The Department of Geology and Geophysics (G&G) conducts research into a wide variety of topics aimed at furthering our understanding of the dynamic processes of the Earth/Ocean/Atmosphere system. Our research spans across land and oceans as we seek to understand connections between the continents and oceans, ice-sheet dynamics and the formation and evolution of the Earth as a whole. We study the structure and evolution of the oceanic crust from its formation at mid-ocean ridges to consumption at subduction zones, coupled with the dynamics of the mantle that drives seafloor spreading. We study a wide range of fluid-mediated processes, including those occurring at hydrothermal vents, at shelf-edge seeps and in subduction zone settings. Included in these processes are links to seismicity, fluxes of chemicals to the ocean and mantle, microbial activity and the subseafloor biosphere. We study the role of oceans both in relation to past climate change and as a driver of present day climate dynamics, and use natural archives like from sediments, corals, and tree rings to understand past climate. We study a wide range of coastal processes including the impacts of climate change and storms on coastal regions.
The Department today consists of about 30 Ph.D. level Scientific Staff and another 16 Technical Staff (many of whom hold Ph.D. degrees). In addition there are about 25 graduate students pursuing their Ph.D. through the WHOI/MIT Joint Program and roughly 8 Postdoctoral Scholars, Fellows and Investigators.
The Scientific and Technical staff carry out research that involves sea-going deployments of instruments built in house; laboratory studies using high precision analytical facilities; and theoretical and computational studies of ocean and climate processes and geodynamics. Examples of the facilities within the department include the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility (NOSAMS) and the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility (NENIMF). We now run the national Ocean Bottom Seismograph Instrument Center (OBSIC).
Geology & Geophysics Department
Dr. Peter de Menocal, President and Director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Election as a AAAS Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.
This year 489 members have been awarded this honor by AAAS because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.
This year’s AAAS Fellows will be formally announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science on 27 November 2020. A virtual Fellows Forum—an induction ceremony for the new Fellows—will be held on 13 February 2021.
As part of the Geology and Geography section, Dr. Peter de Menocal was elected as an AAAS Fellow for his fundamental contributions to understanding human physical and cultural evolution in relation to paleo-environmental change on the African continent.
“I’m honored to be included in this distinguished group,” said de Menocal. “The mission of AAAS aligns well with WHOI’s in our quest to share scientific knowledge and inform people and policies for a healthier planet.”
The tradition of AAAS Fellows began in 1874. Currently, members can be considered for the rank of Fellow if nominated by the steering groups of the association’s 24 sections, or by any three Fellows who are current AAAS members (so long as two of the three sponsors are not affiliated with the nominee’s institution), or by the AAAS chief executive officer. Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected. The AAAS Fellow honor comes with an expectation that recipients maintain the highest standards of professional ethics and scientific integrity.
Each steering group reviews the nominations of individuals within its respective section and a final list is forwarded to the AAAS Council, which votes on the aggregate list.
The Council is the policymaking body of the Association, chaired by the AAAS president, and consisting of the members of the board of directors, the retiring section chairs, delegates from each electorate and each regional division, and two delegates from the National Association of Academies of Science.
AAAS encourages its sections and Council to consider diversity among those nominated and selected as Fellows, in keeping with the association’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
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About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its mission is to understand the ocean and its interactions with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in fundamental and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of ocean data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge to inform people and policies for a healthier planet. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu
About Dr. Peter de Menocal
Dr. Peter de Menocal is a marine geologist and paleo-oceanographer who studies deep-sea sediments as archives of past climate change, illuminating centuries of climate history and ocean circulation patterns in the geological record and drawing connections to the human dimensions of climate change today.
De Menocal was the Thomas Alva Edison/Con Edison Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. De Menocal also served as Columbia’s Dean of Science for the Faculty of Arts & Sciences between 2016-2019, overseeing the University’s nine scientific departments. During his tenure as Dean of Science, he developed and executed on a strategic plan that helped double philanthropic support for the sciences, significantly increase success in winning large center and institute awards, and double faculty hiring rates for women and under-represented minorities in the natural sciences.
De Menocal has published more than 150 scientific papers over his decades-long career in oceanography. He is also the founding director of Columbia’s Center for Climate and Life, a team of more than 120 PhD scientists and other experts mobilizing use-inspired science to understand how climate impacts essential aspects of human life, including food security, water, shelter, and sustainable energy solutions. Under de Menocal’s leadership, the Center pioneered collaborations with the private sector to inform science-based solutions.
About the American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, as well as Science Translational Medicine; Science Signaling; a digital, open-access journal, Science Advances; Science Immunology; and Science Robotics. AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes more than 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. The nonprofit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, public engagement, and more. For additional information about AAAS, see www.aaas.org.
Intense tropical cyclones are expected to become more frequent as climate change increases temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. But not every area will experience storms of the same magnitude. New research from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) published in Nature Geosciences reveals that tropical cyclones were actually more frequent in the southern Marshall Islands during the Little Ice Age, when temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were cooler than they are today.
This means that changes in atmospheric circulation, driven by differential ocean warming, heavily influence the location and intensity of tropical cyclones.
In the first study of its kind so close to the equator, lead author James Bramante reconstructed 3,000 years of storm history on Jaluit Atoll in the southern Marshall Islands. This region is the birthplace of tropical cyclones in the western North Pacific—the world’s most active tropical cyclone zone. Using differences in sediment size as evidence of extreme weather events, Bramante found that tropical cyclones occurred in the region roughly once a century, but increased to a maximum of four per century from 1350 to 1700 CE, a period known as the Little Ice Age.
Bramante, a recent graduate of the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, says this finding sheds light on how climate change affects where cyclones are able to form.
- Researchers reconstructed the history of tropical cyclones in the southern Marshall Islands over the last 3,000 years. The western North Pacific is the world’s most active zone for tropical cyclones, but has been understudied compared to the North Atlantic.
- During the Little Ice Age, tropical cyclones formed in the western North Pacific deep tropics more frequently than any other time in the record. Data from the sediment samples recorded four tropical cyclones per century, which is well above the 3,000-year average of one per century.
- Climate change is projected to create conditions opposite of the Little Ice Age, indicating that tropical cyclones will form less often in the southern Marshall Islands, even as storms are expected to be more frequent and intense at higher latitudes.
WHOI researchers reconstructed 3,000 years of storm history on Jaluit Atoll in the southern Marshall Islands. This region is the birthplace of tropical cyclones in the western North Pacific—the world’s most active tropical cyclone zone. (Map by Natalie Renier, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
“Atmospheric circulation changes due to modern, human-induced climate warming are opposite of the circulation changes due to the Little Ice Age,” notes Bramante. “So we can expect to see the opposite effect in the deep tropics—a decrease in tropical cyclones close to the equator. It could be good news for the southern Marshall Islands, but other areas would be threatened as the average location of cyclone generation shifts north,” he adds.
During major storm events, coarse sediment is stirred up and deposited by currents and waves into “blue holes”, ancient caves that collapsed and turned into sinkholes that filled with sea water over thousands of years. In a 2015 field study, Bramante and his colleagues took samples from a blue hole on Jaluit Atoll and found coarse sediment among the finer grains of sand. After sorting the grains by size and analyzing the data from Typhoon Ophelia, which devastated the atoll in 1958, the researchers had a template with which to identify other storm events that appear in the sediment record. They then used radiocarbon dating—a method of determining age by the ratio of carbon isotopes in a sample—to date the sediment in each layer.
Armed with previously-collected data about the ancient climate from tree rings, coral cores, and fossilized marine organisms, the researchers were able to piece together the conditions that existed at the time. By connecting this information with the record of storms preserved in sediment from Jaluit Atoll, the researchers demonstrated through computer modeling that the particular set of conditions responsible for equatorial trade winds heavily influenced the number, intensity and location where cyclones would form.
Jeff Donnelly, a WHOI senior scientist and a co-author of the study, used similar methods to reconstruct the history of hurricanes in the North Atlantic and Caribbean. He plans to expand the Marshall Islands study westward to the Philippines to study where tropical cyclones have historically formed and how climate conditions influence a storm’s track and intensity. Better understanding of how storms behaved under previous conditions will help scientists understand what causes changes in tropical cyclone activity and aid people living in coastal communities prepare for extreme weather in the future, he said.
“Through the geologic archive, we can get a baseline that tells us how at-risk we really are at any one location,” Donnelly says. “It turns out the past provides some useful analogies for the climate change that we’re currently undergoing. The earth has already run this experiment. Now we’re trying to go back and determine the drivers of tropical cyclones.”
Additional co-authors of this study include WHOI geologist Andrew Ashton; WHOI physical oceanographer Caroline Ummenhofer; Murray Ford (University of Auckland, New Zealand); Paul Kench (Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada); Michael Toomey (US Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia); Richard Sullivan of Texas A&M University; and Kristopher Karnauskas (University of Colorado, Boulder).
This research was funded by the Strategic Environmental Research & Development Program, a partnership between the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu