"Understanding how Earth’s climate system worked during past warm times is important to understanding climate change today and to preparing for the future”
By Katie Neitz
Working with an international team of collaborators, Kira Lawrence, John H. Markle Professor of Geology and department head, has developed a tool that will help paleoclimate scientists fill in gaps in the geologic record and make new discoveries about Earth’s climate in the past.
This is vital work, as reconstructing past climate conditions enables scientists to better understand how Earth will react to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Lawrence is a paleoclimatologist whose work has mostly focused on the Pliocene epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago), a period that is of particular interest due to its status as the most recent interval of sustained warmth in Earth’s history. There is less data about the period that preceded it, the Miocene epoch, which was warmer yet than the Pliocene and, given the ongoing climb of atmospheric carbon dioxide level, represents a potential analog for the near-term future.
In 2019, while attending an international conference at Stockholm University, Lawrence and colleagues discussed the need to collate existing data from the Miocene epoch to help researchers be able to more readily see where data gaps that need to be filled exist and use existing datasets to build a more comprehensive view through data syntheses and model-data comparisons that are the gold standard for using paleoclimate data to inform our understanding of modern climate change.
Working with a team of colleagues at the Bolin Centre for Climate Research at Stockholm University and Cardiff University in the United Kingdom for more than a year, Lawrence created the Miocene Temperature Portal, a tool that collates key information about Miocene sea surface temperature records. The portal enables researchers to rapidly locate and evaluate data, which then helps them conduct research. This, in turn, helps the broader paleoclimate community by adding missing pieces to the geological record in the form of new data and new studies that leverage existing datasets.
“This is a community effort to provide an important resource that will enable scientists to develop a global picture of the Earth’s history during this specific interval of time,” Lawrence says. “Understanding how Earth’s climate system worked during past warm times is important to understanding climate change today and to preparing for the future.”
The team determined that developing a portal would be a valuable way to serve the broader paleoclimate community. Paleoclimate scientists can add new data as it’s published, so the tool will remain relevant and increasingly useful over time.
Lawrence and colleagues demonstrated the portal at an American Geophysical Union session in 2020.
Environmental sustainability is of paramount concern in the 21st century as society grapples with increasing demand for energy and water, changing climate and land use, and limited resources.