o’connell explores cryosphere growth and demise

Suzanne O’Connell is the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Earth Science at Wesleyan. She studies Antarctic paleoclimate using marine sediment cores from IODP (International Ocean Discovery Program) in order to understand how Antarctica has changed in the past, information that will help researchers to understand and model future climate change. In fall 2021 she is teaching CIS221/Research Frontiers in Sciences and E&ES497/Senior Seminar. 

What sparked your interest in the environment?
I grew up in rural southwestern Massachusetts; a small town with about 600 people, regional school district, one-room school house, etc.  We didn’t even have a dial phone! Well, the phone had a rotary dial, but it didn’t work. We had to call the operator to get connected to someone. I also have five younger sisters.  So things in the house could get pretty chaotic.  I found the out-of-doors to be a refuge. I had a secret hideout next to the Konkapot River that ran by the edge of our property. I was always interested in the quiet and peacefulness that was available being out of doors. I still am.

Tell us about your Think Tank project and how it fits in with this year’s Think Tank theme of “visualizing environmental change.”
To me, one of the most obvious impacts of environmental change is the rapid change that we are seeing in the cryosphere. Mountain glacier demise is particularly striking, but thanks to satellite imagery we are also aware of the melting and breakup of the two large ice sheets, Greenland and Antarctica.

How did you get interested in the cryosphere?
After finishing my Ph.D. at Columbia University, I took a job as a staff scientist for what was then calle  the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP).  This is part of an international ocean exploration project that has been in continuation for over 50 years.  My first assignment was a two-month expedition to the Weddell Sea, January through early March of 1987. This is the part of the Southern Ocean that you intersect if you headed south from the Atlantic.  The experience was mesmerizing.  Huge icebergs, penguins and whales swimming around, penguins taking refuge on icebergs that floated by. It was wonderful.

Why is the study of the cryosphere important, in your opinion?
There is only a set amount of water on Earth. Most of the fresh water is tied up in the cryosphere. The growth and demise of the cryosphere has major consequences for life; changes in ecosystems, ocean circulation, weather and, of course, sea level.

What is the most important discovery in the last 5 or 10 years, in this area, in your opinion?
The speed with which the cryosphere is changing, that is, disintegrating.

Why do you think so many people still have a hard time visualizing and understanding the effects of climate change?
It baffles me, especially now when the evidence of rapid climate change is becoming more obvious every day. The disregard for science and facts is really disheartening.

Have there been any positive changes in people’s ability to visualize/understand the effects of climate change in the last five years?
I think that with the drought, the western fires and the intensity of climate disasters, more people are realizing that climate change is happening. These changes have been precited by climate scientists for decades.

Suzanne O'Connell Suzanne O'Connell points out details of the core on the description table. Lee Stephens/IODP, CC BY-ND
O’Connell points out details of a marine sediment core. Lee Stephens/IODP, CC BY-ND

What do you think needs to happen to turn things around?
For years, people have said that it’s too expensive to make the changes that are necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change. When I got to Wesleyan, even Gary Yohe, now a retired and highly respected environmental economist, told me that about three decades ago. Now you just can’t say that. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), between 2010 and 2019, climate-related disasters cost the U.S. almost $845 billion dollars, with an estimated 522 deaths per year. I think the most recent IPCC report says it all: We are at code red. It is time for all hands-on deck to deal with this emergency. We need to charge for carbon generation, find ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere (research funds), increase energy efficiency, and prepare to both adapt to and mitigate climate change.  There is no time to waste.

You’re creating a climate book as part of your Think Tank experience. What was the impetus for this project, specifically?
My book, with a working title, Melting Ice, is aimed at the general public. There’s the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think you can’t help but realize that climate is changing when you see the pictures of what glaciers and ice sheets looked like decades or even years ago and how much they shrunk. What I don’t think people realize, though, is the direct consequences to people. Mountain glaciers are huge water tanks.  They provide water for drinking, irrigation, and hydropower for literally billions of people. What will happen to these people when there is no more water? As they melt, glaciers become unstable, causing or contributing to human disasters such as the death and destruction when a glacier collapsed in the Indian state of Uttarakhand in February of 2021.

Then, of course, there is sea level rise. In my research, I study past ice sheet dynamics. We know that for the past 800,000 years ice sheets grew “slowly” and collapsed “rapidly.”  All of that time, atmospheric carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, never exceed 280 parts per million.  Today, in late summer 2021, it is over 410 ppm.  This is a 47% increase since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Although invisible to the eye, this increase, and other changes to the atmosphere ,cannot be ignored.

What is your hope, with this book?
I hope this book will serve as an opening to talk to people about climate change and what we must do immediately to protect humanity, from what I imagine to be a devastating, painful and expensive future.  And, of course, as is usually the case, the people with the least means will suffer the most severe consequences–be it people in the global south, people who work outside, or people living in low-lying areas.

Why did you want to be a member of the Think Tank?
I’ve been working on my climate book in isolation for a little over a year and wanted colleagues with whom to discuss my ideas. It occurred to me that applying to be in the COE Think Tank was the perfect opportunity to do this.

What do you hope to learn from your fellow fellows?
I’m looking forward to learning from them about how people in other disciplines are viewing rapid human-caused climate change, and especially exploring how they envision solutions to the crises; both actual solutions and ways to better communicate.

Learn more about our current and past Think Tank themes and fellows!