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Jason Briner: UB professor, climate change researcher
by Andrew Blake
Jason Briner has been at the University at Buffalo since 2005 and is currently an assistant professor in the department of geology. Apart from teaching courses in the subject, Briner spends a few months each year in the field researching climate change. His lab at UB collects samples from the Arctic and analyzes them to figure out how the Arctic’s climate has changed in the past, in hopes of better understanding the climate of the future.
AV: What is the biggest finding that you can directly attribute to your research in paleoclimatology?
Briner: Some of my findings as of late regard how ice sheets have changed in the past. A lot of people today are interested in ice sheet change because even subtle changes in these massive volumes of ice we have lead to significant sea level rise for humanity. Fifty centimeters might not sound like much, but that’s a pretty significant ramification for people on this planet. One of the things I’ve been working on lately is trying to reconstruct how ice sheets have changed in their recent past. The planet is getting warmer now and it’s projected to continue to get warmer, so one of the things that my group is doing is going to intervals in the earth’s history when it was a couple of degrees warmer than today, like the type of climate we’re expected to see in 50 or 100 years, and go back to those time periods and see how big ice sheets were, see how ice sheets were responding to that period of warming.
One of the things that we’re discovering is the last time that climate was as warm as it is projected to be, the Greenland ice sheet, for example, was significantly smaller than it is today. The margins of the ice sheet were perhaps 100 kilometers inland from where they are now.
AV: Can we place the blame on global warming or are there other external effects in play?
Briner: In the past, the earth’s temperature changed because of natural causes. Although we go to the past to try to figure out what the state of the cryosphere was or the state of the ice sheets were when it was a couple of degrees warmer, what’s different today is how rapidly temperature is changing. So this interval that we’re studying in the past—it was warmer but it was a broad period of warmth. It didn’t have this sort of rapidity that we seeing now in the 20th century. So, to some degree, it’s not exactly analogous. That rapidity of warmth probably isn’t anything that we’ve seen in the recent past.
AV: How has your hands-on experience in the field and in the lab made you aware of the impact we have on our planet?
Briner: We’ve been working on reconstructing past climate change as some kind of context for what’s happening now. Is it a big deal now compared to what happened in the geologic past? Especially in the last five years or so, global warming has gotten really popular. In the past I’ve been extremely interested in what’s going on today, and trying to get a context for that using the geologic record, but before it maybe didn’t quite seem so urgent…but there’s so many people that are interested in it now, and there is so much debate about it, I feel like it’s more important for me to do as good of a job as I can to communicate what I’m finding and what I think about the climate finds behind global warming.
AV: As an educator, do you feel any added pressure to influence your pupils toward making active decisions to benefit the planet?
Briner: Yeah. That pressure comes from me being an educator in the present climate of how debated and heated some of these subjects can be. For some reason, there is a lot of venom involved in how people talk about the global warming issue, and I don’t embrace being part of those discussions, to be honest, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword getting to talk about climate change. I do think it’s important, and I do try to make people smarter about it and less ignorant about the science, so they can’t just offhand say, “Oh, I heard so-and-so say it’s all a hoax.” On the other hand, I know that when I start to talk about it, there can be people with some pretty strong opinions in the audience.
AV: What do you do and what do you recommend others do in order to try to arrest global warming?
Briner: On a personal level I do a lot of things—like ride my bicycle and change out my light bulbs and try to live a relatively humble lifestyle that’s not super energy intensive—but I think the larger piece of advice I have other than personal, life-living decisions is in education. Rather than reading the headlines, try to find something slightly more meaty. If your parents say, “I don’t believe this” or “I don’t believe that,” or if they do and they are skeptical about something, to be able to investigate those things and try to find reliable sources for information and try to educate yourself. Ultimately we have a decision on who we elect as our officials and those are the people that are going to make the policy changes. Basically it’s to the point now where it’s coming down to policy. It’s just a matter of getting people to do some change.
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