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


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.

Friday, September 6, 2013

muchas gracias ICP

by Stacy Carolin
The transit bus to the airport has pulled away from Hotel Melia in Sitges (“sit-ches”), Spain, closing out the eventful 5-day International Conference on Paleoceanography (ICP11). ICP is a triennial conference that targets the ocean and climate community, and this year was its 30-year anniversary. The conference encompasses five broad scientific sessions, one per day, with each consisting of five invited 30-minute oral presentations plus one key-note 45-minute oral presentation in the morning, followed by a 2-hour poster session in the afternoon. 497 scientific posters were presented, of which 200+ were presented by students.

For the week I was our Cobb Lab ICP “pseudo-ocean" rep, happily permitted to squeeze in my stalagmite hydroclimate record to a paleocean conference. I roomed with two Caltech friends in Hostal Termes, located in the center of “downtown” Sitges and minutes from the beach front. We began each morning with a lovely croissant breakfast at a cute nearby bakery followed by a beautiful 20-minute walk, either through town or along the Mediterranean coast, to the Hotel Melia conference venue. With the $1000+ cost of international flights and somewhat weak dollar-to-euro exchange, the ratio of American to European scientists at the conference was small, and you could usually separate out the two quite easily based on the level of penny-pinching. I personally was quite proud of my cost-effective "juggling multiple budget-airlines" scheme to get to Europe. All was well and good on my stop-and-go trek through Canada-Iceland-UK-Spain until the poster baggage took its own trip out to Sweden. Better luck next time.

This was my first time presenting a science poster, and also my first international conference. As always, especially fun to spend time within another culture, and luckily the Sitges community enjoys late dinners (restaurants don’t even open until after 8:30pm), which allowed some time to explore the coastal town after a full day of conference (9:00am – 6:45pm). Although I still heavily favor presenting orally (my dancer-side has a never-ending love with center stage), poster presenting does provide its own distinctive merits, most notably the allowance of extended one-on-one conversation with particularly interested scientists. Also, after multiple discussions, the overall shared interest and reoccuring questions surrounding my current work became very apparent, which was useful to recognize as we move forward toward paper publishing.

Thanks to all for helping make the trip so memorable! And a shout out to the ICP Organizing Committee for their incredible job with putting everything together so seamlessly.

Editor's note:  Stacy won a prize for her poster at ICP. Great job!