Wednesday, September 3, 2014

We're live-blogging from the field!

Cobb lab folk are now on Christmas Island, in the middle of the Pacific, conducting their paleoclimate research. We will be blogging at elnino2014.blogspot.com, the dedicated blog for the larger expedition effort, which includes four other PIs. Please follow our activities there.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is 'outreach' a dirty word in academia?

On August 9th I found myself sitting in a courtyard at Google's Palo Alto campus, leading an animated discussion about "outreach" with a broad cross-section of geeky, articulate science types.
Enjoying some adult beverages at the Googleplex

It was my first Science Foo Camp ("Scifoo" for short) -- an invitation-only event sponsored by Google, O'Reilly Media, Digital Science, and the Nature Publishing Group. There were 250 invitees from around the world, ranging from academic scientists like me to science writers, foundation representatives, science artists, even science comedians and a science magician (perhaps my favorite). It felt like a brain vacation. I let my brain "play" all weekend long, while my body enjoyed delicious and abundant food and drink.

The campers themselves set the agenda for the meeting, by proposing sessions on over-sized post-its tacked to a huge schedule board (see pic). While there were a few serious topics, including a great session on "Reproducibility in Science", most were creative spin-offs on attendees' professional
A schedule board at SciFoo14
interests, such as "Beyonce and Science" or "De-extinction:  should we bring extinct things back to life?" or "What happens in the last 3 minutes before Singularity?" or "Find deep friendships (and love?) in 45 minutes" (which I missed, because, ironically, I was deep in conversation with a new acquaintance - but see this article to get an idea of the approach).

I was nervous proposing a session entitled "Why is 'outreach' a dirty word in science academia? and How can we change this?", but felt like I might get some creative solutions out of this crowd. You see, scientists are rewarded by the numbers of papers (and numbers of citations, at enlightened institutions) and the amount of external funding they receive. They are not rewarded for time and effort spent communicating science to the public, working with K-12 teachers, meeting lawmakers on Capitol Hill, blogging about science, etc. So why "waste" your time? At worst, I expected to receive a few sympathetic pats on the back from similarly tortured souls who, like me, are committed to 'outreach' despite clear disincentives. [I wrote a previous post outlining these disincentives, for those that want more detail.]

To my delight, the session drew 20+ enthusiastic participants, ranging from graduate students to TV science personalities to academic scientists to professional science writers. The first order of business was to dispense with the term "outreach" in favor of "engagement"-- signaling a movement away from the model whereby the Ivory Tower dispenses Knowledge to the ignorant masses, and towards a model defined by sustained conversations (by definition bi-directional) about the wonder and value of science and its applicability in our everyday lives. These days, "engagement" is embodied in ambitious citizen-science programs like PaleoQuest's Sharkfinder initiative, whereby folks can hunt for fossil fish teeth in unsorted sands (my 7-yr-old daughter was ecstatic to find a 3mm-long tooth in her kit last night.)

Attendees shared inspiring stories of how they had channeled their personal passion for public engagement into reality, and even, in some cases, institutional change. There was Dr. Sarah Imari Walker, an Asst. Prof. at ASU who had co-founded SAGANet.org (Social Action for a Grassroots Astrobiology Network), an e-community made of scientists and interested members of the public. All-but-doctored Asha Devos heavily leverages her blue whale research in some high-profile public engagement activities. Dr. Ray Jayawardhana, who had served as the President's Senior Advisor on Science Engagement at U. Toronto for two years, emphasized the need for public engagement training of both students and faculty, supported by institutional resources. I was especially intrigued by the UK's Wellcome Trust, who have dedicated some of their funding exclusively to public engagement activities, awarded competitively as supplements to funded research grants. They even have a whole page dedicated to public engagement! This is quite different from the NSF model, wherein "Broader Impacts" scores are considered in ranking a proposal's merit. While some researchers pursue such activities in earnest, the vast majority pay lip service to NSF's goals for its Broader Impacts. For example, many simply vow to incorporate their research into their undergraduate classes. Gee thanks -- nothing says "taxpayer value" quite like putting 20 undergrads to sleep with the technical details of your research.

We all agreed that while public engagement is not for everyone, those who choose to do it should be given the resources to do it effectively, and rewarded for their successes. Every university has an Office of Communications or Public Relations, but effective public engagement does not start or end with a press release. Universities should be encouraging their graduate and postdoctoral students, as well as their faculty, to explore the vast landscape of public engagement, when they are so inclined, and provide training to make them as effective as possible. Unfortunately, such activities are too often seen as a distraction from "real work", as several young Scifoo scientists lamented, and as confirmed by one very senior scientist at the session.

Why do young scientists participate in public engagement activities, you might ask, when they have so much to lose? First and foremost, these young scientists are driven by the need to keep science relevant and exciting to the public, and the personal satisfaction that comes from effective engagement. [Editor's note:  much feedback on the importance of inspiring the next generation of scientists, as well as informing the public/policymakers on issues of high societal relevance, like climate change.] But they also sense that the ground is shifting beneath them, as science academia begins to recognize the rewards of broad and deep engagement with the public. While public engagement acumen is not considered in hiring decisions nor promotion and tenure at present, these young scientists felt certain that it soon would be. Effective communication is a learned skill that takes years to develop, so they are building their toolkits well before the market forces materialize.

A "normal" scientist
As a senior academic in my field, I was deeply moved by their faith in the evolution of a system that is notoriously slow to change. Buoyed by reports of creative, new engagement platforms and real-world institutional change, I left the session feeling like I was part of a not-so-secret society. We may look like we're "normal" scientists, but we are slowly and steadily pushing at the frontiers of scientific culture, hoping that one day, public engagement will be nurtured and celebrated across all institutions of higher education.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

All eyes on the tropical Pacific

Is the next major El Niño event already underway?

The chatter amongst the El Niño experts has ticked up significantly this week, with excitement building about whether this fall will witness the arrival of The Big One.

Why all the fuss? And what are the chances of a major El Niño event next winter?

While considerable uncertainty surrounds the conception of an El Niño event, most scientists agree that it helps to have the following features in place:

1) An ocean that is primed for an event (enough time elapsed since the last major event). The last Big One was the 1997-1998 El Niño, and before that was the 1982-1983 El Niño, and before that the 1972-1973 El Niño. By this simple metric, we are due for a Big One. Given that the last moderate El Niño event was 2009-2010, we are at least due for One. Some El Niño scientists describe the pacemaker for the El Niño-Southern Oscillation events as a "recharge oscillator", whereby heat accumulates in the western Pacific ocean until it is discharged to the atmosphere by a cascade of positive feedbacks triggered by . . . (see #2 below).

2) A strong burst of westerly winds along the equator in the west Pacific. Usually, trade winds blow steadily from the east to the west ('easterly' winds) across the tropical Pacific, and they maintain the temperature structure of the equatorial Pacific:  cool waters in the East, and warm waters in the West. Essentially, the trade winds keep the 'thermocline' (the boundary between warm surface waters and the cool deeper waters) close to the surface in the eastern Pacific. When a burst of westerly winds occurs in the western Pacific, it triggers a 'downwelling wave' that propagates eastward along the equatorial thermocline. When it reaches the eastern Pacific, it pushes the thermocline to deeper depths, leading to warmer sea-surface temperatures in this region roughly 2 months after the westerly wind burst. [For more information on ENSO physics, see this recent and exhaustive review by some ENSO heavy-hitters, in press in "Coral Reefs of the Eastern Pacific" (Springer).]

At a certain point (and this is where the mystery comes in), the warming in the central to eastern Pacific is strong enough to undermine the strength of the trade winds themselves. The thermocline further deepens in the east, and surface ocean temperatures warm even more. At that point, the system is moving inevitably towards an El Niño event that will reach its maturity sometime between November and February - a well-choreographed and now-familiar dance between the tropical Pacific atmosphere and ocean.

So what's got all the experts staring at the tropical Pacific data this week?
Well, this, as measured by an array of moored ocean buoys spanning the tropical Pacific, the Tropical Atmosphere Ocean array:





This time-longitude plot tracks the history of westerly wind events, and where they have occurred along the equator. You can see that we are in the midst of a very strong westerly wind burst that began roughly 2 weeks ago in the western equatorial Pacific. 








 To put the current wind event in context, here is a time-longitude plot of westerly winds over the last 20 years, again from the TAO array:



I've flagged the 1997/98 El Niño event, which is the poster-child for the Westerly Wind Burst model of El Niño inception. Indeed, the strength and the timing of the current westerly wind burst is eerily similar to those that occurred in spring of 1997. In 1997, strong warming was observed in the eastern Pacific by late spring.

It will be several months before we know whether The Big One is on its way, but a moderate-sized El Niño event seems almost inevitable. Indeed, a full ensemble of statistical and dynamical forecasts of ENSO can be seen below, courtesy of the IRI, with most models projecting El Niño conditions by JJA (otherwise known as boreal summer).


If this El Niño is The Big One, then this is the chance of a lifetime for scientists to get out in the field and collect data that can illuminate the physical lifecycle of such an extraordinary event and its global impacts on weather patterns, ecosystems, and human systems. This may be as much advance warning as we will ever have - 6 precious months.

Unfortunately, funding agencies are ill-equipped to meet the needs of such "rapid response" science. The federal research vessels are booked out years in advance. Even if someone could convince NSF to mount a multi-disciplinary armada to the tropical Pacific, there is always the risk that it might not develop into The Big One. Nonetheless, whisper campaigns are mushrooming up as we speak, aiming to make an urgent and compelling case that the benefits far outweigh the risks of pursuing such science. Where traditional funding avenues fail, foundation support and/or access to ships of opportunity (yachts or for-hire research vessels) may allow some of the most pressing and low-hanging science to go forward.

Such a coordinated observational campaign is all the more pressing because the TAO array - the only source of direct observations of the tropical Pacific atmospheric winds and subsurface ocean temperature so critical to El Niño's evolution - is losing buoys at an alarming rate because the ship that serviced them has been sidelined by NOAA's funding gaps. Data return has dropped to 36% (M. McPhaden, pers. comm.) - the plots you see above are heavily infilled using the few buoys that remain. Just today, the TAO homepage posted a disclaimer warning of poor data quality. This depressing moment in the history of US ocean science is discussed in a recent Nature News piece.

So, will the tropical Pacific ocean and atmosphere conceive The Big One this spring? I don't know, but it certainly has gone way past flirtation.

Additional links
NOAA issued an "El Niño watch" on March 6, read it here.
Jeff Masters has a great Wunderground blog post on the March 6 NOAA release.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A scientist's dilemma: to tweet or not to tweet?


[Below is a loose summary of my comments in the “Engaging Social Media” panel at the AAAS meeting in Chicago, with superstars Maggie Koerth-Baker and Danielle N. Lee. My slides are here. Thanks to all for the Twitter outpouring of support and new followers!]

It’s 2010, and I’m sitting in a room with 18 other young scientists as part of the inaugural PopTech Science Fellows program. Its aim is to develop “a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders.” They had packed our day full of presentations by marketing experts, journalists, social media gurus, etc. But they forgot to ask us one key question:  "Is building a significant public presence one of your goals?" After some intense discussion, the common answer was "I'm not sure…"

Frustrating, right? Don't we, most of us newly tenured, feel an obligation to communicate our findings, our passion, and keep science relevant? Of course we do. 

But here are some of the things that make scientists uneasy about social media in particular:

1. Discomfort/stigma associated with (non-traditional) self-promotion. It's all well and good to shamelessly plug your results at a conference, repeatedly cite yourself in publications, place well-timed calls to program managers, etc. [Ladies, apparently we do not do this enough, to our great detriment.] It's quite another to actively seek out the public spotlight, to court media attention. Deep down, we'd all like to be that modest, noble scientist whose results changed the world based on their own scientific merit. "Shouldn't the quality of my science speak for itself?" If we do seek a larger audience for our work, is that short-circuiting, or making less relevant, the peer evaluation process that crowns blockbusters and condemns duds?

2a. Danger of over-selling societal relevance of results. This is especially dangerous territory in climate change science, wherein people constantly want to know what your work means for future climate change projections.
2b. Danger of over-simplifying results to the point of inaccuracy. Following on the last point, climate science communication can be a mine-field. "So basically your results confirm a link between X impact and rising CO2, right?" or just as problematic "It seems your work really calls into question the link between X impact and rising CO2, right?" Communicating your results in the context of uncertainties can quickly lead to the listener saying "So basically, there is still a lot of uncertainty." No… Arghghghgh!

3. Fear of the scientist as advocate; loss of objectivity. This issue flames up on Twitter every now and again, because it can never be fully resolved. We are scientists. But we are also humans with well-founded beliefs about the world, many of which stem from our profound understanding of certain scientific facts, like that CO2 is warming the planet and things will get a lot worse before they get better. There is an obvious tension in communicating that fact and its implications - it is very hard to avoid advocating for significant and immediate emissions cuts as an obvious response to the magnitude of the threat. Gavin Schmidt gave a wonderful talk at AGU a few months ago on this general topic, you can see it here, including links to reactions in the blogosphere. 

4. Who has the time anyway? [subtext:  there are no tangible rewards for such efforts] A bullet-proof argument against engagement, at face value. Our worth is measured in # of publications (and their impact, if your institution is enlightened) and $ of grants, with 'marketability' and salary scaling accordingly. Women like myself, as a mother of four young children, fare especially poorly in these quantitative metrics already (the subject of a future post), so there is a clear negative incentive to spend time on social media, which robs time from your sputtering research program. For those of us who do engage, we can never attribute X research or career development directly to our social media engagement, because we are not running a control experiment in parallel.

So why embark on such a fool's journey?
I can't speak for all scientists out there blogging and tweeting, but here's why I made the leap:

As a climate scientist, I strongly feel an obligation to communicate the facts that I know, and their implications. Enough said.

I want to be accessible, in two different ways. First, I want to make myself available as a resource for the public, to answer questions, offer to speak at public venues, etc. Second, I want the public to understand that climate scientists are humans too! 99% of us are not crazy ideologues nor emotionless robots. I want to add another face to the phrase "climate scientist" -- one of a somewhat frazzled Mom trying to raise four reasonable humans and provide a few clues about the workings of our climate system.

I have some great stories to tell. My blog lets me illustrate the beauty and adventure of my fieldwork, in a story-telling format. See these posts, authored by students. As proud as I am of my lab's recent publications, they are impersonal, inaccessible, and do not tell the story of our research. 

I want to help change the culture (and structures) of science regarding 1) public engagement and 2) women in science. Yes, I am willing to spend a lot of spare time that I don't have on Twitter and blogging, on trips to Capitol Hill, in K-12 classrooms, and even in front of Hollywood cameras, in pursuit of these goals. Some will call me crazy. Some will call me self-serving. Taking the plunge means growing some thick skin (easier to do with tenure), while keeping your eyes on the long-term prize.

And as for those uncertain PopTech Science Fellows, the majority of us took the plunge, some more wholeheartedly than others. See Twitter handles and links for some of my friends below. They rock.

Photo of 2010 PopTech Science Fellows, including (from left) Sean Gourley,
Gidon EshelAmro Hamdoun, Sarah Fortune, myself, and Sinan Aral

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

An outreach triple-header

by Kim Cobb

Last month I had the privilege of speaking to three very different audiences about three very different topics in one week. Yes, it was a week of intensive outreach, in the classic definition of the word. But each opportunity presented a unique challenge:  How was I going to reach the audience members? Because it's not enough to reach out, by showing up with some powerpoint slides. You must grab their hands and pull them in, as hard as you can.

Tuesday, 10/12:  The first talk found me in front of 500+ girls, the entire middle and high school populations of the National Cathedral School in Washington DC. I was there as part of the Nifty Fifty program, which brings scientists and engineers into DC area schools as part of the USA Science and Engineering Festival held each spring. My goals were simple, if not ambitious:  help them to understand the key role for paleoclimate data in reducing climate uncertainties while telling my own personal story through lots of pretty pictures. My slides are here. They let out an audible gasp when I showed the aerial photo of Fanning. But I knew I had them when I put up my last slide - a photo of my four kids - to a loud and long "Awwwwwww". Yes, ladies, it can be done. And boy is it fun. When I ended my talk, almost every other hand in the middle school section shot up, bless their hearts. They were so hungry for information about the corals ("Do you kill them when you drill them?" No.), my personal journey ("When did you decide you wanted to become a scientist?" When I was 19.), and our collective future ("What is your position on fracking?" Next question please! - just kidding). The questions were insightful, and demonstrated a high level of engagement with our nation's toughest environmental challenges. The next time you feel depressed about the lack of comprehensive energy/climate policy, go talk to some kids. They get it.
Speaking at the National Cathedral School in Washington DC last month as part of the Nifty Fifty program.



Thursday:  Two days later, I participated in a panel on "Empowering Voices of Early Career Scientists" at the NSF-sponsored Gender Summit:  North America. [The day before, a NSF program manager had noted that I am decidedly not "early career" anymore, which means I'm academically, if not chronologically, over-the-hill!] My fellow panelists represented a range of highly accomplished women scientists from an assortment of fields and career levels, ranging from graduate students to Assistant Professors, each of whom had a unique and insightful perspective on early career issues for women. The overall message was clear:  while there are significant structural hurdles to women's advancement in academic research-intensive environments, you can achieve your goals with the right strategies and tools. Effective female mentors are key, as is a broader support network of peers and senior colleague/advocates. Women cannot wait for structural changes to "the system", but that does not mean that women shouldn't advocate tirelessly for such changes - especially once they attain a certain stature in their professional community. My GSNA slides are here. The most thought-provoking idea to come from the last plenary session, dedicated to fleshing out a "Road Map" towards gender equity, was the concept of including a diversity metric in the calculation of the US News and World Report's ranking of colleges and universities. The room erupted in applause at the suggestion. For better or for worse, administrators in higher ed are constantly seeking to move their institution up in this ranking. By including "diversity" in this calculation, diversity-related issues would begin to receive the attention they deserve in our nation's top institutions. My own department, at ~30% female faculty, would help to offset much lower ratios of female faculty in the engineering schools at Georgia Tech.

Sunday:  Back home in Atlanta, I delivered a presentation on sea level to members of the Trinity Presbyterian Church (slides here). It was the first time I had publicly presented on this topic, and it made for a really fun discussion at the end of the talk. The bottom line:  there is much we do not know about the effects of future warming, but sea level is already rising and will continue to rise at increasing rates. The official IPCC AR5 estimates for 21st century sea level rise (+0.3 to 1m; see the full Chapter 13) are overly-rosy in my opinion, given that sea level is currently rising at ~3.2mm/yr (equivalent to 0.3m by 2100). [Note:  The new IPCC AR5 estimates of sea level rise are dissected in a detailed post here, on RealClimate.] I'd say that +0.5m by 2100 is a minimum number to use in adaptation planning, which assumes that melting/sea level rise will scale with warming, with rates doubling to >6mm/yr likely by the end of the 21st century as global temperatures warm by an additional 2C or more. I think that +1m is a better number to plan around, because it allows for positive feedbacks in ice melting - feedbacks that have been documented by glaciologists (see Zwally et al., 2002 for a classic example). The audience was very receptive to this sobering news, and encouraged me to share this message more broadly. As a climate scientist communicator, however, I pointed out that sea level is one of the most certain, but most delayed, impacts of climate change - does the prospect of 3ft of sea level rise in the next 100 years really move hearts and minds? They answered "Yes!", impressed by the evidence that significant melting is already underway, and measurable as rising global sea levels. Their encouragement reminded me that the public definitely doesn't get to see enough raw climate-related data, presented with appropriate caveats. They don't want their climate information delivered in 20-second soundbytes on the evening news - they want to see the data themselves, and draw their own conclusions. Happy to oblige!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lights! Camera! Science!


 Testing the hydraulic drill on land before taking it underwater.  photo by Jess Harrop, The Years Project
What follows is my attempt to share an amazing experience I had last month. It all started earlier this year, when I got a very cryptic message about a "high-profile project involving climate change." After several chats about the incredible things we can learn from corals, and months of detailed logistical planning, on August 11th I found myself on a plane to one of my long-time research sites, Christmas (Kiritimati) Island, with a film crew from Years of Living Dangerously. I thought I knew what I was in for. Little did I know... (in my defense, my mental preparation was severely crippled by the string of late nights I had been pulling in anticipation of a big NSF proposal deadline on 8/15).

Some will ask why in Newton's name would I volunteer for such an undertaking? After all, it is a highly risky proposition:  place myself and my science in the hands of Big Hollywood, where sound-bytes and bikinis have more market value than my life's work as a scientist. And I'm a woman scientist -- one who would feel the viewer's judgment of my scientific worth months before shooting began. Yep. There is no doubt that the safe thing would have been to stay in my lab, cranking on our research, letting its merits be judged by an international network of geeky peers. But I felt absolutely compelled to do this shoot, as a climate scientist who is deeply invested in science communication, and even more so as a woman in science (and mother to 4 small children). My thought process went something like this:  "Hell yes, you can wear a bikini and wield a monster hydraulic drill while SCUBA diving!" and "Hell yes, you can be a good, even great, scientist and actively embrace opportunities to communicate your science to the public!" Because folks, if we cannot tackle these needling cultural issues in science, then science will fail to achieve its rightful place in the public discourse. Besides, my mom once told me never to make an important decision based on fear, and so, I leapt.
They're coming! Run (or swim) for it! photo by Sanjayan

The Years crew consisted of Jake Kornbluth (Producer), Jess Harrop (Associate Producer), Sanjayan (Correspondent), Paul Atkins (Cinematographer), Matthew Berner (Second Camera), and Chris Wiecking (Sound). To say that these people were professionals is an understatement. Not only did they have a driving mission to capture the beauty and the guts of our science, but they managed to do so while I steadily ticked off my ambitious list of scientific goals for my short week there. There were the requisite re-takes (literally marked by one of those "clapper" things closing down with a snap, with people saying things like "Rolling, and... action"). It would send me into nervous chuckles every time - not helpful. There were "bloopers", including one that had me swallowing seawater from laughing so hard. The science team, comprised of myself, my student Pamela Grothe, and FIT postdoc Lauren Toth, was referred to as "the talent", which I could definitely get used to. And there were some real-time reviews of my acting:  "We are definitely not going to win any Oscars with this!" Acting, as it turns out, is hard! Harder than debugging Matlab code or repairing my mass spec. And as a classic Type A over-achiever, I don't take failure lightly. I wanted to look like Angelina Jolie and sound like Carl Sagan. I fell far short on both axes, I'm afraid. It certainly didn't help that I was stung by an invisible sea creature on the first day and did most of my interviews fighting back allergy-induced tears.

But where I fell short, Christmas Island delivered in all its glory. A whole rainbow of blues and greens danced above water, and a vibrant reef ecosystem dazzled as a backdrop to our underwater drilling shoot. With the corals doing much of the talking, I told the story of the 1997/98 El Nino event, and tropical Pacific climate changes of the past and future, and sea level rise. And for the first time ever, I took a (forced) day off in the field, as we went bird-watching and manta-swimming in search of your basic tropical paradise glamour footage. Now it was my turn to see Sanjayan's face light up, and to learn more about the non-carbonate-excreting creatures on Christmas. Our week culminated in a feast
My birthday cake. Ko rabwa! (photo by L. Toth)
complete with sashimi (expected), a truly amazing chocolate birthday cake (very unexpected), a band of drummers who played several hundred PVC pipes with used flipflops (ah-may-zing), and an impromptu dance session that I truly hope has already been deleted from the raw footage.

So what did I learn? One clear take-away:  it's the people, stupid. Separated from our wireless devices (most notably smartphones and, in my case, kids), and confined on a remote tropical island for a whole week, we got to know each other quite well. While every fieldtrip yields scores of new samples to feed the mass specs, the friendships I made on this one were truly unique. And in a way, that's what the Years Project is all about:  climate change as a story told by real people, from one human to another.

Another obvious lesson:  damn I love my job! It's not an exaggeration to say that I am obsessed with corals, and the Line Islands, and climate change, so the combination typically sends me into a veritable frenzy. It's always great to share that passion with my students on-site, but this time, in front of the cameras, I felt both the burden and the privilege of being the public face of the corals that have revealed so much about climate change in this region, and the island that has offered up these precious time capsules.

I certainly gave it my all. For science, for women, for Christmas Island, for the planet.
Diving the "Coral Gardens". photo by Lauren Toth



Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The hunt is on – fossil coral collecting on Kiritimati Island


By Pamela Grothe

Coral rubble field on Christmas Island

Mauri!

That is “hello” on Kiritimati (Christmas) Island, one of only three words I learned during my two-week field trip to this special place last month. Luckily, my science was a bit more productive than my Gilbertese lessons!

First off, I must thank Showtime and the Years of Living Dangerously crew for putting on this trip. Even though the primary focus was filming the wonderful science Kim does and all she has learned about climate change from Christmas Island corals, it provided me the opportunity to explore my own science goals, collect my own samples, and learn valuable fieldwork skills. It really was a trip of a lifetime, and even though I’m sure I’ll have more trips to come, this first one will always be extra memorable.

Before diving straight into the field trip itself, I think it is important to convey the science questions I am after. My overall goal is to reconstruct climate change in the central tropical Pacific over the last 6,000 years. This includes understanding changes in mean climate on different timescales (i.e. 100-yr and 1000-yr) and variations in the El Nino Southern Oscillation phenomenon, such as the intensity and frequency of El Nino events. More importantly though, is to convey to you WHY this is important. This region experiences a high-degree of natural variability in the climate system on decade-long timescales. This makes it hard for us to observe what recent changes in climate are caused by human-induced warming since instrumental data in this region only go back to the mid 20th century. In addition, future climate projections, especially for El Nino events, are not well constrained, despite having major global consequences on temperature and precipitation patterns. Additional climate data beyond the instrumental record would help us assess what current changes are due to human-induced warming and better assess model predictions for future climate changes.

Fossil coral rubble specimen - Porites
This is why we have turned to the corals, as they have proven to be reliable records for changes temperature and precipitation at a monthly resolution. These records provide us an opportunity to understand the background climate state of the central tropical Pacific and how it has changed during periods in the past. And if you recall from my earlier posts, I am trying a new ensemble method where I will be using hundreds of short fossil coral segments of ~10yr-long records, or “rubble” to reconstruct these climate changes.


With that being said, my time on Kiritimati Island was spent fossil hunting for Porites fossil corals! My previous work on dating provided a map with the distribution of ages of fossil coral on the island. This was extremely useful in determining where to focus my efforts.

My first objective was to collect samples on the leeward side of the island where most of the coral date to several thousand years old. Here, the corals are scattered around town, in piles in people’s yards, and even piled high in rock walls. This was exciting because it afforded us the opportunity to talk to the locals (before stealing coral out of their yards), play with pigs (OK, I wasn’t really a fan of the pigs, especially when it was standing on top of my backpack), and reconstruct rock walls after removing beautiful samples from them (I felt bad removing corals from their well constructed walls that I felt the need to replace them). Also, these samples are generally much larger, so through much effort of hauling rocks around the island, we took the samples back to Dive Kiribati and drilled them into 3-inch cores – this was by far my favorite task!

Collecting fossil coral from the local's property means getting up close and personal with the pigs!
Full pile of large rubble to drill!
And there's still more.
Full day of drilling fossil coral -
showing off my longest core.
Example of the clear ridge lines of coral rubble
My second objective was to target the open ridge fields on the windward side of the island, where the ages are distributed from the last century near the shoreline to just over 1000 years in the ridges farther back from the shore. My work on the age distribution of these ridges is only in its infancy, so the goal was to map out the ridges in more detail and collect samples from each of the ridges and from multiple sites that I can date. This area is really unbelievable in the magnitude of fossil coral and with precise age distribution maps we can really create a focused sampling plan for each time we come back.

Out on the rubble field collecting fossil coral

All in all, I collected several hundred samples and brought back almost half for dating (either the samples themselves or chips from them). A super productive trip I’d say! In addition, I have come away with an appreciation for each sample I collected – the painstaking work of searching for and lugging rocks around on a tropical island with limited shade is not easy! And THANK YOU Lauren Toth for all your help in doing this!

With that, I say goodbye – Tiabo!

Kim and I posing for an underwater shot.