Although the words “climate change” have become a commonly used phrase, few people know the science behind the term. Appalachian State geology professors Johnny Waters and Sarah Carmichael are out to change that.
For the past five years, Waters and Carmichael have been part of a United Nations-funded international group called the International Geologic Cooperation Program (IGCP), which was assembled to improve and build scientific capacity in third-world countries.
“Our specific project is to look at climate change and extinction in the middle Paleozoic era, which was 300 to 400 million years ago,” Waters says. “It was an interesting time in earth history, and happens to be very similar to what we’re seeing today. There was a lot of climatic instability, as well as a massive change in atmospheric carbon dioxide. This was a period of really dramatic change.”
The IGCP researchers, a group which includes roughly 200 people from 25 different countries, study rocks from the Devonian period as a means of gauging the causes for the major mass extinction as well as the conditions in the aftermath. One of those researchers is Cameron Batchelor, a Geology student from Appalachian State, who traveled to Mongolia in August 2014 with Waters, Carmichael, and other ICGP researchers.
“There were two large extinction events in the Devonian period as evidenced by black shale deposits,” Batchelor explains. “We’ve been working on samples from China, so we went to Mongolia to see if we can find the extinction events there as well as in China. These rocks have never been studied before, so the research we’re doing there is groundbreaking. When this study is published, it will be the first detailed publication on samples in this vicinity.”
Batchelor admits that when she first learned she was going on the trip, she felt intimidated. “We went with a bunch of professional geologists and I knew they were all more qualified than me,” Batchelor says. “But they all listened to me and wanted me to help them, so the reality greatly exceeded my expectations.”
In addition to learning about geology, Batchelor got to experience a new culture. “I was living the Mongolian way, living in a yurt and trying Mongolian foods. It was awesome,” Batchelor says. “You get to study what you love, and travel the world, and there are no limits to what you can do,” she smiles.
Batchelor received the Youth Activity Fund Grant from the Explorer’s Club to fund her geologic work. “The Explorer’s Club was created in 1904 to promote exploration,” Bachelor says. On March 22, Batchelor will present her research in Mongolia in New York City at the 111th Explorer’s Club annual dinner.
“There’s a possibility of other students doing additional field work next summer,” Carmichael says. She adds, “We couldn’t do this work without our undergrads.”
Waters hopes that IGCP research helps raise awareness about the importance of climate change. “Because we’re dumping nutrients into the ocean, and have a very rapid change in carbon dioxide, we estimate that by the year 2100, we will duplicate the climate conditions we saw 375 million years ago that led to a major mass extinction,” he says. “Because of this research with IGCP, we now know what the climate will look like if we don’t change what we’re doing.”
To learn more about the research of Johnny Waters and Sarah Carmichael, please visit devonian.appstate.edu.