Andrea Dutton from the University of Florida tells Mike about the many nuances of using corals to reconstruct past sea level. Sounds simple enough: find corals at depth z, date them to year t, and Bob’s your uncle. Yeah … no. Turns out there’s a lot more at play: 3D topography, plasticity in coral’s depth preference, challenging geochemistry, changes in turbidity. The list of complicating factors is long, but Andrea and her colleagues are working incredibly hard to provide better constraints of sea levels during past warm periods — a critical constraint for the models being used to project sea level into the future. On top of all that, Andrea is an outreach superstar and was recently selected as one of Rolling Stones’ 25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More. Professional success doesn’t always come easy, though, and Andrea has had to work through challenges like big publication gaps, divorce, and raising young children during the tenure process.
Alternative facts are much in the news. The idea is, of course, ridiculous. Some things are clearly facts. Pizza is delicious; cake makes me happy; serving a white Burgundy at 40 F is an abomination; you should never wear a backpack with a suit.
Much of climate science, however, is not what you would call a hard fact. Yes, we can begin with some facts, following immediately with a suite of questions on quantification and mechanism. Yes, the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing mass. But what is driving the variations in time and space, are there physical limitations to retreat rates, what are the constraints on ice sheets behavior from paleoclimate, what is the role of firn/cryoconite/black carbon?
Research moves to the open questions, which, to some, provides an opening to say that scientists don’t have the facts. For the immediate questions at hand, it is of course true that we don’t have the answers — that’s why there’s research! Let’s not lose track of the vast amount of knowledge, and the big picture facts, that we do have.
Rant over, at least for now!
Sometimes I don’t fully grasp the scope of what Forecast guests are doing until I have time to reflect, during editing or while writing the show notes. That was certainly the case with today’s guest, Nerilie Abram. Nerilie has astonishingly broad interests. She works with corals, ice cores, speleothems, and modelers on topics all over the world (literally!) from the past to the future.
Much of our discussion centered around the process by which Nerilie cracks open new topics: framing questions, conducting research, challenging her own ideas, and grinding through the review process. Over time, this is the work that ends up in the fact category. It takes, in addition to mad technique, stubbornness:
Science requires, for all sorts of reasons, people who are going to be able to stick it out in this game, to have that kind of determination … not just the skills
Facts are indeed hard to come by, and proxies can be particularly bedeviling, particularly if one takes the time to actually think about them:
When you’re dealing with indirect proxies, things can change that you’re not expecting
All of which makes me think of Nerilie as the Danny Meyer of science. What, you’re running a restaurant in a museum now? Or in Nerilie’s case, what, you had a quick talk with Nick Shackleton and now you’re off to the British Antarctic Survey? Smashing!
Credit: David Wools-Cobb
Credit: Jennie Mallela
Credit: Samantha Shelley
Credit: Mark Curran
Credit: Stuart Hay
And the field work. Oh yes, the field work. Plenty of people get into geosciences for the amazing field sites. Nerilie never said that she’s in it for the travel, but it couldn’t have hurt.
Corals and speleothems are some of our most useful recorders of past climate variability. The spectacular speleothem records from eastern China, for example, have been instrumental in building our understanding of past variations in the East Asian Monsoon. But as is the case for most any paleoclimate proxy, corals and speleothems do not record a direct record of … well, anything.