Ellen Thomas, research professor of earth and environmental sciences,
examines the fossils of sea creatures from her office in Exley Science
Center. Thomas extracted her samples from the ocean's floor. She says they
are more than 65 million years old.
Research Professor Examines Greenhouse Emissions in Deep Sea Biota at
The largest habitat on Earth lies hundreds to thousands of feet beneath sea
level, in a dark, near-freezing, high-pressure environment with little food.
About 65 million years ago, the life forms living on the ocean-floor in this
habitat survived the an asteroid impact, which probably wiped out the
dinosaurs and many other forms of life on land and in the sea. But 55
million years ago, an episode of rapid global warming caused extinction of a
third to half of the species of sea-bottom dwellers.
Ellen Thomas, research professor of earth and environmental sciences, argues
that fossils from these unicellular sea creatures can help in understanding
how the biota would react to another onslaught of global warming caused by a
rapid emission of greenhouse gases.
“In general, deep-sea benthic foraminifera do not easily suffer large
extinction; most of them are cosmopolitan, and can survive local
environmental problems in a refugium somewhere in the world's oceans,”
Thomas explains. “The extinction was most probably caused by metabolic and
ecosystem restructuring due to rapid global warming,” she says.
Thomas recently presented her ideas in an American Association for the
Advancement of Science (AAAS) symposium on the topic “Ancient Greenhouse
Emissions and Hothouse Climates,” held Feb. 17 in St. Louis, Mo. The AAAS is
an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science
around the world.
In this session, Thomas and six other experts examined the major periods of
hothouse climates and their associated greenhouse gas levels from a
geological perspective and integrated geologic, chemical, and biologic proxy
Thomas discussed “Deep-Sea Biota: Consequences of Massive Greenhouse Gas
Emissions,” and recalled the global warming episode about 55 million years
ago. During this period, the planet’s temperature rapidly rose between 9 and
16 degrees F in a short period of time.
“Deep-sea biota are so poorly known so that we can not predict their
reaction to direct and indirect effects of increasing atmospheric CO2
levels, but their fossil remains can be used to study the behavior of
deep-sea biota during global warming,” Thomas explains.
Thomas joined speakers from Pennsylvania State University, Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute, Northwestern University, University of California,
Santa Cruz, Columbia University, Rice University and The Smithsonian Museum
of Natural History.
The speakers’ joint argument was that this period of natural global warming
can be used as an example to give scientists valuable information on what
happens to the planet and its life during such episodes of greenhouse
warming. After debating, the speakers concluded that it is possible that
climate sensitivity to increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere is larger
than specified in most commonly used climate models. It is thus possible
that the earth will warm up more than presently expected as a response to
anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
The sessions were attended by scientists, but also journalists, teachers and
others simply interested in science. Because the symposium was spread out
over four days, Thomas was able to attend other presentations outside of her
field of expertise.
“I attended highly interesting, interdisciplinary sessions on intelligent
design, scientific integrity, and a session on political and economic
aspects of climate change in the near future,” she says.
Thomas also was selected to be an interviewee at the AAAS-organized press
conference prior to her talk. She and four other speakers gave brief
introductions to their research and answered questions from journalists.
Thomas spoke to reporters from the AAAS paper 'Science', and other
non-science media such as The Economist from the United Kingdom, a Swedish
newspaper, and two Dutch TV-radio stations. Thomas, who is originally from
The Netherlands, spoke to these reporters in Dutch.
“They were very thrilled to be able to interview someone who is from Holland
and could speak in Dutch,” she says. “I had not realized what a large
international press representation there was going to be.”
AAAS President Gilbert Omenn says the symposium’s program was designed to
challenge scientists, engineers, teachers and citizens to frame important
scientific and societal problems in ways that create opportunities to apply
the best in science and technology for broad benefit.
“We can mobilize individual disciplines and cross-disciplinary work on major
national and global goals,” he said. “We can boldly define problems and
potential solutions for the decades ahead, thereby inspiring the scientific
and engineering community and attracting young people to this mission.”
|By Olivia Bartlett,
Wesleyan Connection editor