Climate change research highlighted at State of the Union


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Courtesy of Benjamin Horton | For the last ten years, Benjamin Horton, professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, has been studying rising and falling sea levels from the last 2,000 years. 


Global climate change affects every person on the planet, said Benjamin Horton, a professor in the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

Barack Obama gave his annual State of the Union address to Congress last week. When mentioning the issue of climate change, Obama cited a paper published by Horton’s team in 2011.

Horton said he was shocked to hear his research had been mentioned during the event.

“You spend your time in academia pursuing science and education and you try to communicate to the public, [but] you don’t think it’s going to go to the very top,” he said. “It was an overwhelming and humbling experience.”

When he found out about the reference, Horton told his family, department chair and Rutgers colleagues. He said learning his work had been acknowledged by Obama was “a great thing.”

Horton said he has been studying global sea level changes on the Atlantic Coast for the last ten years. His team looked at how sea levels have risen and fell over the last 2000 years.

Horton’s team published a paper that detailed sea level changes during the time. They found that global sea levels had four distinct periods.

The most recent period began somewhere between 1850 and 1900, during the Industrial Revolution. Sea levels rose during this period.

Rates have tripled over the last 200 years, Horton said.

“It is fairly obvious what caused [the rise in sea level], because it correlates with temperature,” he said. “Whenever [the temperature rises, the sea level] changes.”

Levels rose during the medieval climate, but stabilized or fell slightly from 1000 A.D. to 1600 A.D, he said.

Timothy Shaw, a postdoctoral associate in the IMCS, said the rates were determined by looking at sediment records in salt marsh environments.

“You could consider these a sort of natural archive,” he said. “They record a picture of sea level within the sediment.”

Microorganisms are preserved within these sediments. These microorganisms leave behind miniscule fossils whose distribution is compared to similar microorganisms in a more modern environment to determine what changed.

Radiocarbon dating is used to establish the ages of the fossils and the sediment cores they are found in, he said. This allows the team to create a picture of the area over time.

Shaw said he is currently working on sediments collected from Chesapeake Bay, an important location for this type of analysis.

“The east coast is suffering from [sea levels rising] twice as fast as anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Horton said the next step was to understand why the changes were occurring. While connecting climate change with sea level rise was easy, figuring out why would take more work. 

Taking the research to a global level would be an important step, he said. Accurate projections could be made after understanding how levels changed around the planet.

Nicole Khan, a postdoctoral associate in the IMCS, said she is studying sea level changes over even longer time scales. Her research will provide context for understanding causes of sea level rise.

Among these causes are large ice sheets melting, Khan said. Her efforts include determining whether the Antarctic Ice Sheets will collapse. She is studying the sensitivity of the ice in order to project this.

Khan said it is exciting to know her advisor’s research was being discussed at a political level. 

She said bringing information relevant in science today to the public is her job. While she cannot make policy suggestions, she can at least provide accurate information on the issues.

Shaw said he feels privileged to work for Horton.

“In our subject area, [Horton] is one of the top in the world,” he said. “It’s fantastic to work with someone who’s got such a great publication record, who thoroughly understands the subject, who gives great advice.”

Kenneth Miller, a distinguished professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said Horton is a “thorough” and “careful” person who is fun to work with. 

He was not surprised to hear Obama cited Horton’s work, because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already discussed Horton’s research. 

Climate change discussions have been ongoing for the last 19 years, Horton said. The theory behind climate change was discovered more than 60 years ago, and data to support it is infallible.

Horton said people do not argue that temperature is increasing, but some people still claim climate change does not exist.

These people are not basing their feelings off of scientific data, he said. Though the United States has the largest number of scientists in the world, it is not the most informed.

Sea levels are definitely rising due to human activity, Miller said. Acting on this knowledge, rather than debating it, needs to be the next step.

“We think about terrorism as one of big things that influence people on the planet, but it’s a small pocket. Climate change is going to affect everyone,” Horton said. “We will combat terrorism, but we won’t act on climate change.”


Nikhilesh De

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