Jacqueline Austermann: Exploring the Deep Earth, Modeling Future Sea Level

She studies Earth’s past warm periods to try to understand the future, and was just named a 2021 Sloan Research Fellow.

Marie DeNoia Aronsohn
February 16, 2021
austermann chiseling a fossil from a rock outcrop
Jacqueline Austermann is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and a 2021 Sloan Research Fellow. Photo: Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute

For Jacqueline Austermann, Earth’s past holds unlimited potential to provide new knowledge to inform the future and to help humanity answer first order questions about the nature of the planet. Among the puzzles that most fascinate her are: How have ice sheets and sea level changed over Earth’s history? What drives motion in Earth’s interior? And why has there always been water on Earth? Her deep inquiries and breakthrough numerical modeling and explorations have set the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory assistant professor apart in the world of research science.

This week, Austermann adds a 2021 Sloan Fellowship to her list of early career honors. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships honor scholars in the U.S. and Canada whose creativity, leadership, and independent research achievements make them some of the most promising researchers working today. This year marks the first time that the foundation is awarding fellowships in the field of earth system science.

“Jacky is an extraordinarily talented early career scientist who I suspect is destined to cut a wide swath across the earth sciences,” said Lamont interim director Maureen Raymo. “Jacky is an ideal collaborator—she is whip-smart about nitty-gritty details, fully cognizant of the big picture.”

In the Q&A below, Austermann discusses the fellowship and her research.

According to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, “To receive a Sloan Research Fellowship is to be told by your fellow scientists that you stand out among your peers. A Sloan Research Fellow is someone whose drive, creativity, and insight makes them a researcher to watch.” How do you feel about receiving this honor?

It’s very exciting. It is obviously a great opportunity. I’m thankful to have such support of the community and to be in the company of so many amazing scientists.

Your work is focused on improving our understanding of the stability of ice sheets and the magnitude of sea level rise projected for the future. How does the planet’s past come into the equation?

Reconstructing the past allows us to better estimate current sea level change as well as produce more reliable predictions of how much and how fast ice sheets will melt in the future. Time periods that I have been working on are the last deglaciation and past warm periods, when temperatures and sea level were slightly higher than today. While constraints and reconstructions are steadily improving, significant disagreement persists regarding the size and distribution of past ice sheets. For example, the size and distribution of ice during the last glacial maximum remains debated and while sea level records across the deglaciation are numerous, no sea level model is currently able to reconcile them all. Similarly, disagreements persist between the amount and source of melt during the last interglacial period and earlier warm periods.

How exactly do you get at understanding of past sea level, and what are the challenges involved?

The biggest unknown in interpreting local sea level records is associated with understanding how much of the sea level change that is recorded in ancient corals and marshes is driven by ice volume change compared to uplift or subsidence of the solid Earth. Disentangling different processes that drive solid Earth deformation and sea level change is the main focus of my work. While my contribution so far has been mostly related to computational modeling, I’ve been increasingly involved in fieldwork and exposed to geochronological approaches, which has helped me to fully appreciate and leverage the data.

Has the pandemic hindered progress?

In some ways. Because much of the work is computational, those aspects haven’t been affected as much. But I am involved in projects that have field components. For instance, one in the Bahamas, and the pandemic is probably going to push that fieldwork back by a year and a half.

We also have work in Greenland where we have local collaborators, so we’ve been able to do some of the work, which has been great.

What inspires you most about your work?

The intersection between the solid Earth and the climate system is fascinating and I believe we have yet to unravel all of the connections that exist between the convecting mantle and the oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere above it. Over the course of my career, I’m excited to work on discovering and understanding these connections and leveraging this knowledge to better understand present and future change.