Scripps scientist awarded packard fellowship to study climate change

November 06, 2000

New investigations may yield clues important for future climate debates

Geochemist Jeffrey Severinghaus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, has been selected a 2000 Packard Fellow for investigations to understand the stability of past and future climates.

Severinghaus, an associate professor in the Geosciences Research Division at Scripps, specializes in analyzing Earth's climate by studying air trapped in ice cores. Severinghaus's most notable accomplishments involve unraveling the mysteries of a series of abrupt climate changes that occurred just prior to the dawn of civilization about 12,000 years ago. These included the discovery of an abrupt 16-degree-Farenheit rise in fewer than 40 years.

With the $625,000 fellowship ($125,000 per year for five years) from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Severinghaus will strive to decipher how methane, a colorless, odorless gas, can yield clues about Earth's climate.

"A number of people have proposed that methane bound in sediments in the form of methane hydrate (a solid form of methane much like ice) may be an important contributor to the atmospheric methane budget," said Severinghaus. "The speculation is that as the climate warms abruptly, it destabilizes these methane hydrates, which then spontaneously turn into gas, and in a catastrophic way this methane comes bubbling up to the surface all at once."

The payoff of such research is twofold. First, it may reveal if jumps in atmospheric methane are a response to rapid climate change. Second, because methane is mostly generated from tropical swamps, Severinghaus's new research may help indicate whether abrupt climate changes originate in the warm tropics or, contrary to dominant views, in the cold high latitude environments.

The earth's climate has been remarkably stable over the last 10,000 years, the era in which human agriculture and civilization have evolved, in contrast to the prevailing patterns before it.

"Verifying and understanding abrupt climate changes has intrinsic intellectual value as well as practical urgency in light of humanity's ongoing addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and the remote possibility that we might trigger such a change," said Severinghaus.

With the Packard Fellowship, Severinghaus plans to develop new technology for extracting air samples in Greenland. A novel instrument will melt out large cavities of ancient ice, and in the process extract the hundreds of gallons of ancient air required to conduct methane studies.

Severinghaus hopes that deciphering the mechanisms of past climate instability will help inform the debate over future climates.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest, and most important centers for global science research and graduate training in the world. The National Research Council has ranked Scripps first in faculty quality among oceanography programs nationwide. The scientific scope of the institution has grown since its founding in 1903 to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical, and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. More than 300 research programs are under way today in a wide range of scientific areas. The institution has a staff of about 1,300, and annual expenditures of approximately $100 million, from federal, state, and private sources. Scripps operates the largest U.S. academic fleet with four oceanographic research ships and one research platform for worldwide exploration.

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Mario Aguilera or Cindy Clark

University of California - San Diego

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