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Geology expands focus on climate science

NASA climate scientist Kristin Poinar, who will join the UB geology faculty in January, gives a TED Talk last spring in Vancouver, BC, on her research on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published October 18, 2017

“We now have four researchers working in this area, which is quite large when it comes to groups focused on glaciology.”
Beata Csatho, professor and interim chair
Department of Geology

The Department of Geology and the RENEW Institute will welcome a new hire in January: Kristin Poinar, a NASA climate scientist whose study on giant cracks in the Greenland Ice Sheet made headlines worldwide in early 2017.

Although Poinar will not be in Buffalo until 2018, Western New Yorkers will have an opportunity to get to know her much sooner.

A TED Talk Poinar gave this spring was posted online earlier this week.

TED Talks are short, powerful talks that explain influential ideas. Poinar’s talk shares how she used computer modeling to discover what happens to meltwater that trickles into deep fissures, called crevasses, in the Greenland Ice Sheet. She found that instead of refreezing inside these massive chasms, the water reaches bedrock and finds its way to the ocean, contributing to global sea-level rise.

“Sea levels are rising and are going to continue to rise,” says Poinar. “If we are to plan, as a society, how to cope with coastal floods, saltwater encroaching into our drinking water and disruption at our ports, we need to know just how much seas will rise, and how fast that is going to happen.”

A growing focus on climate change research

A view of a crevasse field on the Greenland Ice Sheet. Water is not visible in the crevasses, because meltwater doesn't enter them until about 40 feet below the surface, where a firn aquifer lies. Photo: Clement Miège/University of Utah

At UB, Poinar joins a geology department that has grown its climate change research group in recent years, with a focus on glaciology, the study of glaciers and ice sheets.

“We now have four researchers working in this area, which is quite large when it comes to groups focused on glaciology,” says Beata Csatho, professor and interim chair of the department. “Numerical modeling is very important for understanding how ice sheets and glaciers behave, and Dr. Poinar has expertise in this area. By having her here, we will be able to do more exciting experiments. It makes us more competitive.”

Like Csatho and the department’s other climate scientists, Poinar will be a member of UB’s RENEW Institute, which tackles complex energy and environmental issues and their social and economic ramifications. RENEW (Research and Education in eNergy, Environment and Water) is funding 50 percent of her position.

“With Kristin joining UB, we are filling a key scientific gap in the RENEW Climate Change and Socioeconomic Impacts focus area,” says Amit Goyal, Professor of Empire Innovation and director of RENEW.

She joins the university at a time when both the RENEW Institute and geology department are looking to expand their expertise in climate change research.

For years, the geology department’s core climate scientists were Csatho, who uses satellite data to monitor ice sheets, and Jason Briner, who uses geologic evidence from Arctic research expeditions to study the Greenland Ice Sheet’s response to prehistoric climate change.

The group grew in 2015 with the hire of geochemist Elizabeth Thomas, an assistant professor of geology who investigates how precipitation in two sensitive areas — the Arctic and East Asia — responded to climate change over the past several hundred thousand years.

Poinar, a postdoctoral fellow at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, will join the department as an assistant professor of geology.

The mystery below the ice

In addition to cultivating a strong in-house team, the geology department co-hosted two high-profile events this year for the broader climate science community, with plans for a third in 2018.

In March, researchers from across the U.S., Canada, Japan and Scandinavia came to UB for the 47th International Arctic Workshop. Then, in September, Briner ran a workshop on the Greenland Ice Sheet that drew some of the world’s top climate scientists to Buffalo to discuss future research priorities. And finally, Csatho is organizing a major, weeklong symposium for the International Glaciological Society that will take place at the Hotel @ the Lafayette in June 2018.

Poinar attended the September workshop, and Csatho says it’s clear that Poinar’s research area is one of growing importance. Poinar uses numerical models to study how meltwater interacts with ice, including through processes that occur deep below an ice sheet’s surface.

“This whole subglacial environment is a new frontier in our field,” Csatho says. “Some of the processes that occur underneath the surface are very difficult to observe, so how they occur is still very much a mystery. It’s a very new area of research with a lot of promise for helping us understand how ice sheets will contribute to sea-level rise.”

In addition to climate change, the geology department also has research groups on Environment and Energy, Evolution and Ecology, and Volcanoes and Geohazards.