Case Studies

Oregon State University

Monsoon Mission

Brendan Reilly is a historian of sorts—but not the kind who sifts through dusty reams of parchment paper. Instead, the ARCS Scholar and Ph.D. student in ocean, earth, and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University probes deep into the Earth’s sediment, looking for magnetic minerals and other markers that provide a record of our planet’s geologic history.

Basically, we take geologic samples, mostly sediment cores from lakes and oceans, and study the magnetic minerals,” he said. “These magnetic minerals can reveal the source material and transport processes and tell us important information about environmental changes.”

Reilly’s most recent dig into the past will take him to the Indian Ocean, where he will accompany an International Ocean Discovery Program expedition as the science party’s paleomagnetist. He will be investigating how magnetic minerals deep within the ocean floor can provide important clues about monsoons. Using the orientation of magnetic minerals, his primary mission will be to develop a chronology for the drill records. These chronologies will be used as a framework for many other analyses (geochemical, sedimentologic, geophysical) and provide the context of time to their interpretations.

“We’ll be taking a really long drill core, about a kilometer or more, into the Bengal Fan in the Indian Ocean to look at the evolution of the monsoon and uplift of the Himalayans over the last few million years and how these events are recorded in the marine sediment,” Reilly said.

Just exactly how do magnetic minerals relate to monsoons? Many magnetic minerals start as igneous rocks and get weathered out. Exposure to the environment and surface processes alter the chemical composition of these minerals, and the amount of that alteration may indicate how much precipitation was present during any given time.

As you look at relative changes in the degree of chemical alterations, you start to get information on large-scale changes in monsoons,” explained Reilly.

To assist in his monsoon mission, Reilly uses the sophisticated equipment in Paleo-and-Environmental Magnetism Laboratory (P-Mag Lab) at Oregon State University. Spearheaded by Joseph Stoner, a marine geologist and paleomagnetist, as well as Reilly’s major advisor, the P-Mag Lab is an NSF-supported facility dedicated to sediment magnetism and serves as a resource for regional, national and international scientific communities.

There, Reilly uses laboratory experiments to analyze the sediment, including zapping the sample with a magnetic field to measure the response. Because each mineral has its own magnetic signature, its response (or lack of it) to a magnetic field gives scientists an idea of the sediment’s mineral composition and even its size.

But often the mineral’s signature is more nuanced and harder to define. That’s when Reilly turns to electron microscopy, a powerful tool that uses beams of electrons to create a detailed image of the sediment sample and analyze the chemical composition of micron-sized regions. This technique allows Reilly to observe the morphology, textures and composition of individual magnetic minerals, which can be used to better interpret the bulk magnetic signals.

While Reilly has yet to draw firm conclusions on the origins of monsoons, past work on magnetic minerals have proven to be reliable indicators of major climactic shifts. In one project led by Joseph Stoner, magnetic minerals derived from Greenland are shown to be distinctly different from those derived from Iceland, which are typically transported into the deep ocean. When the Greenland ice sheet retreats, the erosion of materials and the timing of these retreats can be determined in marine sediment cores. These indicate substantial reduction of the Greenland ice sheet during warmer periods within the distant past (120,000, 300,000 and 400,000 years ago).

Reilly’s up-and-coming research on the historical evolution of monsoons will help scientists anticipate the triggers of these powerful weather events—a particularly important effort as researchers seek to understand how human-induced climate change might intensify storms, floods and other natural hazards.

“Because the problem’s we’re seeking to address have impacts on economies, societies, where people live, etc., it’s important to understand climate change on a long-term scale,” he said. “Satellite data can give you images for decades, but that’s not long enough. The geologic record gives us a better understanding of how systems have changed through time so we can anticipate future thresholds.”

University of Washington

Zipping over Greenland in a helicopter tagging polar bears was not really something that Kristin Laidre saw in her future. The now-former ballerina moved from New York to Seattle to dance with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, later swapping the dancing studio for a laboratory by enrolling at the University of Washington where she ultimately earned her PhD. Now an assistant professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at UW’s College of the Environment, Laidre studies some of the Arctic’s most charismatic megafauna – narwhals, otherwise known as Arctic whales and yes, polar bears – to learn about how a changing climate is playing out for top predators in high latitudes.

“The Arctic can tell us a lot about climate change and its effect on the Earth – the region is essentially the canary in the coal mine for what’s going on globally,” remarks Laidre. Her work focuses on the relationship between animals and their ice covered environment, how that environment is changing and animals adapt. Not only does Laidre study the animals directly, but they also help her collect information about the physical environment. In recent work, she outfitted narwhals to take water temperature samples and bowhead whales to measure primary productivity as they dove in icy waters to forage for food.

But Laidre’s world isn’t all high tech. Tapping into her creative roots, she is utilizing artistic pathways to better connect science to people in the community. “There are lots of corollaries between art and science that can be merged – ‘observation’ inherently links the two,” says Laidre, speaking of a collaboration between herself and professional expeditionary artist Maria Coryell-Martin. The two travel to high latitudes, using Laidre’s studies and dramatic landscapes as inspiration and subjects to paint about. They share their work with museums, galleries, and classrooms, using art as a hook for people of all ages to gain interest in science.

Still, Laidre pushes the envelope to better understand these changing landscapes and their relationship to others. In large part, she is also driven by the people that live in these high latitudes, acknowledging an admiration and respect for “how local people are connected to their environment and to an amazingly specialized way of life.” She’ll be off again soon to spend her summer research season near the ice, hoping to better understand how to better protect the people and mammals connected to it.

Wildlife Conservation Society

For more than 100 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has been committed to saving wildlife and wild places around the world. Founded in 1895, this global conservation organization has an unwavering commitment to protect the last of the wild. More than a century later, WCS is the preeminent science-based wildlife conservation organization in the world. Field projects impact more than 60 countries and all of the world’s oceans. WCS’s focus is on protection of large, intact landscapes and seascapes where, in the face of global change, there is the greatest chance of conserving species and ecosystems. Protected area management is a core strategy—since its inception, WCS has assisted governments and communities to create, expand, or propose 245 parks from Kruger, South Africa in 1920 to Wakhan, Afghanistan in 2014. WCS staff’s veterinary and epidemiological expertise spans 35 countries and is focused on zoonotic diseases such as SARS, Ebola, and West Nile virus.
WCS is headquartered in New York City, where conservation work is achieved a network of four zoos and an aquarium. These urban wildlife parks connect four million visitors annually to nature, inspiring them to become advocates for wildlife and biodiversity conservation. The New York zoos and aquarium allow visitors to see imperiled species firsthand and gain a greater understanding of conservation efforts at home and around the world.

WCS’s mission is to save wildlife and wild places through science, conservation, action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. WCS envisions a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on earth. To save wildlife and wild places, the organization focuses on four global issues: climate change; natural resources extraction; the relationship between wildlife and human health; and the connection between sustainable development and local livelihoods. By 2020, WCS’s goal is to conserve more than 50 percent of the world’s biological diversity.

WCS has partnered with the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation to leave a legacy of conservation for future generations.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

MIT/WHOI Joint Program Students Test
Their Skills

Field experience is critical in every MIT/WHOI Joint Program student’s education, but getting out of the lab can be expensive and difficult without federal grants to pay the way. Funding from The G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation made it possible for students Anna Wargula and Deepak Cherian to see first-hand what it takes to successfully gather the types of data they’ve been working with for years in the lab. Anna Wargula, an ocean engineering student, spent the fall of 2013 in Duck, North Carolina, deploying pressure gauges and current meters in a wave forcing study directed by WHOI Physical Oceanographer Britt Raubenheimer. While Wargula was involved in planning arrays and data quality control in the lab, she had never seen the instruments at work in the crashing waves along the coast.

“Anna’s expertise for future work will include working with field observations,” Raubenheimer said. “Obtaining field experience has been valuable for her research and will increase her career options.” For Wargula, time in the surf gave her insight into the pressures of coping with unpredictable weather, equipment breakdowns and even tiredness and fatigue.

The experience will help her as she pursues her research focus of understanding wave and current patterns in rivers, she said.

“A lot can change very quickly, so just knowing what could change physically in those systems helps you know what to expect in the data,” Wargula said. “I never got to experience the start-to-finish frustration and late night ‘I hope this works!’ feeling before [this].”

Securing a berth on a research ship can be even more difficult for a student without a grant to pay for days at sea. Vetlesen Foundation funds also helped physical oceanography student Deepak Cherian travel to Sri Lanka in 2013, where he volunteered on a research cruise to study sharp frontal systems in the Bay of Bengal. While he was a world away from his research focus of eddy interactions with the continental shelf waters of New England, he learned how seasoned researchers deploy some of the same tools he will use for his own research as his career progresses.