Sea levels are rising, the Arctic is reporting record lows of winter ice, technology is advancing to better gauge storms – and Rutgers faculty and students are leading the way in these important areas of climate research that are raising alarms about our threatened planet.Three influential Rutgers climate scientists joined President Robert Barchi on Wednesday in New York at the first of three University Alumni Association events to share ongoing research in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Services.
Last year, Barchi toured the country to meet alumni, but from this year on, the aim is to “bring Rutgers to you,” Barchi told the group of 150 alumni gathered at the JW Marriott Essex House. Registration is open for upcoming events in Philadelphia on March 19 and Washington, D.C. on April 21.
“As we talk about the impact of global warming and the impact of rising sea levels, our faculty are the ones who are being quoted in the conversations about it,” Barchi said, noting Rutgers’ Marine and Coastal Sciences was ranked 4th in the world by Thomson Reuters for its impact on oceanography.
Jennifer Francis, a marine and coastal sciences research professor whose research focuses on the Arctic and jet stream patterns, said looking back at the earth’s average temperatures in the past 1,000 years, the trend was toward cooling “until we started putting a lot of fossil-fuel-burning greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that trap heat.”
“The amount of Co2 is the highest it’s been in at least 800,000 years,” she said. “We also know that the earth is not warming evenly,” with the most dramatic warming occurring in the Arctic, where there is half as much sea ice as there was 30 years ago. “We have lost about 75 percent of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean,” Francis noted.
At Rutgers’ Coastal Ocean Observation Lab, work is underway to design, build and deploy more technologically advanced robotic gliders to extract reams of data from the ocean during storms, said Scott Glenn. Glenn’s ocean science and engineering research – including the development of new ocean observation technologies and weather forecast models – centers on better understanding of storms and hurricanes. Students work in the lab from their first year on, he noted, and they are working to gather data that will help climate scientists better gauge the intensity of storms, which is often far more elusive than storm tracks. Rutgers students also are embedded with the National Weather Service during major storms to help assess the data that the gliders collect.
“We need to close this intensity science gap – that’s our challenge,” Glenn said.
Benjamin Horton, a professor whose research on sea-level rise was included in a webcast of President Barack Obama’s January State of the Union address, said the world’s oceans are rising at the fastest rate in at least 2,000 years because of four key changes. As air temperatures increase, sea-water temperatures increase, which leads the water’s volume to increase. Second, he said the melting of ice caps and glaciers in the summer is balanced by precipitation in the winter, but there has been increased melting in summers and decreased precipitation in winters. Meanwhile, Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are melting more in the summer and beyond their precipitation levels in the winter, creating surface pools of water, which are speeding the rate of melting. At the same time, Atlantic coastal land continues to sink in part because of an extinct ice sheet.
There was lots of talk of Hurricane Sandy among the panel, and Horton agreed the devastating storm illustrates the impact of climate change. “In a landmark paper that we published at Rutgers University last year, we stated that Hurricane Sandy – presently thought of as a 100-year-event – by the mid-part of this century, if we do nothing to mitigate against climate change – will occur every single decade.” He estimated that 100,000 people in New Jersey and New York were flooded by Hurricane Sandy because of sea-level rise.
The event drew alumni of all ages. “I’m excited to see that there are a lot of new faces, which tells me the program is of interest,” said Donna Thornton, Rutgers’ vice president of alumni relations. The event is the first of many planned to spotlight the work being done by Rutgers faculty at alumni gatherings.
During a Q&A session, a few recent Rutgers graduates and current students raised the issue of the university’s investment in fossil fuel companies as its researchers cite the need for reduced Co2 emissions. President Barchi commended the graduates and students for advocating for a cause they believe in, and noted he has previously arranged for representatives of the advocacy group to meet with the university’s investment officials.
Elaine Weyuker, who received her doctorate in computer science from Rutgers, said she came from Metuchen to the alumni event because, “I love the idea that this a group of researchers and that it is not a political position on climate change but a scientific position.”
– Dory Devlin
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