Jacky Austermann looks to the solid earth for clues to sea level rise

It’s no revelation that sea levels are rising. Rising temperatures brought on by human-caused climate change are melting ice sheets and expanding ocean water. What’s happening inside Earth will also shape future shorelines. Jacky Austermann is trying to understand those inner dynamics.

A geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Austermann didn’t always know she would end up studying climate. Her fascination with math from a young age coupled with her love of nature and the outdoors — she grew up hiking in the Alps — led her to study physics as an undergraduate, and later geophysics.

As Austermann dug deeper into Earth’s geosystems, she learned just how much the movement of hot rock in the mantle influences life on the surface. “I got really interested in this entire interplay of the solid earth and the oceans and the climate,” she says.

Big goal

Much of Austermann’s work focuses on how that interplay influences changes in sea level. The global average sea level has risen more than 20 centimeters since 1880, and the yearly rise is increasing. But shifts in local sea level can vary, with those levels rising or falling along different shorelines, Austermann says, and the solid earth plays a role.

“We think about sea level change generally as ‘ice is melting, so sea level is rising.’ But there’s a lot more nuance to it,” she says. “A lot of sea level change is driven by land motion.” 

Understanding that nuance could lead to more accurate climate models for predicting sea level rise in the future. Such work should help inform practical solutions for communities in at-risk coastal areas.

So Austermann is building computer models that reconstruct sea level changes over the last few million years. Her models incorporate data on how the creeping churning of the mantle and other geologic phenomena have altered land and sea elevation, particularly during interglacial periods when Earth’s temperatures were a few degrees higher than they are today.

Standout research

Previous studies had suggested that this churning, known as mantle convection, sculpted Earth’s surface millions of years ago. “It pushes the surface up where hot material wells up,” Austermann says. “And it also drags [the surface] down where cold material sinks back into the mantle.”

In 2015, Austermann and colleagues were the first to show that mantle-induced topographic changes influenced the melting of Antarctic ice over the last 3 million years. Near the ice sheet’s edges, ice retreated more quickly in areas where the land surface was lower due to convection.

What’s more, mantle convection is affecting land surfaces even on relatively short time scales. Since the last interglacial period, around 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, mantle convection has warped ancient shorelines by as much as several meters, her team reported in Science Advances in 2017.  

Jacky Austermann builds computer models that reconstruct sea level changes over the last few million years. The work could improve models that forecast the future.Bill Menke

The growing and melting of ice sheets can deform the solid earth too, Austermann says. As land sinks under the weight of accumulating ice, local sea levels rise. And as land uplifts where the ice melts, water falls. This effect, as well as how the ice sheet tugs on the water around it, is shifting local sea levels around the globe today, she says, making it very relevant to coastal areas planning their defenses in the current climate crisis.

Understanding these geologic processes can help improve models of past sea level rise. Austermann’s team is gathering more data from the field, scouring the coasts of Caribbean islands for clues to what areas were once near or below sea level. Such clues include fossilized corals and water ripples etched in stone, as well as tiny chutes in rocks that indicate air bubbles once rose through sand on ancient beaches. The work is “really fun,” Austermann says. “It’s essentially like a scavenger hunt.”

Her efforts put the solid earth at the forefront of the study of sea level changes, says Douglas Wiens, a seismologist at Washington University in St. Louis. Before, “a lot of those factors were kind of ignored.” What’s most remarkable is her ability “to span what we normally consider to be several different disciplines and bring them together to solve the sea level problem,” he says.

Building community

Austermann says the most enjoyable part of her job is working with her students and postdocs. More than writing the next big paper, she wants to cultivate a happy, healthy and motivated research group. “It’s really rewarding to see them grow academically, scientifically, come up with their own ideas … and also help each other out.”

Roger Creel, a Ph.D. student in Austermann’s group and the first to join her lab, treasures Austermann’s mentorship. She offers realistic, clear and fluid expectations, gives prompt and thoughtful feedback and meets for regular check-ins, he says. “Sometimes I think of it like water-skiing, and Jacky’s the boat.”

For Oana Dumitru, a postdoc in the group, one aspect of that valued mentorship came in the form of a gentle push to write and submit a grant proposal on her own. “I thought I was not ready for it, but she was like, you’ve got to try,” Dumitru says.

Austermann prioritizes her group’s well-being, which fosters collaboration, Creel and Dumitru say. That sense of inclusion, support and community “is the groundwork for having an environment where great ideas can blossom,” Austermann says.

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