Looking Back Towards the Future

Doctoral student Courtney King puts a positive spin on climate change “anxiety”

After UMaine doctoral candidate Courtney King graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in geology, she dove into an eclectic mix of opportunities. For an internship through the Geological Society of America, she worked in Death Valley for three months as assistant to the education and outreach specialist teaching middle school students about the hydrology and geology of the park. This helped set the stage for her future career aspirations as an interpretive National Park Service ranger.

She then shifted gears in a big way and worked as a chemistry technician at a copper mine outside of Tucson to get a very different perspective and experience from her Park Service internship. She assayed daily and monthly mill composites as well as blast samples for various metals including copper, silver and molybdenum. This required working with strong chemicals and reagents, something she wanted to try before applying to graduate programs.

Fortuitously, her experience at the mine could be directly applied to laboratory work she conducted for her Ph.D. research. After collecting rocks samples from New Zealand, she processed them by first crushing them into fine sand then digesting them in acid. Through various additional steps she was able to isolate the beryllium-10 content of each. The beryllium-10 isotope is created from the interaction of cosmic rays from space with surface boulders within the glacial deposits.

Photo: Courtney King mapping glacial deposits in ice-free regions of the Transantarctic Mountains adjacent to Hatherton Glacier.

“Because the beryllium-10 accumulates at a known rate, by measuring the amount in each boulder we can calculate an age for the glacial deposit,” King says.

“I mapped and dated glacial deposits in Antarctica and New Zealand for my dissertation,” says King, a fourth-year doctoral candidate. “This allowed me to study the behavior of ice during the last glacial period in the southern hemisphere. Now, I’m interested in better understanding ice behavior in the Sierras, Rockies and Cascades.” Glacial valleys in the western U.S., she notes, are her most favorite landscapes.

The gist of her research involves understanding how extensive the glaciers were at the end of the last ice age and what caused them to retreat. “Once we understand how different aspects of the climate system respond we can hope to understand how it’s going to change in the future and better explain why it’s doing what it’s doing now.”

Or, in other words, what might be in store as Earth’s climate continues to warm.

Four years of study at the UMaine Climate Change Institute provided her with knowledge and tools for her hoped-for career, but her studies also provided her with an unexpected jolt as she learned more and more about climate change and, specifically, what is currently happening on the planet.

“The best way I can describe it is that what I was learning about climate change started to make me feel anxious and I wanted to know what people were doing right now to make a difference,” says King. “Every class I took that related to climate made me realize Earth’s future climate picture wasn’t pretty.”

Dialing back our impact?

The courses showed her that the rate of climate change today may have been similar to what happened in the last ice age, but might be even faster/higher. For example, carbon dioxide fluxes are much higher now and going up much faster than they did in the past.             

“So, I was getting anxious because we were talking about what is actually happening but there was no talk of what people who don’t study climate change are doing? Do they even know this is as big of an issue as it is, and what are they doing to try to dial back on our impact?”

This added a twist to her plans as she wanted to put this newfound anxiety to good use in her career plans. After researching and talking to people about possible projects at UMaine that directly address these issues, King eventually linked up with Cindy Isenhour, UMaine assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and faculty associate with the Mitchell Center.

Isenhour is a team member of the Mitchell Center’s Materials Management project, a central part of which focuses on waste reduction. And this is what caught King’s eye as she looked for something to add to her toolbox.

“My ultimate goal is to create accurate maps showing the range of glaciers in western U.S. parks during the last ice age. By mapping the glacial deposits we can then visually scan the landscape and say to park visitors, ‘During the last ice-age, the glacier was out to here and then it retreated due to changes in atmospheric conditions, such as increases in temperature or decreases in precipitation, possibly from changes in the position of the jet stream,” King explains.

She adds, “With that climate change understanding in mind, as an interpretive park ranger I would work with the public to promote practices we can all do that mitigate the impacts of current climate change. In other words, inform the public that our climate is indeed changing and show them some modest measures we as citizens can take to slow it down.”

It might be modest indeed but King notes that part of the goal of the interpretive work park rangers do is to build a connection, especially an emotional level, between the visitors and the surroundings.

“So, as one example, if I can talk about waste in terms of composting and show them if they were to compost everything from their visit a lot of waste would be eliminated from the park. And of course, waste of any kind means wasted energy or energy used to get rid of that waste.”

Feeling a bit less anxious these days, King is heartened that classmates and friends seem to share her concerns about our changing climate and strive to make steps to reduce their own impact on a day-to-day basis.

“I just really appreciate how receptive people my age are to what’s going on with climate change and are trying to figure out ways we can participate in mitigation,” King says. “Like composting, because landfills are at capacity and composting organics would remove a huge percentage of the waste stream. And instead of always going out to buy a new pair of pants, we can sew up a hole or shop at a thrift store.”

By David Sims, Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions