Tracy Frank studies Earth’s climate through ancient rocks, with an eye to the future

This semester, Tracy Frank, geologist and geochemist, became the second department head of the Department of Geosciences since its founding two years ago. Previously, the department was a research institute bringing together researchers from across the University.

After traveling to various climates such as Antarctica and Australia, and working as an Assistant Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Frank joined UConn this year as Head of department and professor of the geosciences program.

Now, she shares what studying ancient climates can teach modern humans about our impact on the environment and the future of climate change.

What is geoscience and what do geoscientists do?

It is a discipline that draws on other sciences to study the planet. You can combine it with chemistry like me, or with physics to study geophysics, the internal structures of the earth, or you can combine it with biology to study paleontology.

There are a number of things geoscientists are working on. Geoscience gets a bad rap because a lot of people associate it with only working in oil and gas. In fact, geoscientists study a wide range of topics, such as climate change, energy security, natural resources and sustainability, water availability and the prevention of natural hazards on which geoscientists are working. Geoscientists work in a wide variety of contexts. Some spend a lot of time outdoors or traveling. It’s a great career if you love to travel.

In addition, some work in cities, businesses or laboratories, while others design complex software capable of modeling the climate or imaging the earth’s subsoil in 3D. There are a lot of things we do, from field work to high tech stuff.

Tell us about your research as a geoscientist.

Most people are familiar with the catastrophic asteroid event that wiped out dinosaurs around 66 million years ago. Fewer people may be experiencing another mass extinction caused by volcanoes spewing carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere. This event, known as the Late Permian extinction, has wiped out 90 percent of life in the oceans and 70 percent on land.

If we can look back and see what the extremes of the Earth system are that tip the planet from one extreme to the other, we can better predict what our future might be.

I study sedimentary records to try to understand the environment of the earth’s surface and the climates of the distant past – billions of years ago – and how they change over time. I am particularly interested in understanding the consequences of major disasters in Earth’s history, such as mass extinctions that have resulted in significant loss of human life, and how these mass extinctions coincide with rapid climate change and greenhouse gas peaks.

My students and I go to field sites all over the world and study rock samples that keep a record of particular events. Then we use our lab to generate geochemical profiles – we use stable isotopes and elemental analyzes, and they can give us signals that help us reconstruct what happened.

How important is geoscience to you over the next 10 years?

Geosciences have always been important because they are essential in providing us with natural resources and also understanding how the planet we live on works. Geologists were the first climatologists, the first to realize that Earth’s climate has changed over time, with several major climate disasters recorded in the rock records.

Geosciences, taught with an Earth system perspective that draws on other core STEM disciplines, are increasingly important as humanity faces critical issues related to climate change. It is also essential that non-scientists have a better understanding of how the Earth works.

One way to improve understanding is through education about the impacts human activities have on the planet and their importance to society. For example, the department recently introduced a new 1000-level course titled “The Human Era: Living in the Anthropocene”, which focuses on human activities as agents of geological change and the resulting effects such as: as climate change, sustainability, mass extinction, land use, and waste disposal. This step towards teaching earth processes in the context of the human age is a unique approach, and one that is necessary to attract and prepare the geoscientists of tomorrow.

How are geoscientists uniquely equipped to work on climate change and the environment?

Geoscientists view the Earth as a system, controlled by interactions between the hydrosphere, lithosphere (solid earth), biosphere and atmosphere. We approach these problems by testing hypotheses against observations of the natural world, often comparing modern processes with those recorded in rock records. Geoscientists understand the interdependence of the various components of Earth systems and their sensitivity to disturbances. Any disturbance of one component of the system will affect the others. For example, one of the main drivers of climate change today is linked to the extraction of fossil fuels, formed over millennia and then stored underground for millions of years, and their rapid release in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

What basic scientific skills do students acquire in geosciences?

Students receive an in-depth education on the components of the Earth system and how they are interconnected, drawing on a range of scientific skills related to different STEM fields. Understanding the rock records can tell us how the Earth has changed over time, how quickly these changes have occurred and why, is fundamental.

Many geoscientists do fieldwork, explore certain resources, create maps of the underlying bedrock, or study outcrops to find out what they can tell us about past environments and life on earth. Many others work in laboratories as geochemists or geophysicists. Some are paleontologists. Others create or use complex computer software to model components of the Earth’s system, such as the climate, or to image the subsoil.

The Department of Geosciences aims to train students who can think critically and creatively in ways that help them adapt and apply their knowledge to solve future problems.

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