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palaeoclimate

Imaggeo on Mondays: Our QUEST for innovative tools to understand changing environments and climates

Imaggeo on Mondays: Our QUEST for innovative tools to understand changing environments and climates

The photo shown here shows typical sampling work underground. You can see Ola Kwiecien and Cinthya Nava Fernandez, researchers at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, collecting dripwater in New Zealand’s Waipuna Cave as part of a four-year EU-funded monitoring programme. Our research aims at developing innovative geochemical indicators that we can use to quantify changes in the hydrological system or biosphere above the cave that result from variations in weather patterns and climate.

Caves are fantastic natural archives and laboratories. One can imagine caves like libraries of natural history: they host carbonate formations (such as stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones etc., collectively known as speleothems) which, like books, can be read by geochemists to learn about past climatic and environmental conditions. Importantly, these ‘stone books’ must, on the one hand, be protected from destruction by weathering, and on the other, must be written in a language that we can decipher. The secluded cave environment greatly helps protect speleothems from erosion and weathering, while monitoring the cave environment and hydrology allows us to learn the alphabet which nature uses to write natural history into the speleothems. Only then can we reconstruct, and ideally quantify, past environmental conditions.

Of special importance for our work in New Zealand is the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and the southern Westerlies. These two atmospheric subsystems strongly influence weather and climate in New Zealand. Southward or northward shifts of the Westerlies influence New Zealand crop yields and tourism, as well as the fishing economy, among others. El Nino and La Nina have equally strong impacts on weather patterns in New Zealand (and, in fact globally).

Despite many years of research, the mechanisms that cause changes to the ENSO and the Westerlies, and their interaction, still remain poorly understood. This lack of knowledge limits scientists’ efforts to estimate the magnitude and direction of changes that might result from ongoing global warming.

Our team of German, British and New Zealand geochemists, mathematicians, palaeoclimatologists and modellers set out to develop innovative tools and methods that would allow researchers to quantify, for example, changes in rainfall or seasonality, with the ultimate goal that these should be applicable globally. The manual sampling depicted in the photo might soon be replaced by an automatic sampler, which would greatly reduce the costs for regular fieldwork. Especially in remote settings such robots would be of great benefit for our research.

Our team also developed new proxies, such as a lignin-based (biomarker) proxy that allows us to reconstruct changes in vegetation above the cave. We also explored how transition metals behave in the hydrological system of caves, and the factors that control how these metals are transported and incorporated into speleothems. These research activities will hopefully give us powerful and very sensitive tools to quantify changes of environmental parameters, including rainfall, temperature, soil and vegetation and the underlying forcings, like ENSO. Until we have our tool kit properly calibrated, we continue our visits to Waipuna and other caves in New Zealand and Germany.

Our QUEST project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme and the Royal Society of New Zealand. Find more at http://quest.pik-potsdam.de/

By Sebastian Breitenbach, Ruhr University Bochum (Germany), and Adam Hartland, University of Waikato (New Zealand)

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Exploring the underground cryosphere

Imaggeo on Mondays: Exploring the underground cryosphere

The winter season is a good time to take advantage of cold weather activities, whether that’s hitting the ski slopes or warming up by a fire, but for Renato R. Colucci, it’s also one of the best time’s to study the Earth’s underground cryosphere.

Colucci, who took this featured photograph, is a researcher at Italian Institute for Marine Sciences (ISMAR) of the National Research Council (CNR) and is a scientific lead partner for the Cave’s Cryosphere and Climate project, C3 for short. The C3 project aims to monitor, study, date, and model alpine ice cave environments.

This photo was taken by Colucci while he and the C3 project team were surveying a large ice deposit in the Vasto cave, situated within the Southeastern Alps of Italy. Speleologists of the E. Boegan Cave Commission began documenting the caves in this region in the 1960s, making it a great site for studying underground cryosphere today. For the past few years the C3 team has been monitoring the microclimates of these caves as well as analysing how the ice masses within are melting and accumulating ice.

There are many different kinds of ice deposits in caves, but the main difference is how these types accumulate their frozen mass. For some cave ice deposits, like the one featured in this photo, the snowfall that reaches the cave interior amasses over time into solid layers of ice, as is typical for many glaciers. However, other deposits take form when water from melting snow or rain percolates through rock’s voids and fractures, then freezes and accumulates into permanent ice bodies in caves.

These high-altitude underground sources of ice are a lesser-known faction of the cryosphere since they are not very common or reachable to scientists, but still an important one. Often the permanent ice deposits in caves contain pivotal information on how Earth’s climate has evolved over time during the Holocene.

However, if the Earth’s global temperatures keep increasing, this data might not be available in the future. While ice masses in caves are more resilient to climate change compared to their aboveground counterparts, many of these deposits, and the vital data they store, are melting away at an accelerating rate. “Global warming is rapidly destroying such important archives,” said Colucci.

Through this project, the researchers involved hope to better understand the palaeoclimate information stored in these deposits and how the ice will respond to future climate change.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

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 http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

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

References

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