by Kristofor Husted
Oct 22, 2010
Conversations about rising oceans, shifting monsoons, glacial quakes and climate change past and present animated the group gathered round a bonfire in the middle of the rolling hills of Wisconsin.
A three-piece string band softly plucked and strummed away in the late summer warmth. Pennsylvania State geoscientist Richard Alley joined them with his guitar. Several other scientists hopped in with banjo, guitar, and accordion.
Alley and other scientists core ice from glaciers and sediment from the ocean floor. They study fluctuations in temperatures and carbon concentrations in ancient air pockets, rock and fossilized shells to determine points when climate can shift.
A picnic and the bonfire brought everyone beneath the stars after two days of shared research at the 2010 Comer Conference on abrupt climate change.
One set of scientists looked a little different than the veterans, though: younger and with a propensity to lie in the grass instead of sitting at the picnic tables. These next generation scientists may not look like their maestro colleagues, but they earned their stripes at the conference.
Lands’ End founder Gary Comer began these conferences in 2004 to gather together scientists doing research he helped fund because of his passion to understand our planet’s changing climate.
It all started with his own eureka moment when sailing the Northwest Passage in 2001. There should have been more ice in the sea that summer – lots more. Where was it? His daughter Stephanie Comer accompanied him on the trip along with several other family and friends on board.
“This is wrong. What’s going on?” she recalls him saying.
Once Comer returned home, he searched for answers from geoscientist Wally Broecker of Columbia University. Their eventual collaboration germinated a partnership between Comer and top climate change scientists across the country. Millions of dollars in funding allowed them to mentor a new generation of climate change scientists through fellowships.
Now, Comer funding provides seed money that allows promising young scientists to complete the initial research that attracts additional support.
When Comer died in 2006, Stephanie and her brother, Guy, took over their father’s cause. They continue to work with Broecker, as well as Titan climate researchers George Denton of the University of Maine, Alley and numerous other scientists, to fund young researchers. This year, more than any other, a team of new faces gathered with them.
“It’s really wonderful to see so many new faces. And they’re young and thrilled to be around people that are so well respected in the field,” said Stephanie Comer.
Broecker, Denton and Alley, who help coordinate the conference, echoed her feelings.
Broecker is excited about the work of young scientists such as Irene Schimmelpfennig, apostdoctoral research fellow at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia. Schimmelpfennig keeps her coppery long locks firmly pulled away from her face and uses Earth isotopes generated by cosmic rays to date rocks and the periods across time when they may have been buried by glaciers.
Basically, by taking a humble piece of rock and calculating the ratio between isotopes, such as carbon-14 and berrylium-10, she can estimate how long that rock has been exposed. This is important when determining how long ago the glaciers retreated in an area and the climate conditions that caused them to lumber away.
“You’re putting together pieces of a puzzle” to get the chronology just right, Denton said. From that, scientists can develop a hypothesis on how all the pieces match up and produce climate change, critical pieces for models assessing likely climate change impacts today.
“This gives us a clue as to the way it all interacts that we don’t get when we just look at ten years of a climate record, or 100 years of a climate record,” Denton said. “If we look at 100,000 years of a climate record in real detail we can see all the possibilities of climate change and how everything interacts around the world.”
Adam Hudson, a University of Arizona PhD candidate with surfer blonde hair, is also helping to reconstruct the past. Hudson studies the Ngangla Ring, a lake in the western part of the Tibetan Plateau. Through radiocarbon dating, Hudson chronicles the past lake levels and precipitation patterns during different climate cycles. This information is also crucial in putting together the timeline of climate change events.
As a first timer to the conference, Hudson said he was most eager to meet Broecker.
“This may be one of the most exciting conferences I’ve ever been to. It’s only two days long and it cuts right to the chase. Every talk was interesting and really cutting edge science. You’ve got the best names in climate science here,” he said.
Across from Hudson sat University of Maine PhD student Gordon Bromley, a Brit. Bromley’s research uses glacial geology to examine paleoclimate records in the tropics. He hopes to characterize the natural climate variability in the tropics and see which areas are most vulnerable to future climate change.
Recently, Bromley descended from field work on a Peruvian mountain, turned on his computer, and found an email waiting from Broecker asking him to please come to the Comer conference. Thrilled with the invite, Bromley said he looked forward to hearing renowned scientists such as Broecker, Denton, Larry Edwards of the University of Minnesota and Ray Pierrehummbert of the University of Chicago.
“You get very star struck here. I’ve met people (here) that when I was doing my undergrad degree, I would read their papers,” Bromley said.
Bromley, along with several other attendees, said he believes he and others are part of a trend of burgeoning interest in climate science among young researchers.
“With the increase in funding going into the system for climate change (research), university faculty are able to carry more students and I was one of them,” he said.
The Comer Science and Education Foundation continues to help fund climate change research. Schimmelpfennig, Hudson and Bromley were among those offered seed money to join the quest for answers. This funding often leads to other grants they couldn’t receive without the seminal research.
“It’s really mentoring younger scientists. I don’t know if that was explicitly put forth when my dad developed this. Certainly he always wanted to encourage younger people to go out and become scientists. It’s been really wonderful to see,” Stephanie Comer said.
As the night grew darker, the pastel amphitheater of sunset faded and the bonfire lit the cheerful faces engrossed in discussions that continue the conference presentations.The groups mixed – a few people at a time – every few minutes into a swirl of different scientific backgrounds, working together to establish the chronology of past climate change events in order to provide a more predictable future on what a warming climate holds in store.