The Study of Climates

Written by Student Contributor Andrew Ahn – Fayetteville-Manlius High School

It’s been said that you must understand the past to know the future, and a group of researchers from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences took this to heart. Among them were Emily Judd ‘20, Ph.D., Thonis Family Assistant Professor Tripti Bhattacharya, and Professor Linda Ivany. Their work was published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal as a study titled, “A Dynamical Framework for Interpreting Ancient Sea Surface Temperatures”.

The study conducted by these individuals was focused on reconstructing Earth’s past climates to be able to better predict them in the future. The study of past climates is known as paleoclimatology, and it is conducted by studying proxies (physical characteristics/materials in the Earth that indicate what the weather was like at a certain time). These proxies are found preserved in sedimentary deposits (accumulations of rock particles/other sediments) on the ocean floor or the continents and they show researchers ancient temperatures of certain regions. Proxies are usually found in shallow, semi-restricted seas (such as the Mediterranean Sea) and primarily come from the Paleozoic Era (542-251 million years ago). Estimations of ocean temperatures are also made and are the most essential tool for reconstructing ancient global temperatures/climates. The temperatures found can then be used to study latitudinal temperature gradients (the difference between the average temperatures of the equator and the poles of the Earth) of the past. Predictions can be made of the position of jet streams (narrow air currents in the atmosphere that flow quickly in a winding path) through these reconstructions. Jet streams play significant roles in controlling weather as they push air masses (bodies of air that are uniform in temperature, humidity, and pressure) to different areas. Different air masses have different conditions, so pushing a certain air mass to an area will cause that area to experience certain weather conditions.

A difficulty that arises when trying to create a full reconstruction of ancient climate is the bias of present data. Certain regions/environments have less data than others, preventing a thorough reconstruction. This bias also creates an offset between the estimates made using the data and the true average temperature at a given latitude. A critical finding in the research is that the shallow seas that the researchers were getting much of their data from were warmer than the open ocean, from where little data was taken. This means that estimates previously made on the Paleozoic Era’s temperature are unrealistically high. As a result, the team urges researchers to collect data from under-represented regions to get rid of data bias. Accounting for this offset was a major focus of the research paper, as once it is righted, Earth’s ancient climate can be accurately recalled. This model can then be utilized to more accurately predict Earth’s future climate.

The MOST’s Magic Planet Exhibit can help young scientists explore Earth’s weather, much like these researchers! Interact with the globe to watch weather patterns progress and much more.

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