Earth & Planetary Sciences


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Department News


Pier275 MillerScientists project shore sea level to rise 11 to 15 inches higher than global average for next century
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
by Ken Branson

Geoscientists at Rutgers and Tufts universities estimate that the New Jersey shore will likely experience a sea-level rise of about 1.5 feet by 2050 and of about 3.5 feet by 2100 – 11 to 15 inches higher than the average for sea-level rise globally over the century.

That would mean, the scientists say, that by the middle of the century, the one-in-10 year flood level at Atlantic City would exceed any flood known there from the observational record, including Superstorm Sandy.

Ken Miller, Robert Kopp, Benjamin Horton and James Browning of Rutgers and Andrew Kemp of Tufts base their projections in part upon an analysis of historic and modern-day records of sea-level rise in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region. Their research appears in the inaugural issue of the journal Earth's Future, published this week by the American Geophysical Union. It builds upon a recent study by Kemp, Horton and others that reconstructed a 2,500-year record of sea level at the New Jersey shore. Horton is a professor of marine and coastal sciences in Rutgers' School of Environmental and Biological Sciences; Kemp, an assistant professor of earth and ocean sciences at Tufts.

"It's clear from both the tide gauge and geological records that sea level has been rising in the mid-Atlantic region at a foot per century as a result of global average sea-level rise and the solid earth's ongoing adjustment to the end of the last ice age," said Miller, a professor of earth and planetary sciences in Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences. "In the sands of the New Jersey coastal plain, sea level is also rising by another four inches per century because of sediment compaction – due partly to natural forces and partly to groundwater withdrawal. But the rate of sea-level rise, globally and regionally, is increasing due to melting of ice sheets and the warming of the oceans."

Sea-level rise in the mid-Atlantic region also results from changes in ocean dynamics, the scientists said. "Most ocean models project that the Gulf Stream will weaken as a result of climate change – perhaps causing as much as a foot of additional regional sea-level rise over this century," said Kopp, an assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences and associate director of the Rutgers Energy Institute.

The researchers said sea-level rise could be higher – 2.3 feet by mid-century and 5.9 feet by the end of the century – depending on how sensitive the Gulf Stream is to warming and how fast the ice sheets melt in response to that warming.

Either way, the researchers' study of past sea-level change also revealed that something remarkable started happening over the last century. It's not only temperatures that have been veering upward as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. "The geological sea-level records show that it's extremely likely that sea-level in New Jersey was rising faster in the 20th century than in any century in the last 4300 years," Kemp said.

The unprecedented 20th-century sea-level rise had a significant human impact. The study found that the eight inches of climate change-related regional sea-level rise in the 20th century exposed about 83,000 additional people in New Jersey and New York City to flooding during 2012's Superstorm Sandy.

Miller, Kopp, Horton and Browning are affiliated with the Rutgers Climate Institute, whose recent State of the Climate: New Jersey report surveyed the current and future impacts of climate change on the state.

Click here to see the Rutger's Today article.


McGhee 2013Bookcover 
A new book by George McGhee has been published by Columbia University Press.

When the Invasion of Land Failed: The Legacy of the Devonian Extinctions, New York: Columbia University Press, 317 pp.

Click here for a full description of the book.

YairsCoreCR275Yair Rosenthal and colleagues report on Pacific Ocean Heat Content During the Past 10,000 Years. Hear directly from the authors at Watts Up With That with Andrew Revkin http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/10/31/new-paper-shows-medieval-warm-period-was-global-in-scope/
Read the article directly online at Science http://www.sciencemag.org/content/342/6158/617

Here's the Science Editor's Summary
Rosenthal, Y., Linsley, B.K., and D.W. Oppo, 2013. Science 1 November 2013, Vol. 342 no. 6158 pp. 617-621 DOI: 10.1126/science.1240837

"Global warming is popularly viewed only as an atmospheric process, when, as shown by marine temperature records covering the last several decades, most heat uptake occurs in the ocean. How did subsurface ocean temperatures vary during past warm and cold intervals? Rosenthal et al. (p.617) present a temperature record of western equatorial Pacific subsurface and intermediate water masses over the past 10,000 years that shows that heat content varied in step with both northern and southern high-latitude oceans. The findings support the view that the Holocene Thermal Maximum, the Medieval Warm Period, and the Little Ice Age were global events, and they provide a long-term perspective for evaluating the role of ocean heat content in various warming scenarios for the future."

Published Abstract
Observed increases in ocean heat content (OHC) and temperature are robust indicators of global warming during the past several decades. We used high-resolution proxy records from sediment cores to extend these observations in the Pacific 10,000 years beyond the instrumental record. We show that water masses linked to North Pacific and Antarctic intermediate waters were warmer by 2.1 ± 0.4°C and 1.5 ± 0.4°C, respectively, during the middle Holocene Thermal Maximum than over the past century. Both water masses were ~0.9°C warmer during the Medieval Warm period than during the Little Ice Age and ~0.65° warmer than in recent decades. Although documented changes in global surface temperatures during the Holocene and Common era are relatively small, the concomitant changes in OHC are large.

The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, is accepting applications for a tenure-track position at the assistant professor level in the area of Solid Earth / Planetary Geology. The specific research specialty is open; however, preference is toward sample-based inquiry complementing the department's strengths in the study of large igneous provinces, rift and arc-magmatism, and meteoritics. Supportive analytical facilities include MC-ICPMS, LA-ICPMS, TIMS, Noble Gas and Stable Isotope mass spectrometry, EPMA, XRF, and Rock Magnetics laboratories. The successful candidate will be expected to pursue an externally funded research program and be committed to teaching Solid Earth / Planetary Geology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Interested applicants must have a Ph.D. in hand by the anticipated start date of September 1, 2014.

Applicants should submit a current curriculum vitae, a research and teaching statement, and names and contact information of three individuals who are capable of assessing the applicant's research and instructional programs. Applications must be submitted electronically at apply.interfolio.com/23358. Review of applications will begin November 1, 2013 and continue until the position is filled. Questions concerning the position should be addressed to the department Chair, Professor Carl Swisher, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Rutgers University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to diversity. Women, minorities, and members of under-represented groups are encouraged to apply.

SchallerWrightCoreCR250Research News at Rutgers
Sunday, October 6, 2013
by Ken Branson

"Rapid" and "instantaneous" are words geologists don't use very often. But Rutgers geologists use these exact terms to describe a climate shift that occurred 55 million years ago.

In a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Morgan Schaller and James Wright contend that following a doubling in carbon dioxide levels, the surface of the ocean turned acidic over a period of weeks or months and global temperatures rose by 5 degrees centigrade – all in the space of about 13 years.

Scientists previously thought this process happened over 10,000 years.

Wright, a professor of earth and planetary sciences in the School of Arts and Sciences and Schaller, a research associate, say the finding is significant in considering modern-day climate change.

"We've shown unequivocally what happens when CO2 increases dramatically – as it is now, and as it did 55 million years ago," Wright said. "The oceans become acidic and the world warms up dramatically. Our current carbon release has been going on for about 150 years, and because the rate is relatively slow, about half the CO2 has been absorbed by the oceans and forests, causing some popular confusion about the warming effects of CO2. But 55 million years ago, a much larger amount of carbon was all released nearly instantaneously, so the effects are much clearer."

The window to this important decade in the very distant past opened when Wright helped a colleague, Kenneth Miller, and his graduate students split core samples they extracted from a part of southern New Jersey once covered by the ocean.

CoreSchallerWright250The patterns found in the long cylinder of sediment told a story. There were distinct clay bands about 2 centimeters thick occurring rhythmically throughout the cores.

"They called me over and said, 'Look at this," said Schaller. "What jumped out at me were these rhythmic clay layers, very cyclic. I thought, 'Wow, these have got to mean something."

Wright and Schaller surmised that only climate could account for the rhythmic pattern they saw. "When we see cycles in cores, we see a process," Schaller said. "In this case, it's like a tree ring. It's giving us a yearly account through the sediments."

This discovery provided the necessary data to finally solve the huge conundrum surrounding this event – the significant error in how fast the carbon was released.

Whatever the cause of the carbon release, -- some scientists theorize that a comet struck the earth -- Wright and Schaller's contention that it happened so rapidly is radically different from conventional thinking, and bound to be a source of controversy, Schaller believes.

"Scientists have been using this event from 55 million years ago to build models about what's going on now," Schaller said. "But they've been assuming it took something like 10,000 years to release that carbon, which we've shown is not the case. We now have a very precise record through the carbon release that can be used to fix those models."

Click here for a PDF copy of Wright & Schaller's PNAS publication.
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