Grant to support new explorations of Earth’s past climate


CORVALLIS, Ore. – Geoscientists at Oregon State University have received a five year, $4.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead an international consortium in developing ice core exploration technology that will provide a better understanding of past climate than ever before.

Working with 12 other institutions, the program may ultimately provide a continuous view of Earth’s climate for the past 800,000 years, based upon analysis of dust and trace gases found in ancient ice cores taken from Antarctica and Greenland.

Of particular interest, the researchers say, is understanding the impact of greenhouse gases on global climate at times in the distant past, how climate changes may have created greenhouse gases, and the “feedback loops” that can amplify some of these changes.

“The new instrumentation we plan to develop should be faster to use, more sensitive than anything we’ve had before, and deployable in the field,” said Ed Brook, a professor of geosciences at OSU and principal investigator on the project. “All of these issues are important.”

Understanding the past, Brook said, should provide insights into how current or projected levels of greenhouse gases will affect Earth’s future climate.

One of the tools the group plans to develop is the use of laser spectroscopy to replace older-generation technology such as mass spectrometry. Laser lights can detect molecules of interest quicker and more accurately than the older instruments. Development of new computer models to analyze abrupt climate change is also anticipated.

The new program also has a major educational component, including support for a cohort of postdoctoral scholars in the U.S., and undergraduate and graduate students. A number of the student positions will be at OSU, including two postdoctoral students, two or three graduate students and four or more undergraduate students.

“We hope for this program to contribute to OSU’s commitment to research experiences for undergraduate students,” Brook said. “When you can send an undergrad to Greenland to do original field research, it can have an enormous impact on their interest in pursuing careers in science, and continued polar exploration.”

Participating U.S. institutions include OSU, Dartmouth College, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Washington, Columbia University and the University of Colorado.

Five other international research institutions in Denmark, France, Switzerland and Japan will also join the initiative.

The grant is supported by the Office of International Science and Engineering and the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation, through the Partnerships in International Research and Education program.