Science of sea level driving offshore research
Sea-level rise, driven in large part by climate change, threatens our state’s coastal communities and ecosystems. To provide context for understanding the changes our planet and our state is undergoing, I am one of a group of scientists at Rutgers that studies past sea-level changes, both globally and here in New Jersey. Our New Jersey sea-level research has been the subject of misleading attacks, as in Tom Brown’s Sept. 10 letter to the editor in The Daily Targum titled “Rutgers should not sacrifice environment for research projects.” My collaborator, Professor Gregory Mountain, has provided specific responses in “Criticism of University marine research project misinformed, unfounded.” Here, I provide the scientific impetus for our studies.
We use two primary tools. One is acoustic imaging of the ocean floor, which provides sonograms of rock layers (often called “seismic profiling” since it involves propagating sound waves). The sonograms reflect large-scale patterns in the way higher and lower sea levels laid down sediments in the past. The other is the collection of sediments by drilling and recovering cores that provide a history of past oceanic and coastal environmental changes.
We undertake our research with great care for the marine environment. Our acoustic imaging employs air guns, a tool used for decades to explore below the seafloor. Our expeditions include several independent observers who carefully watch for marine mammals and turtles — if any are in the area, we suspend operations until they depart.
Over the past 24 years, our studies have included five seismic cruises and the coring of 17 onshore and 12 offshore sites. We have engaged students in this work through the signature course “Sea Change: The Rise and Fall of Sea Level and the Jersey Shore” and through research experiences. Through these activities, we have reconstructed sea level over the past 100 million years and leveraged knowledge of past changes to inform local projections of future sea-level changes. In our recent paper, we showed that sea-level rise in New Jersey over the last century was higher than in any century in over four millennia.
We take especially strong exception to claims that our acoustic imaging (in an area known to contain no oil and gas) has anything to do with oil and gas exploration. To the contrary, our National Science Foundation-funded research is intended to help understand the physical response of the Jersey shore to climate change, one of the largest environmental challenges of our age.
Kenneth G. Miller is a distinguished professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences.