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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Meet Donald Rodbell: A Closer Look at the Union College Professor


For over⁢ 30 years, ‌Don Rodbell, a professor at ⁣Union College, has been⁤ scaling towering peaks and traversing the globe to drill⁣ into lake beds. His mission? To ⁢uncover the⁤ secrets​ of our planet’s climate history.

In‍ recognition of his significant ⁣contributions ‌to the field, ⁤the 62-year-old Amsterdam native⁤ was honored with ⁢the Israel C. Russell Award of⁢ the Geological Society ⁢of America⁢ in January. ‌In the previous year, he⁤ received The Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Research from Union College.

The Daily Gazette recently had the opportunity to sit‌ down with ‌Rodbell in his office and lab‌ on the Union campus to discuss‌ his life’s work and passion.

Please note that the⁤ responses have​ been lightly edited for clarity.

Question: What⁢ inspired​ a ‍young‍ boy from⁢ Amsterdam⁣ to become​ a⁢ globe-trotting geologist?

Answer: My ⁤journey began at ⁢St. Lawrence University where I developed a fascination for geology, particularly the‌ ice ages and ⁤climate change.⁤ Back in​ the ⁣late 70s and early‍ 80s, global warming wasn’t a topic of discussion. It was purely an academic‍ interest. I pursued my​ graduate studies at the University of Colorado, focusing on the ice ages, and conducted my PhD fieldwork‌ in the Peruvian Andes Mountains ​from 1986 through 1990.

Despite being​ in the tropics, you can find glaciers in the high ‍altitudes of the Andes. They’ve experienced their ​own ice ages. ​My work primarily involves documenting the natural cycles of climate change, which‌ oscillate between cold and warm periods.

Over the years, I’ve collaborated with undergraduates and ‍colleagues from other universities to extract sediment cores from lakes‍ and study the ⁣sediment ⁢layers. These layers provide valuable insights into periods of ‍cold and⁣ warmth.

Question: When I think about geology, I think⁤ about rocks, gems, minerals. How different is ⁤it to be looking at drilling‍ into a lake bed?

Answer: Traditional ​geology primarily involves oil, gas, and mining. However, the⁤ rise⁢ of the environmental movement in the‌ 80s ⁤and early 90s led​ to the emergence of environmental geology‌ or geoscience. This⁢ field encompasses​ water, sediments, lakes, streams, and groundwater. It’s not just ⁤about hard rocks and mining anymore. It’s become much broader, including surficial sediments⁢ in lakes and wetlands,‌ surface waters, and water quality. That’s all part of geology ⁤now.

In the early years, I⁤ was considered ⁢a soft rock ‌geologist, dealing with sediments that haven’t yet turned into rock. They’re soft,⁢ and ‍you can dig​ into them⁣ with your hands.

Question: How were you ‌introduced to the concept of drilling into lake beds for your ‍research?

Answer: Lakes are ​like​ giant repositories.⁤ They collect everything, from ice ages, ‍river floods, to atmospheric fallout.⁣ They ‍provide remarkable records of their ⁢surroundings. ​You ⁢can read the history of an ⁢area​ through the sediments in its lakes.

Question: What does ⁢taking a⁤ sediment sample from a lake bed entail?

Answer: The⁤ sediment cores are about two, two and a half ⁤inches ​round and‍ one ​meter long. We⁢ take⁣ the first one and ​then go back to get the next meter, and ‍so on, until we hit bedrock or something we⁤ can’t get through. That’s​ the bottom of the lake basin. ⁢In some cases, we end up with 20 or⁢ 30 feet of sediment ​cores. One of our major projects in central ‍Peru⁤ involved‌ a lake ​with about 100 yards of mud ⁤in a long column. That was a massive​ project aimed at studying the long records of the ice ages.

Question: Was that your largest project to⁣ date?

Answer: Yes. ⁣It took a year and a half just to get into the⁢ site. We⁣ rented a floating modular platform from Houston, shipped it to Peru, and transported it up into the⁤ mountains on tractor-trailers. We‍ had​ to get a crane from⁢ Lima to ‌drive through the mountains to off-load the trailers and assemble these​ Lego-type pieces. On the water, it looked ‍like a tennis court with a moon pool in the center.

We ended up with a‍ 100-meter-long sediment core that‍ dated back 700,000 years.

Question: What drew ​you to‍ start your‍ research in Peru‌ and the Andes Mountains?

Answer: The ice ages occurred in⁤ the tropics at the ⁢same time as ⁣they did here and in the southern hemisphere. Peru was relatively unexplored, offering a‍ unique opportunity‌ to conduct pioneering work. While⁤ there are ⁣still many discoveries to​ be made in North America​ and Europe, these regions have been extensively ​studied by geologists. The chance to‍ explore ​a high, remote area that hadn’t been thoroughly investigated was an‍ incredible⁢ opportunity.

Question: What did a typical⁤ research​ trip look like?

Answer: Looking back, I’m grateful for the energy I had back then. I was very driven, which was a good thing because I enjoyed physical activities. I was a⁢ marathon runner and a Nordic skier, so it‍ all fit into a lifestyle of endurance.

We’d⁢ venture into the mountains with 10 ⁤horses‍ and all the food and supplies we needed for​ three⁣ weeks.⁢ We’d set up a base camp and explore the whole region on foot. I’d have a Peruvian ⁢camp guard⁤ and helper, ​and I lived up‍ in ‌the mountains for six months doing that. ⁣We would ​go out for⁣ three weeks, return to town⁤ to resupply, and then head back⁤ out, all ⁣on foot with horses.​ We hiked‍ into the mountains and started doing basic geology field work, identifying glacial deposits and locating lakes.

Question: This is in the Andes Mountains, ‌the second-highest mountain‌ range outside of the Himalayas. How⁢ do you find the​ lakes or even water?

Answer: There are lakes at very high elevations — 14,000​ feet, and 15,000 feet — surrounded by mountains that were either glaciated‍ or are glaciated⁣ today. These ‍mountains had ice on them during ‌some past ice ages.

Question: In the 1980s, when you started, Google Maps didn’t exist. How did you navigate your way through Peru to your research locations?

Answer: We relied on ⁣U.S.‍ Air Force photos⁢ from Peru. They⁤ flew air photo lines across most of the Americas, even in the 70s and 80s. I have one photo that was taken in 1962. That’s how they used to make maps ‌—‌ from air photos.

We would go into the field with piles of air photos, sit out in our little tents with our ⁣stereoscopes, and study ​them carefully. Our ⁤maps⁣ were⁤ the ⁢photos themselves. ⁣Now,⁤ with ⁤Google Earth, you can navigate around⁤ as long as‍ you have a cell signal. Or you can preprint ​Google Earth when you have a⁢ signal ‍and get out your maps and images. ⁢It’s a whole ⁣different ‌era.

Question: What brought you back to the Capital ⁤Region⁢ and Union College?

Answer: After my postdoc,⁣ I was ‍applying for many jobs and didn’t necessarily have a‍ target​ to return here. My [first] wife and I were ⁣really interested in trying to stay out West, but we knew we wanted to get ‌out‍ of ‍the⁤ Midwest. When ‌jobs in the Northeast would come up, I would apply. ​It’s pretty competitive⁢ to get a teaching position at a small liberal arts‌ college. We’re ‍interviewing for one​ right now and there are 100 applicants. I applied to a bunch of really good schools, and then the one ‌I got was at Union right back where I started.

Question: Have you found interesting facts ‌about samples taken‌ here in the Northeast?

Answer: There are thousands of ⁢lakes around and close to campus Collins Pond. We’ve covered it so many times it’s amazing ‍and holds water still.⁤ We’ve‌ taken in a ⁣25-foot-long sediment core​ that goes​ back ‌1,500 years.

It‌ tells us about the flooding of the Mohawk. It’s not ⁣the ice⁢ ages‍ but it’s about the⁢ dominant process there is in ⁣the Mohawk. It floods in the winter. Ice ‍jam floods, ⁣snowmelt floods, ‍and⁤ tropical storm⁤ floods⁣ that occurred, like [Hurricane] Irene. They leave a nice marker​ in​ these lakes, like in Collins Pond.

There’s a lot ​of really interesting stuff around here. We can see when Europeans arrived, and ⁣there’s ‌pollen grain from ragweed pollen that shows ​the clearing of the⁢ landscape and the planting⁣ of⁢ crops when the Europeans arrived.‍ They deforested‍ that area ‌pretty aggressively. A lot of weeds came in, and the pollen grains from ‍those weeds, like⁢ in the spring air, ⁣make you sneeze. ⁤They blow onto lakes, sink to the ⁤bottom, and⁢ leave the layer you ⁤can see in the sediment left behind. It takes a​ little bit of​ extraction⁣ and identification, but that⁢ becomes a marker horizon for the arrival of Europeans.

When we started burning leaded gasoline, the fallout of lead from the atmosphere ended up ‌in lakes, so we can see the⁢ Clean Air Act in lake sediments because they took the lead out of gasoline, and ⁤all the lead⁣ stopped falling on the ⁣lakes.

Question: You have a sobering‍ message from ⁣your research. What is ⁣it?

Answer: We’ve discussed‍ how the climate has been changing ‌— more warm, more cold. We can calculate the rates of warming from natural cycles, a tenth of a⁢ degree per century ⁢or, even less,​ or half of a tenth of⁢ a degree per ‌century. What we’re doing to the climate⁢ now is 10 times, 20 times faster than the‌ fastest rates ​of natural cyclicity.

All life on⁤ Earth has⁢ evolved in a constantly⁢ changing climatic background⁣ state; species are used to it, and they’ve evolved‌ to climate change. Now,⁣ we’re ⁤starting to shift things at an order ⁢of magnitude‍ faster. Ten,⁢ 15‍ times faster than ⁢nature’s ever done to‌ life on Earth before, ‌as far ⁤as we can tell when we look at these records. We’re starting to see species become ⁤extinct because they can’t⁤ keep‌ up. If​ the temperature zones they⁣ like or need are⁣ shifting⁢ — and they’re shifting so fast, they ⁤haven’t⁤ developed the means to keep up with ‌those changes. The geologic record in the fairly ‍recent past ​tells us ‌that ‌we’re ‍doing something that’s never been ⁣seen on Earth before.

We’ve had mass extinctions ⁢on the planet‌ before, ‍but we’ve never had⁤ one driven by‌ humans. ⁢We’re starting to see the beginning evidence that a lot of species are not keeping‌ up, not‌ able ⁤to keep up with ⁣the⁢ rate of‍ change. That is⁤ the ⁤take home message of the ‌work we do from a global warming standpoint.

Question: What is next for​ Professor Don ‍Rodbell?

Answer: We’ve embarked on a new project, studying underground​ caves. These caves,‌ which I’ve known about since the 1980s, contain deposits that‍ date back half-a-million⁢ years. They’re beautifully laminated, like tree rings. We’ve started to​ study the ‌cave⁣ deposits because the chemistry of these layers tells us about ​climate change.

The cave ⁣deposits, in aggregate, ​go ⁢back about half-a-million ​years‌ and ‌they tell us another piece of the climate puzzle. When we combine ​these records ‍with the lake sediment cores,⁤ we have ​one of the ⁤best climate stories from⁣ any place on​ Earth, other than the​ ice sheets.

I’ve never been a ⁣fan of crawling through caves. One of my colleagues got me interested in this. We go ⁢on⁣ underground for eight‌ hours, crawling​ through passages and water up to ⁢ [our chests] ⁢ in wet suits, it’s cold and and I’m thinking, “I really need to be an above-ground person. I’m ⁤too old for this.”

We still⁤ have a lot of papers ⁢to write, a lot of students here have ​worked on that project. ⁣It’s⁢ really neat. When ‍that project finishes⁤ in a year or⁤ two or⁣ three, I don’t⁢ know. We’ll see. It’s hard to say.‍ I’d like ​to spend a lot more time‍ skiing and biking while⁢ I still can.

If you have‍ a suggestion on⁣ who we should get to know next, please⁣ contact Stan Hudy⁤ at shudy@dailygazette.net

Emily Stanton
Emily Stanton
Emily Stanton, a skillful journalist previously based in Boston, is adept at covering a diverse array of stories. Her thorough and engaging reporting style, honed with a Master's in Journalism from Boston University, focuses on community-relevant stories.
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