SUNY researchers tackle climate change
There’s no question that the climate is changing, and we must do something in response. Determining what to do, however, will be shaped in part by understanding which changes result from human activity and which result from Earth’s natural processes.
SUNY addresses these issues with a wide-ranging, in-depth portfolio of research, from geological studies on ancient places, to analysis of contemporary climate trends, to evaluations of the impact of climate change on living organisms. Insights gained from SUNY research could help determine our response to climate change by indicating, for example, the most effective pathways to mitigation, where we should focus on resilience instead, and what we can expect in the future.
Understanding the history of climate change
The ability to contextualize current changes in climate grows from an understanding of what past climates were like.
Binghamton University graduate student Mebrahtu Weldeghebriel is analyzing minor and trace elements in seawater preserved in halite samples dating back as far as 550 million years. Knowing how the oceans and climate changed previously gives scientists insights into how it might change in the future.
Twenty years of research by international research teams led by Stony Brook University’s (SBU’s) Maureen O’Leary reveals that 50 to 100 million years ago the region now holding the Sahara Desert was once under water, in striking contrast to the present-day arid environment. A new paper published in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History contains the first reconstructions of extinct aquatic species in their habitats along the seaway and places in context massive climate and sea level changes that can occur on Earth.
In gold mines near Fairbanks, Alaska, University at Buffalo (UB) scientists are searching through layers of ancient sediment for clues about how the region’s climate changed during periods of global warming that have occurred during the Pleistocene, which began about 2.6 million years ago. The researchers will investigate chemicals called glycerol dialkyl glycerol tetraethers (GDGTs), which are produced by bacteria and can be used to reconstruct prehistoric temperature trends.
A team from SUNY Oswego earned a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study changes in water levels in Death Valley and the Mohave Desert over the last 150,000 years. The study will provide analysis of past precipitation cycles and other data that will be used to forecast future wet-dry cycles in California’s Central Valley — one of the most productive agricultural areas in the US.
Meanwhile, University at Albany archaeologist Robert Rosenswig is turning to a 300-year global drought that occurred 4,200 years ago for insight on human adaptation to climate change. The project combines advanced computational climate modeling with archaeological excavations and lake sediment coring in the lowlands of northern Belize to reconstruct and evaluate human settlement, diet and vegetation patterns from before, during and after the drought.
Current Climate Trends
On the land, sea, and air, global warming is altering the planet’s ability to regulate itself.
UAlbany atmospheric scientist Liming Zhou and his graduate students have found a widespread decline in vegetation greenness and water content in the Congolese rainforest. The implications for the study relate directly to the growing concerns of future climate change. The gradual loss of photosynthetic capacity and water content over a long period might affect biodiversity of the rainforest and could decrease its ability to soak up CO2 emissions.
At the other end of the climate spectrum, a UAlbany research team is seeking to understand why the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world — a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification. Their study suggests that sea ice loss causes the rapid warming and will continue to do so until the 23rd century, when nearly all the Arctic’s sea ice will have melted away. The warming Arctic will affect the rest of the world through rising sea levels and could also impact weather patterns in middle latitudes, causing more frequent intrusions of winter polar vortex into the continental U.S.
Three UAlbany undergraduate students were part of a large team of researchers who spent 11 days this summer conducting experiments around the Greenland Ice Sheet. The expedition was supported by the NSF and the student’s experiment results will help record a snapshot of the current state of Greenland’s climate conditions.
Antarctic firn — partially compacted granular snow in an intermediate stage between snow and glacier ice — holds information critical to assessing and understanding changes in our global climate. Current measurements of such key properties as internal temperature and layer thickness rely on sparse on-site surveys conducted under challenging weather conditions. UAlbany researcher Mustafa Aksoy was awarded $337,000 from the NSF to test the hypothesis that physical and thermal properties of Antarctic firn can be measured using remote sensing from space.
CO2 and other greenhouse gases are known for their warming effect on the Earth’s surface. Lesser known is how aerosols affect climate. These microscopic particles, which are associated with manmade (think cars and factories) and natural (think plants and trees) emissions cool the environment by modifying properties of clouds that reflect sunlight back to space. UAlbany researchers generated new climate change models that show how plants’ production of aerosols is influenced by human land use and warming temperatures.
Evaluating the Impact of Climate Change
It’s not enough to know what’s happening; we also need to gauge what climate change is doing to the planet.
A study out of the UAlbany School of Public Health warning that climate change could negatively impact babies’ heart health made national news. The research, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that global warming may increase pregnant women’s exposure to dangerously high temperatures and could result in as many as 7,000 additional congenital heart defect cases in the decade spanning 2025-2035.
Our food supply is suffering, too, as warmer waters hold less oxygen than cooler waters. According to a fascinating study conducted at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, fish are not growing as long or as heavy as they did when waters were cooler. Professor Karin Limburg discovered this by analyzing calcified structures in the ears of Baltic Cod. Like tree rings, the structures (called otoliths) grow by accumulating different colored zones that reflect conditions in the environment, such as water temperature.
Two teams from SBU’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences will investigate the impacts of ocean acidification on shellfish, crustaceans, fish, and zooplankton in the New York Bight (the area of ocean from the south shore of Long Island to the continental shelf break). The projects will tackle the issues of ocean acidification, marine biodiversity, and the overall effect that climate change will have on shellfish and other marine species.
When it comes to climate change, public attention often focuses on the effect of rising average temperatures. In contrast, new research from Binghamton centers on extremely cold and variable temperatures, which are also consequences of climate change. The study concluded that variation in cold temperatures can lead to unique consequences on amphibian growth, development and responses to other stressors, such as contaminants and parasites. Whether the impact from the cold was harmful or helpful for the amphibians is difficult to gauge.
Slowing the Pace of Climate Change
There’s nearly universal consensus among scientists that human activity is increasing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. But even as scientists investigate the precise nature and extent of this dynamic, we humans can modify our behavior, eliminating what’s destructive and amplifying what’s positive. At SUNY, the drive to change the future climate trajectory takes many forms.
Carbon capture technology has great potential to slow the pace of global warming. UB researchers are developing easily installable membranes that can separate CO2 from other gas emissions at factories, cement plants, steel furnaces, and coal-fired power plants. The membranes will remove about 90 percent of the carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere, outperforming current devices by 50 to 100 percent.
UB startup Helios-NRG s is testing technologies for algae cultivation and carbon capture in a greenhouse on the North Campus. The objective is to produce 35 grams of algae per square meter of area per day and to capture more than 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from a concentrated source. The company has made significant progress toward those goals. Once the technology has been refined, Helios-NRG will have the chance to pilot it at the National Carbon Capture Center, a DOE-sponsored research facility in Alabama.
SUNY researchers are also looking at ways to reduce CO2 emissions. Engineers at UB have designed a system that can cool buildings without using electricity. The system consists of a special material — an inexpensive polymer/aluminum film — that’s installed inside a box at the bottom of a specially designed solar “shelter.” The film helps to keep its surroundings cool by absorbing heat from the air inside the box and transmitting that energy through the Earth’s atmosphere into outer space.
A government-industry-university collaboration aims to make warehouses more energy efficient by incorporating multiple clean-energy technologies into a single system. Binghamton faculty will develop warehouse energy management solutions that employ solar panels, a stationary energy storage system and lithium-ion batteries on forklifts and demonstrate how it can benefit warehouse owners and the grid.
Richard Perez, a senior research associate at UAlbany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, has devised a “counterintuitive strategy” for making solar and wind power major components of energy grids. His cost-effective solution to bridge the gap between production of renewables and customer demand is to build more solar and wind farms than the grid demands. By building oversized renewable assets, more energy is produced, limiting seasonal imbalances and the need for a large amount of storage. The oversizing strategy is combined with a practice called curtailment, which reduces output to below capacity during peak times, saving money and resources.
The U.S. Army is funding a team at SUNY Polytechnic to develop batteries with greater storage capacity. They will explore beta particles—electrons produced by radioactive decay—as a means of creating a device with improved efficiency and output.
In the end, knowing what action to take depends in part on knowing what actions are available. SBU is partnering with The Center for Sustainable Energy, a national nonprofit focused on accelerating the transition to clean energy, to enhance the development of clean energy research while fostering go-to-market capabilities and pursuing global R&D collaborations.
Whether the collaborations are global, local, or national, SUNY’s efforts are pointing the way toward the precise climate action we need, today and tomorrow.
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