Tracing climate change from a 14,000 year old core sample

University of Miami scientists use mud core samples and a hurricane simulator to better understand climate dynamics

From the bottom of the sea to the top of the ocean, it was just another day at the office. From touching a 14,000-year-old slab of mud from the last ice age to feeling the power of a Category 5 hurricane slamming up against a wall of windows in a laboratory, it was an extraordinary day. Okay, it wasn’t my office. Our TechKnow team was at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on a little spit of land called Virginia Key, Florida.

Let me start at the bottom of the ocean with their expert Dr. Larry Peterson. Dr. Peterson is a Marine Geoscientist at Rosenstiel and a very patient and generous teacher. He pulled out a 6 -foot long wedge of mud - a core sample of mud harvested from the depths of the Cariaco Basin just off the northern coast of Venezuela. And here’s an example of why I love Dr. Peterson so much…his explanation of the pronunciation:

“Care-ee-ahh-co and not Karaoke - one doesn't spontaneously break into song when one is doing field work there, though most people seem to mispronounce it.”

Who wouldn’t want to travel to the depths of the earth with this guy?

The Cariaco Basin is a hot bed for core extraction. Because the area is anoxic (Scientific for: so little oxygen!) the mud is rich in organic samples for researchers and has some fabulous “widely laminated sediment intervals” (Science for: Yikes! Look at those loads of layers that look so very different from each other). What that means is, you can get a pretty great idea of how the earth’s climate changed over the last, oh about 580,000 years. A marine geologist friend of mine heard what I was looking at and it was as if Pluto supporters got their planet back.

The slice was 3000 years worth, from 11,000 to 14,000 years ago. We got a look and a sniff. It smells a little like rancid homemade Playdough. Dr. Peterson chose the sample because it coincides with the end of the last ice age when the earth started really warming up and the glaciers turned into a soupy mess and changed the world into what we know now.

Mud core sample

Dr. Peterson, along with climate scientist, Dr. Amy Clement, read the core for us. The dramatic color changes over a 3000-year span reflect a slow but eventually devastating warming trend that gave us the world we have today. Atmospheric carbon dioxide increased about 40 parts per million during that time. Dr. Peterson was kind enough to quickly crunch some numbers for us and that same 40 ppm change came within a 19 year period, from 1995 to 2013. Dr. Clement along with an overwhelming majority of climate scientists see this as just another piece of evidence proving our climate change now is being fueled by man-made emissions.

And in one of those “Psssst, let me show you something over here “ moments, Dr. Peterson motioned me to look at a pinch of sand under a microscope. To the naked eye, it was just a sprinkle, but under the microscope, you could see all these tiny shrimp-ish like creatures. These guys lived about 12,000 years ago. I don’t know what was tougher, wrapping my brain around the fact that I was looking at something so very ancient and delicate or that if I slipped some into my pocket as a souvenir I might be thwarting the onward march of science. 

TechKnow contributor Shini Somara and Dr. Amy Clement

Just when my brain was busting from thinking about something that old we headed something brand new. It’s called SUSTAIN and it’s basically a hurricane machine in a gigantic aquarium. About the size of a swimming pool, SUSTAIN is a state of the art “wind and wave” facility that will allow scientists to do something no one in their right mind would do for real, hang out in the middle of the ocean in the middle of a category 5 hurricane. It’s important to be there because there’s this vicious cycle that scientists haven’t gotten a handle on – how the wind affects the waves and the pray from the waves affect the atmosphere and visa versa and how it all affects the millions of people living along the coast as hurricanes march toward land.

Simulating Category 5 hurricane in the SUSTAIN tank, at 150 mph.

Then they revved up the fan to a Cat 5, 150 MPH. The noise was deafening, the waves were ferocious, the vibration on the windows was, and dare I say, AWESOME! Now that’s some really rad virtual reality. And I know it’s all about the science, but seeing all that power trapped safely behind Plexiglas gave me a big case of the giggles.

And we have all of us to thank for this. The facility is in part, our tax dollars at work. About a third of the cost, $15- million dollars, was covered by the recession stimulus plan. But the work they do here, to better understand and better predict hurricanes could save hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and lead to more resilient buildings along the coast. And most importantly, perhaps save lives. Thus turning an extraordinary event, into something a little more ordinary.


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