased substantially in recent decades, both globally and regionally.
Ocean Temperature Changes
Many of the ocean acidification impacts are similar or work alongside the impacts of increases in ocean temperature (click here for more details). Two examples: Corals bleach primarily due to temperature and their ‘skeletons’ fall apart in response to the pH. Similarly, when temperature rises, krill reproduce in smaller numbers. Krill are a key part of the food chain for things that people find cute, like penguins, seals, and many whales. Together, if those larger animals are stressed or starve, their predators die too.
Warmer water also expands, so a warmer ocean means that sea-level rise occurs more as well. This can magnify the storm surges, amplifies the effect of the melting glacial waters, and is generally a very bad thing.
Oh yeah, and the rate that the ocean is warming is accelerating.
Many things have changed in the oceans due to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The first is that the ocean has absorbed quite a bit of that carbon dioxide. The pH has changed by 0.1 units since the industrial revolution. pH scales are not linear, so this actually is a 30% increase in acidity.
Marine life obviously feels this massive change. Because they are smaller and more fragile, larval stages of various organisms or plankton feel the effects first. While there are other things at issue (though research is working on detangling the others: water quality issues, low oxygen, or changes in diseases, etc.), the current rash of losses in the oyster industry are at least partially due to changes in acidity. The oyster industry is a $100-million-a-year industry. Click here for more details.
Corals, too, are stressed. Coral bleaching is due to temperature, but the material that corals make their skeletons out of is susceptible to acidification. It makes it harder for them to reproduce, grow, and live. They also dissolve and erode faster under higher amounts of acid.
There are currently more than a million other species living in coral reefs, making reefs some of the greatest spots of diversity on Earth.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level has risen between 10-25 centimeters. Because much of the coast is really flat, that means much more area has been lost than it appears. We think that the loss to property values is between $3-5 billion a year. In structural loss, it is $500 million. We spend a lot of money to keep the coast where it is too; like the $14 billion Louisiana is expecting to put into coastal barriers along the Mississippi River delta. In other areas, the coast just erodes and land disappears into the ocean. Click here for more details.
Click here for a neat NOAA page that lets you see what happens as sea level rises.
We know sea level rise also has a cost on communities and lives. An entire community, Shishmaref in Alaska, has lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land in 35 years. Other communities, Kivalina, Newtok, Shaktoolik, and others (31 in total) need to be moved according to the Army Corps of Engineers. At least one community has voted to move to the mainland, but without funding to move, cannot.
Climate change is a volume knob for social justice issues. That volume knob is sensitive.
Communities that are marginalized (have less political power, less money, etc.) are far more at risk in a changing world. If you have less power in society, odds are that a society under stress from climate change will be less likely to support you in the face of needs (even a lesser need) of a more powerful,other group.
This is referred to as ‘Climate Justice’. The People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. (2017) was a wonderful example of how this has been embraced. From what I could tell, there were far more people there interested in social justice (indigenous communities, religious communities, etc.) than the scientists or folks who allied themselves with science at the march. It’s called the People’s Climate March for a reason. Click here for the NAACP’s page on Climate and Environmental Justice.
There is no clearer example than what happened and is currently happening in the US in 2017. Puerto Rico is not a state. Florida and Texas are. The US response to Puerto Rico which, again, is a part of the United States of America is the textbook example of this. Puerto Rico does not have representation in the federal government, so is ‘less important’ from a hardline (and inhumane) political point of view. The differing response from the federal government is a direct and obvious example of this IPCC finding.
IPCC: Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes (very high confidence). These differences shape differential risks from climate change.
Climate change is currently changing the water cycle, changing how water resources can be accessed. We’ve seen that animals and plants are already shifting their habitats due to climate change. A specific, but very human-centric part of that is how crops are and will respond. Harvests, in bulk, are down for many of our grains. Climate change has already cost us lots of money, and will continue to.
Lastly, but probably most importantly, climate change is currently felt by disadvantaged peoples disproportionately. The US response to Puerto Rico which is a part of the US is the textbook example of this. Puerto Rico does not have statehood, so is ‘less important’ from a hardline (and inhumane) political point of view.
We cannot, scientifically, say that Maria and Harvey and Irma and Ophelia are because of climate change. Attribution is difficult due to the statistics involved. We can however say that the scientific prediction for what happens in a warmer world is larger, more damaging and frequent storms. That is what we experienced in 2017.
Science has a rather odd role in society. Its achievements form the very foundations of modern civilization, yet, to many, science might as well be magic, obscure and inexplicable. Popular culture tends to make scientists seem like haughty priests in an ivory tower, keepers of arcane knowledge, augurs of great portents, and babblers of dead languages and incomprehensible jargon.
Time Scavengers hopes to change that impression by showing that scientists are ordinary people and science is not as unfamiliar or unapproachable as it might initially seem. While some disciplines may have sizeable barriers to entry—think molecular biology or high energy particle physics—others are far more accessible, particularly ornithology (as “bird watching”), astronomy (as “stargazing”), and, of course, geology and paleontology (as “fossil collecting”). Indeed, these fields are indebted to hundreds of years of contributions by experienced naturalists who were amateurs in name only.
For what is an amateur but someone who takes up their passion solely for its own sake? Paleontology is often known as a “gateway drug” for science, and with good reason: it’s hard not to be entranced by immense dinosaur skeletons at a museum, or fossil shark teeth glistening on a beach, or an ancient coral reef eroding out of a neighborhood construction site. Fossils spark the imagination. Wherever there are fossils, there are people inspired to collect them.
And wherever there are fossil collectors, chances are there is also a local fossil club. Cincinnati is one such place. Built on the banks of the Ohio River and surrounded by 450 million year old shales and limestones packed with a wealth of fossils, the city has a strong tradition of amateur paleontology. Curious locals have been collecting brachiopods, bryozoans, trilobites, cephalopods, and other Ordovician fossils from Cincinnatian outcrops since the 1800s. Many published their findings and became nationally and internationally recognized geologists.
This legacy of citizen science lives on today in the form of the Dry Dredgers. Founded in 1942, the Dry Dredgers are the oldest fossil club in the United States, having recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of their founding in April of 2017. The club was formed in close collaboration with the geology department of the University of Cincinnati, a relationship that continues to this day.
Like most other amateur paleontology societies, the Dry Dredgers has regular field trips and meetings. The latter are held on the campus of the University of Cincinnati monthly during the school year, usually on the evening of the last Friday of the month. Free and open to the public, the meetings typically follow a consistent structure.
First, a Beginners Class convenes before the main meeting, providing basic paleontological instruction to new members and children. The more experienced members also frequently show up early to socialize with their friends. Light food and drink is usually available. Collectors share their recent finds, try to identify unusual specimens, and tell a few tall tales. The desks are always piled with fossils and fossil literature, open for all to see.
At the designated time, the club President calls the meeting to order. They then proceed to introductions, where new members and visitors tell who they are, where they’re from, and what made them decide to attend the meeting. After this rigorous interrogation, the President begins the night’s entertainment with the door prize raffle, a random giveaway of small fossils, minerals, books, and other geological paraphernalia.
Then the main program commences: a lecture by a graduate student, professor, distinguished amateur, or other interesting character. The talks are usually an hour or so in length, focusing on a particular aspect of the speaker’s research or experience. Some are travelogues, slideshows of faraway mountain ranges and mouth-watering fossil deposits. Others focus on a particular fossil or group of fossils—trilobites and echinoderms are persistent favorites. And yet others can be quite technical, delving into PhD-level research on paleoecology and taphonomy. Whatever the topic, the audience invariably grills the speaker with a host of questions at the end of the lecture.
Following the lecture, the meeting wraps up with additional business. Any professional paleontologists in attendance give a report of what they are doing: papers published, students graduated, classes taught, conventions attended, and the like. Upcoming events and other miscellaneous things are announced. Then the meeting is gaveled to an end.
Some hardy members stay long after the meeting proper, socializing late into the night. Fossils are shared, bragged about, and identified. Any remaining refreshments are consumed. Plans are made for future excursions. The last people typically trickle out around 11:00 PM, tired but satisfied.
Unfortunately, chances are that you may not live near Cincinnati. However, many other fossil clubs are scattered across the United States, from North Carolina to Texas to California and almost every state in between. The FOSSIL Project has compiled a list (click here) of dozens of such organizations. Chances are, there’s one near you!
Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned a lot from one another.
But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.
While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.
At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.
We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.
So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.
Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!
I just got back from a whirlwind trip to the University of Iowa to do research in their paleontology repository. This collection is very interesting because it is a massive fossil collection that is actually housed in a geology department rather than a museum. That might seem weird to you, but it was a really nice environment to do research in. Their collections manager, Tiffany, has a small army of undergraduate students that are working with her to help maintain the collections, so the repository has a really nice homey feel to it. Museum work can be a little lonely at times (often you are the only person working in a small room surrounded by fossils), so having Tiffany and her undergrads pop in from time to time to chat was a nice break from research.
So, just what do paleontologists do when they go to a museum to do research? Well, the simple answer is: we look at fossils. For any project that we are working on, seeing as many individual fossils of the same species or even same group gives us a better idea of what is “normal” for that organism. Your research question(s) will determine what in particular you are looking for or paying attention to on each fossil. So for my group that I’m working on, paracrinoids, I’m paying a lot of attention to details around the mouth, differences in plate shape (the plates that make up the body of the animal), and if there is any organization to their plating. This involves a lot of close up work with a microscope to look at these features and careful note taking about what I’m seeing. The data that I collect at museums has to be detailed so that when I get back to my university I can recall specimens and use that data in my analyses. Sometimes if we are lucky, we get to take some specimens back to our universities to keep working on them, but more often we just have our notes and photos to go off of. So our time and work at the museums is invaluable!
Research weeks at museums are really long, but the time flies by! You are hyper-focused on your research and your fossils. Even when you are not at the museum working, you are in your hotel catching up on the work that you are missing at home. Between looking at the specimens, taking notes, taking pictures, and trying to find patterns in what you are looking at, the days just fly by. But, I always like to save a little time for myself to wander around the exhibits and look at other specimens in the collection because you are surrounded by wonderful fossils! But for as long and hard as a week researching at a museum can be, the trips are always fun and you come away having learned a lot!