GeoTalk: the climate communication between Earth’s polar regions

GeoTalk: the climate communication between Earth’s polar regions

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview, we caught up with Christo Buizert, an assistant professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who works to reconstruct and understand climate change events from the past. Christo’s analysis of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica helped reveal links between climate change events from the last ice age that occurred on opposite ends of the Earth. At this year’s General Assembly, the Climate: Past, Present & Future Division recognized his innovative contributions to palaeoclimatology by presenting him with the 2018 Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award.

Christo, thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your career path so far?

Thanks for having me on GeoTalk! I’m a palaeoclimate scientist working on polar ice cores (long sticks of ancient ice drilled in Greenland and Antarctica), combining data, modeling and fieldwork. My background is in physics, and I did a MSc thesis project on quantum electronics. As you can see, I ended up in quite a different field. After teaching high school for a year in my home country the Netherlands, I pursued a PhD at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, working on ice cores. I must say, doing a PhD is a lot easier than teaching high school! I have gained a lot of respect for teachers.

After obtaining my PhD I moved to the US for reasons of both work and love (not necessarily in that order). I got a NOAA Climate & Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship at Oregon State University (OSU). OSU has a great palaeoclimate research group and Oregon is one of the prettiest places on Earth, so the decision to stick around was an easy one.

What inspired you to pursue palaeoclimatology after getting your MSc degree in quantum electronics?

I wish I had a better answer to this question, but the truth is that I was drawn by the possibility of doing fieldwork in Greenland, mainly.

At the General Assembly, you received a Division Outstanding Early Career Scientist Award for your work on understanding the bi-polar phasing of climate change. For those of us who aren’t familiar, could you elaborate on this particular field of study?

The final drill run of the WAIS Divide ice core, with ice from 3,405 m (11,171 ft) depth that has been buried for 68,000 years. (Credit: Kristina Slawny/University of Bern)

During the last ice age (120,000 to 12,000 years ago), the world experienced some of the most extreme and abrupt climate events that we know of, the so-called Dansgaard-Oeschger (D-O) events. About 25 of these D-O events happened in the ice age, and during each of them Greenland warmed by 8 to 15oC within a few decades. Each of the warm phases (called interstadials) lasted several hundreds to thousands of years. Greenland ice cores provide clear evidence for these events.

The abrupt D-O events are thought to be linked to changes in ocean circulation. Heat is transported to the Atlantic Ocean by the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere. The AMOC keeps the Nordic Seas free of sea ice and effectively warms Greenland, particularly during the winter months. However, the strength of this heat circulation went through abrupt changes during the last ice age. Marine sediment data and model studies show that changes to the AMOC strength caused the extreme temperature swings associated with the D-O events.

During weak phases of the AMOC, less heat and salt are brought to the North Atlantic, leading to expansive (winter) sea ice cover and cold conditions in Greenland. These are the D-O cycle’s cold phases, the so-called stadials. And vice versa, during the AMOC’s strong phases, the ocean transports more heat northwards, reducing sea ice cover and warming Greenland. These are the warm (interstadial) phases of the D-O cycle.

When the AMOC is strong, it warms the northern hemisphere at the expense of the southern hemisphere. This inter-hemispheric heat exchange is sometimes referred to as ‘heat piracy,’ since the North Atlantic is ‘stealing’ heat from the southern hemisphere. So when Greenland is warm, we see Antarctica cool, and when Greenland is cold, Antarctica is warming. These opposite hemispheric temperature patterns are called the bipolar seesaw, after the playground toy. Using a new ice core from the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (the WAIS Divide ice core), we were able to study the relative timing of the bipolar seesaw at a precision of a few decades – which is extremely precise by the standards of palaeoclimate research.

An infographic explaining the opposite hemispheric temperature patterns, also known as the bipolar seesaw (Illustration by David Reinert/Oregon State University).

We found that the temperature response to the northern hemisphere’s abrupt D-O events was delayed by about two centuries at WAIS Divide. This finding shows that the effects of these D-O events start in the north, and then are transmitted to the southern high-latitudes via changes in the ocean circulation. If the atmosphere were responsible, transmission would have been much faster (typically within a year or so). State-of-the-art climate models actually fail to simulate this 200-year delay in the Antarctic response, suggesting they are missing (or overly simplifying) some of the relevant physics of how temperature anomalies are propagated and mixed in the global ocean. The timescale of two centuries is unmistakably the signature of the ocean, in my view, and so it is an interesting target for testing models.

At the meeting you also gave a talk about the climatic connections between the northern and southern hemispheres during the last ice age. Could you tell us a little more about your findings and their implications? 

A volcanic ash layer in an Antarctic ice core. Volcanic markers like these were used in the new study to synchronize ice cores from across Antarctica. (Credit: Heidi Roop/Oregon State University)

I presented some recently published work that elaborates on this 200-year delay mentioned earlier. Together with European colleagues, we synchronized five Antarctic ice cores using volcanic eruptions as time markers. This makes it possible to study the timing of the seesaw across the entire Antarctic continent with the same great precision as at WAIS Divide. It turns out that the 200-year delayed oceanic response to the northern hemisphere’s abrupt climate change is visible all over Antarctica, not just in West Antarctica.

But the exciting thing is that by looking at the spatial picture, we detect a second mode of climatic teleconnection, superimposed on the bipolar seesaw we talked about earlier. This second mode has zero-time lag behind the northern hemisphere, suggesting that this mode is an atmospheric teleconnection pattern. In my talk I used postcards and text messages as an analogy for these two modes. The oceanic mode is like a postcard, that takes a long time to arrive in Antarctica (200 years). The atmospheric mode is like a text message that arrives right away.

The atmospheric circulation change (the “text message”) causes a particular temperature pattern over Antarctica, with cooling in some places and warming in others. Think of this as the “fingerprint” of the atmospheric circulation. We then compared the ice-core fingerprint to the fingerprints of several wind patterns seen in modern observations. We found that the so-called Southern Annular Mode, a natural mode describing the variability of the westerly winds circling Antarctica, is the best modern analog for what we see in the ice cores.

An infographic explaining how Earth’s polar regions communicate with each other (Illustration by Oliver Day/Oregon State University)

Another piece of the puzzle is that atmospheric moisture pathways to Antarctica change simultaneously with the atmospheric mode. All this supports the idea that the southern hemisphere’s westerly winds respond immediately to abrupt climate change in the North Atlantic. When D-O warming happens in Greenland the SH westerlies shift to the north, and vice versa, during D-O cooling they shift to the south.

This had been predicted in models, and some limited evidence was available from the WAIS Divide ice core, but the new results provide the strongest observational evidence for this effect. This movement of the westerlies has important consequences for sea ice, ocean circulation, and perhaps even CO2 levels and ice sheet stability. So it really urges us to look at these D-O cycle in a global perspective.

You’ve enjoyed success as a researcher, not least your 2018 EGU Award. As an early career scientist, do you have any words of advice for graduate students who are hoping to pursue a career as a scientist in the Earth sciences?

I’m sure there are many different routes to becoming a successful researcher. Developing your own ideas and insights is key, and the secret to having good ideas is having many ideas, because most of them end up being wrong! So be creative and go out on a limb. I am lucky to have had supervisors who gave me a lot of freedom to explore my own ideas. I would also encourage everybody to develop skills in programming and numerical data analysis, for example in Matlab or python.

Christo Buizert (right) and Didier Roche, President of the Climate: Past, Present & Future Division, (left) at the EGU 2018 General Assembly (Credit: EGU/Foto Pflugel).

Frustrating and unfair as it may be, luck plays an important role in getting your research career started. My main PhD project did not work out, but I had a very productive postdoc that grew out of a side project. I ended up in the right place at the right time, because the WAIS Divide ice core had just been drilled, and I got the privilege to work with some of the best ice core data ever measured.

Research is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise, and so developing a good network of collaborators is maybe the most important thing you can do for yourself. Be generous and helpful to your colleagues, and it will be rewarded.

A career in science sometimes feels like a game of musical chairs, with fewer and fewer positions available as you go along. But if you can hang in there it’s definitely worth it; we have the privilege of thinking about interesting problems, traveling to beautiful places, all while interacting with a global network of fantastic colleagues. Could it get much better?

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Geosciences Column: How climate change put a damper on the Maya civilisation

Geosciences Column: How climate change put a damper on the Maya civilisation

More than 4,000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge were being built, the Maya civilisation emerged in Central America. The indigenous group prospered for thousands of years until its fall in the 13th century (potentially due to severe drought). However, thousands of years before this collapse, severely soggy conditions lasting for many centuries likely inhibited the civilisation’s development, according to a recent study published in EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past.

During their most productive era, often referred to as the Classic period (300-800 CE), Maya communities had established a complex civilisation, with a network of highly populated cities, large-scale infrastructure, a thriving agricultural system and an advanced understanding in mathematics and astronomy. However, in their early days, dating back to at least 2600 BCE, the Maya people were largely mobile hunter-gatherers, hunting, fishing and foraging across the lowlands.

Around 1000 BCE, some Maya communities had started to transition away from their nomadic lifestyles, and instead were moving towards establishing more sedentary societies, building small villages and relying more heavily on cultivating crops for their sustenance. However, experts suggest that agricultural practices didn’t gain momentum until 400 BCE, raising the question as to why Maya development was delayed for so many centuries.

By analysing two new palaeo-precipitation records, Kees Nooren, lead author of the study and a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues were able to gain insight into the environmental conditions during this pivotal time, and the impact that climate change could have had on the Maya society.

To determine the regional climate conditions during this period of time, the authors examined a beach ridge plain in the Mexican state of Tabasco, off the Gulf of Mexico, which contains a long-term record of ridge elevation changes for much of the late Holocene. Since precipitation has a large influence on the elevation of this beach ridge, this record is a good indicator of how much rainfall and flooding may have occurred during Maya settlement.

A large part of the central Maya lowlands (outlined with a black dashed line) is drained by the Usumacinta (Us.) River (a). During the Pre-Classic period this river was the main supplier of sand contributing to the formation of the extensive beach ridge plain at the Gulf of Mexico coast (b). Periods of low rainfall result in low river discharges and are associated with relatively elevated beach ridges. Taken from Nooren, K et al., 2018

Additionally, the researchers also assessed core samples taken from Lake Tuspan, a shallow body of water in northern Guatemala that is situated within the Central Maya Lowlands. Because the lake receives its water almost exclusively from a small section of the region (770 square kilometres), its sediment layers provide a good record of rainfall on a very local scale.

The image on p. 74 of the Dresden Codex depicts a torrential downpour probably associated with a destructive flood (Thompson, 1972). Taken from Nooren, K et al., 2018

The research team’s analysis suggested that, starting around 1000-850 BCE, the region shifted from a relatively dry climate, to a wetter environment. Such conditions would have made a farming in this region more difficult and less appealing compared to foraging and hunting. The researchers suggest that this change in climate could be one of the reasons why Maya agricultural development was at a standstill for such a long time.

The researchers also propose that this long-term climate trend could have been brought on by a shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a region near the equator where northeast and southeast winds intermingle and where most of the Earth’s rain makes landfall. The position of this zone can move naturally in response to Earth’s changes in insolation, and a northerly shift of the ITCZ could help account for some of the morphological changes the authors observed in the precipitation records.

After more than 450 years of excessive rainfall and large floods, the records then suggest that the region experienced drier conditions once again. By this time period, the Maya populations began to rapidly intensify their farming efforts and develop major cities, further suggesting that the wet conditions may have helped delay such efforts.

This is not the first time the Nooren and his colleagues have found evidence of major environmental influence on the Maya civilisation. For example, earlier research led by Nooren suggests that, in the 6th century, the El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico released massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere, triggering global climate change that likely contributed to a ‘dark age’ in Maya history for several decades. During this time, often referred to as the “Maya Hiatus,’ Maya societies experienced stagnation, increased warfare and political unrest. The research results were presented at the 2016 General Assembly and later published in Geology.

The results of these studies highlight how changes in our climate have greatly influenced communities and at times even shaped the course of societal history, both for better and for worse.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer


Ebert, C. et al.: Regional response to drought during the formation and decline of Preclassic Maya societies. Quaternary Science Reviews 173:211-235, 2017

Nooren, K., Hoek, W. Z., Dermody, B. J., Galop, D., Metcalfe, S., Islebe, G., and Middelkoop, H.: Climate impact on the development of Pre-Classic Maya civilization. Clim. Past, 14, 1253-1273, 2018

Nooren, K.: Holocene evolution of the Tabasco delta – Mexico : impact of climate, volcanism and humans. Utrecht University Repository (Dissertation). 2017

Nooren, K. et al.: Explosive eruption of El Chichón volcano (Mexico) disrupted 6th century Maya civilization and contributed to global cooling, Geology, 45, 175-178, 2016

Press conference: Volcanoes, climate changes and droughts: civilisational resilience and collapse. European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2016

Caltech Climate Dynamics Group, Why does the ITCZ shift and how? 2016

Imaggeo on Mondays: The ancient guard of Altai

Imaggeo on Mondays: The ancient guard of Altai

In the heart of Eurasia, an ancient stone statue overlooks the expanse of the Kurai Valley and the Altai Mountains in Russia. This relic was crafted more than a thousand years ago, sometime during the 6th or 7th century. A Turkish clan that inhabited the region, known as the First Turkic Khaganat, would often erect stones as monuments of funeral rituals.

Natalia Rudaya, who took this photograph, is a senior researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. She and her research team were taking sediment cores from the bottom of Lake Teletskoye, the largest lake in the Altai Mountains, in southeastern West Siberia, close to the photograph’s location.

The lake samples give clues on how the local environment has shifted over the last couple thousand years, and how these changes might have influenced the human societies that inhabited the Altai Mountains. Investigating palaeoclimates and past vegetation shifts are also important for understanding how current climate change will affect Earth’s ecosystems.

By analysing sediment cores, Rudaya and her colleagues were able to reconstruct the region’s environmental and climatic history. Their results showed that in the beginning of the mid- to late- Holocene (roughly 4,250 years ago), the region exhibited a relatively cool and dry climate, and the land surface was dominated by Siberian pine and Siberian fir forests. However, starting around 3,900 years ago, plant populations faced significant deforestation for roughly three centuries. Then 3,600 years ago, dark coniferous mountain taiga began to extend across the territory; the sediment samples also show that this forest expansion coincided with slight increases in temperature and humidity. This climate persisted for roughly 2,000 years, then the mountainous environment faced cooler temperatures once again.


Rudaya, N. et al.: Quantitative reconstructions of mid- to late holocene climate and vegetation in the north-eastern altai mountains recorded in lake teletskoye, Global and Planetary Change., 141, 12-24, 2016

Huang, X. et al.: Holocene Vegetation and Climate Dynamics in the Altai Mountains and Surrounding Areas, Geophysical Research Letters, 45, 6628-6636, 2018.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at

Geosciences Column: The best spots to hunt for ancient ice cores

Geosciences Column: The best spots to hunt for ancient ice cores

Where in the world can you find some of Earth’s oldest ice? That is the question a team of French and US scientists aimed to answer. They recently identified spots in East Antarctica that likely have the right conditions to harbor ice that formed 1.5 million years ago. Scientists hope that obtaining and analysing an undisturbed sample of ice this old will give them clues about Earth’s ancient climate.

The team published their findings in The Cryosphere, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Why study ancient ice?

When snow falls and covers an ice sheet, it forms a fluffy airy layer of frozen mass. Over time, this snowy layer is compacted into solid ice under the weight of new snowfall, trapping pockets of air, like amber trapping prehistoric insects. For today’s scientists, these air bubbles, some sealed off thousands to millions of years ago, are snapshots of what the Earth’s atmosphere looked like at the time these pockets were locked in ice. Researchers can tap into these bubbles to understand how the proportion of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere have changed throughout time.

As of now, the oldest ice archive available to scientists only goes back 800,000 years, according to the authors of the study. While pretty ancient, this ice record missed out on some major climate events in Earth’s recent history. Scientists are particularly interested in studying the time between 1.2 million years ago and 900,000 years ago, a period scientifically referred to as the mid-Pleistocene transition.

In the last few million years leading up to this transition, the Earth’s climate would experience a period of variation, from cold glacial periods to warmer periods, every 40,000 years. However, after the mid-Pleistocene transition, Earth’s climate cycle lengthened in time, with each period of variation occurring every 100,000 years.  

Currently, there isn’t a scientific consensus on the origin of this transition or what factors were involved. By examining old ice samples and studying the composition of the atmospheric gases present throughout this transition, scientist hope to paint a clearer picture of this influential time. “Locating a future 1.5 [million-year]-old ice drill site was identified as one of the main goals of the ice-core community,” wrote the authors of the study.  

The quest for old ice

Finding ice older than 800,000 years is difficult since the Earth’s deepest, oldest ice are the most at risk of melting due to the planet’s internal heat. Places where an ice sheet’s layers are very thick have an even greater risk of melting.

Mesh, bedrock dataset (Fretwell et al., 2013; Young et al., 2017) and basal melt rate (Passalacqua et al., 2017) used for the simulation. Credit: O. Passalacqua et al. 2018.

“If the ice thickness is too high the old ice at the bottom is getting so warm by geothermal heating that it is melted away,” said Hubertus Fischer, a climate physics researcher from the University of Bern in Switzerland not involved in the study, in an earlier EGU press release.

Last summer, a team of researchers from Princeton University announced that they had unearthed an ice core that dates back 2.7 million years, but the sample’s layers of ice aren’t in chronological order, with ice less than 800,000 years old intermingling with the older frozen strata. Rather than presenting a seamless record of Earth’s climate history, the core can only offer ‘climate snapshots.’

Finding the best of the rest

The authors of the recent The Cryosphere study used a series of criteria to guide their search for sites that likely could produce ice cores that are both old and undisturbed. They established that potential sites should of course contain ice as old as 1.5 million years, but also have a high enough resolution for scientists to study frequent changes in Earth’s climate.

Additionally, the researchers established that sites should not be prone to folding or wrinkling, as these kinds of disturbances can interfere with the order of ice layers.

Lastly, they noted that the bedrock on which the ice sheet sits should be higher than any nearby subglacial lakes, since the lake water could increase the risk of ice melt.

Magenta boxes A, B and C correspond to areas that could be considered as our best oldest-ice targets. Colored points locate possible drill sites. Credit: O. Passalacqua et al. 2018.


Using these criteria, the researchers evaluated one region of East Antarctica, the Dome C summit, which scientists in the past have considered a good candidate site for finding old ice. They ran three-dimensional ice flow simulations to locate parts of the region that are the most likely to contain ancient ice, based on their established parameters.

By narrowing down the list of eligible sites, the researchers were able to pinpoint regions just a few square kilometres in size where intact 1.5 million-year-old ice are very likely to be found, according to their models. Their results revealed that some promising areas are situated a little less than 40 kilometres southwest of the Dome C summit.

The researchers hope their new findings will bring scientists one step closer towards finding Earth’s ancient ice.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer