April 24, 2012

Professor searches for warmth in Antarctica

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Audience members embarked on a scientific adventure exploring data and probable solutions to global warming at the April 4 presidential roundtable.
Queens College professor Stephen Pekar presented his research to roughly 20 people at the event entitled ‘Past Climate and Ice-Volume Changes in Antarctica: Looking Back to Our Future,’ held

in the Summit Flex Space.

“We’re living in the warmest times we’ve seen in millions of years,” said Pekar, an associate professor at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at QC. “Mother Nature is sick.”

The planet is beginning to warm because of excessive levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, explained Pekar, who is also a geologist. The last time the environment changed so rapidly was roughly 65.6 million years ago due to an asteroid that contributed to a mass extinction event.

“Right now our trajectory is on the worst-case scenario,” Pekar said.

Pekar has been on four expeditions to Antarctica, one of which he led. His last expedition took place on a drilling ship on which they used a long metal pipe to extract sediment. The core, a tubular section of the collected sediment, acts like a calendar of the past with each layer representing a snapshot of geologic history. These sediments are often difficult to find in Antarctica because ice often hides or physically erodes them.

“The way we find them is by using sound waves that go through the water and then into the sediments then make echoes off of the different sedimentary layers, which are then recorded by sensitive microphones,” Pekar said.

These cores are essential to Pekar’s work, since the goal of his research is to understand climate change in the past and to better comprehend and prepare for the climate change happening presently.

Tiny shells called microfossils found in the core convey information about past environments in two ways: by the types of fossilized species found and by allowing for a calculation of the ratios of oxygen with an atomic mass of 16 to oxygen with an atomic mass of 18.

An atomic mass is the total mass of protons, neutrons and electrons in a single atom and an isotope is an atom that has the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons in the nucleus. Both oxygen-16 and oxygen-18 are oxygen isotopes, meaning they are merely isotopes made up of oxygen.

The ratios of these oxygen isotopes in core samples can tell us about the water temperatures of the oceans during ancient times, and through the recurring patterns in past climate change, estimations can be made about how the future will look climatically.

“The most continuous climate record, older than 800,000 years, comes from doing chemistry on the shells of foraminifera [microfossils],” Pekar said.

This extensive knowledge of past climate change has aided us in the pursuit to better understand global warming and the effects it will have on our environment.

Pekar’s research focuses on a time when the atmosphere was close to what they predict it will be at the end of this century. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are currently 390 parts per million. Climate scientists believe this will go up to 550-1000 parts per million.

“The last time it was that high was about 25 to 50 million years ago,” Pekar said of the levels.

The reason they chose Antarctica, or “ground zero” as Pekar called it, is because Antarctica has changed climatically more than any other place on earth over the last 50 million years.

“The research that he is doing is critical because we are living in a particular moment in time when carbon dioxide is building in the atmosphere. It is very clear that to some extent we are responsible for that,” said professor Allan Ludman, chairman of the QC School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“What humanity has done in the last 100 years, Mother Nature could not do in three million,” Pekar said.

This is precisely why environmental research is so in demand. The geology department at QC has been giving research projects to undergraduate students that then present at and are sent to major international conferences. They accept students from all scientific fields, including biology, chemistry and oceanography. Two such students accompanied Pekar on the expedition that he led personally in Antarctica.

Of Antarctica, Pekar said, “It’s the closest I’ll ever get to going to another planet; it’s beautiful.”

Professor Stephen Pekar led an expedition to Antarctica. Students partook in sediment drilling to understand climatic changes in geologic history. Photo Courtesy Stephen Pekar.

Pekar’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. Though he will not be embarking on another expedition for the next few years, his work continues to lead the exploration of global warming.




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