Into the deep ocean with Lorraine Lisiecki

Lorraine Lisiecki is in the business of understanding past variations in ocean circulation. In particular, she uses mathematical approaches to interpret observed variations in δ18O and δ13C on times scales of thousands to millions of years.

Credit: Lorraine Lisiecki
Credit: Lorraine Lisiecki

Lorraine is the senior author of the famous LR04 benthic stack. There are ~ 3400 papers in ISI with the word “Pliocene” in the title. The LR04 paper, as of early February 2016, has almost 2000 citations, more than twice as many as the next most-cited Pliocene-entitled paper.

Why? Other δ18O stacks exist, but none had provided such a high level of mathematical rigor, objectivity, global scope and duration. The LR04 stack — in a comical understatement — proved to be one of the most useful records in all of paleoceanography. Lorraine tells me the back story of its creation, arising from an informal spousal consultation.

Lorraine’s interest in paleoclimate arose in part from the early realization of “what, we *still* don’t understand glacial-interglacial cycles?!” The answer’s still out there, and we discuss how it might involve a combination of deterministic and stochastic processes. I suspect that many in the paleoclimate business have the same motivation, but in Lorraine’s case she brought an unusually quantitative lens to the problem.

This should come as little surprise, as Lorraine went to high school at the South Caroline Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics and received her undergraduate degree from MIT. This sort of background equipped Lorraine for all sorts of mathematical approaches, like phase lags in the relationships between orbital forcing and ocean circulation.

Lisiecki_3DTV
Lorraine working on 3D ocean visualization. Credit: Carlye Peterson.

Lorraine’s now working on reconstructing a 3D picture of past ocean circulation and updating LR04 with time-variant uncertainties. Uncertainties pop up throughout our discussion, not the least the frustration in trying to publish on the true magnitude of reconstruction uncertainties.

We discuss some of the perennial topics of academic life — like finding a manageable work life balance and the best way to discuss publication gaps (both from an application and hiring perspective) — and a fairly unusual one: life with triplets.

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