USU scientists use past to learn about climate change

The earth goes through normal cycles of warming and cooling, and scientists such as USU’s Tammy Rittenour study how these changes affect the environment over extended periods of time.Rittenour, an assistant professor in USU’s geology departmentwas the key speaker at Friday’s Science Unwrapped in a continuing series covering climate change.Rittenour is also the director of the luminescence lab and is a paleoclimatologist. Paleoclimatologists study ancient climates using methods including the study of ice cores, fossil pollens, tree rings, coral and luminescence dating of sediment, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.”We get samples from all over the world and we date the last time sediment was exposed to sunlight,” said Michelle Nelson, lab manager at the luminescence lab and assistant to Rittenour.”In Europe we have climate records or temperature records that go back to the late 1700s,” Rittenour said, “so we need to rely on something else to cover those gaps, to cover the gaps in time. We only have a 110 years and the longer records are available using geologic records.”Rittenour said observing variables in environmental proxies, which are observable remnants of the past, such as tree rings, can give a general idea of what the climate was like. These variables can then be compared to data that has been collected about the climate in the area as well as variables such as isotopes that are collected from ice core samples.Data can also be collected from biological sources in the form of fossils. A fossil of a plant normally found in tropical regions that is later discovered in a region which is no longer tropical, is a strong climate change indicator, she said.

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