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WATCH: Undergraduates help demystify Earth's climate system

Miles Traer
Stanford School Of Earth Sciences
October 22, 2014
Climate graph

What is the “normal” state of Earth’s climate?  It’s a seemingly simple question with a fiendishly complex answer.  But it’s something we need to know to better understand what our future will look like.  Emma Hutchinson and Mary Cirino, two sophomores in the Earth Systems program, just spent the summer working towards at least a partial answer.

Hutchinson and Cirino participated in the Stanford School of Earth Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research (SESUR) program, which allows Stanford undergrads to join the scientific process alongside faculty and graduate student mentors.  In the program, the students research a wide range of topics, including the health of the oceans around Antarctica, earthquake detectability and induced seismicity, the dynamics of glaciers and ice sheets, food systems in drought-prone regions, and climate change.

To understand current changes to Earth’s climate, researchers must first understand Earth’s climate history, often called paleoclimate by those who study it.  Hutchinson and Cirino extracted paleoclimate information from lake sediments and tropical corals collected by professor Rob Dunbar and his graduate students.  The Dunbar lab tackles this question of “what has been and what is currently the normal state of Earth’s climate” by looking to regions spread out across the planet.

Emma Hutchinson worked with graduate student Sverre LeRoy whose PhD work focuses on the most energetic wind system on Earth, the Southern Hemisphere Westerlies.  The only landmass that intersects these winds is Southern Patagonia at the very tip of South America.  By making careful observations and by using geochemical techniques to isolate certain elements contained within lake bottom sediments, Hutchinson helped LeRoy to construct a better picture of how the strength of the Southern Westerlies affects the circulation of the Southern Ocean, and how this coupled wind-ocean system might evolve in the coming greenhouse centuries.

Mary Cirino worked with Neil Tangri, another graduate student in the Dunbar lab whose PhD work focuses on the powerful and complex climate system called El Niño and the Southern Oscillation, or ENSO.  ENSO affects global climate patterns, and paleoclimate scientists are still working to fully understand what a ‘normal’ ENSO pattern looks like.  Using the longest known continuous coral record ever collected, Cirino and Tangri extracted information about past ocean conditions to demystify the climate system and help clarify the ‘normal’ ENSO picture.

So, what is the “normal” state of Earth climate?  As Hutchinson and Cirino discussed, that’s a complicated question with complicated answers that look different in different parts of the world.  But the techniques they learned and employed as part of the SESUR program and the data they gathered have contributed pieces to our understanding of the climate system and what we might expect in the near future.

Emma Hutchinson and Mary Cirino’s stories provide a sample of the research opportunities afforded to undergraduate students participating in the SESUR program.  For additional information about the SESUR program, please contact Richard Nevle or Sara Cina.