In her quest to study the fundamentals of climate change, prominent geochemist and
climatologist Kim Cobb has sailed on six oceanographic research voyages and led five caving expeditions to the rainforests of Borneo.
Her challenge: working out of her primary research base in the tropical Pacific, how to better understand and reconstruct climate variability of the past in order to construct a sense of what climate changes or trends to expect in the future, including, for example rainfall.
“There is so much we still do not understand about predicting rainfall, especially because
satellite rainfall records only go back to the 1970′s,” says Kim, who is an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “But since 70% of the world’s population lives in the tropics, having a clearer sense of future tropical rainfall over the next 100 years would be incredibly valuable, ” she adds.
Her work in the tropics is also leading to a better understanding of global warming. For
instance, she and her colleagues have demonstrated that the impacts of global warming
can be isolated by studying long-lived corals growing on remote, uninhabited islands of the central tropical Pacific, where human impact is nonexistent. By analyzing the chemistry of large coral skeletons collected from reefs in this area, they can reconstruct the monthly history of temperature and rainfall patterns for the last 50 to 1000 years.
And in regards to global warming, especially in the wake of Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which brought worldwide attention to the role of CO2 in climate change, Kim believes climate scientists need to do a better job of communicating to the public about what is “settled science” versus what part of climate science still remains unknown or uncertain.
“We as scientists have failed in part to distinguish between these two areas in important ways, leaving the public somewhat confused and ourselves open to some very bruising attacks,” she says. “We need to design a better infrastructure to work through these challenges.”
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Watch a great video about Kim’s research below