Geology professor Ben Laabs and several of his students are researching evidence of climate change in previous eras in order to better understand modern trends in climate.
Laabs, who has a background in research on glacial geology in the Western United States, said that his research "tries to understand the pace of the last major interval of global warming" based on samples from Nevada, which date back 12,000 to 19,000 years ago.
According to Laabs, the research investigates "how much warming occurred between the last ice age and the present warming period," as well as the way in which ice sheets influenced the ice age climate.
"The ultimate goal of the research is to understand natural variability," Laabs said. "If we understand the climate change of the past, without the influence of people, then we can quantify the effect that people have had on climate change in the last 100 years."
According to Laabs, "There is a lot of conflicting evidence for past climate change, and the actual difference in temperature between the last ice age and the present warming period is not well quantified."
Laabs said that he has been working on this project for about a year and a half. The research team works for about half the summer and for the entire academic year. By studying the glacial deposits left behind by shrinking glaciers, Laabs said that he can "determine how quickly glaciers responded to global warming."
Most of the research is conducted in the field. Laabs has brought his students and colleagues to the Nevada mountain ranges to collect samples from glacial deposits, which are then brought back to the lab in the form of chunks of rock. Laabs said that he and three students use a machine to crush the samples to a grain, and then extract the radioactive isotopes from the material. "The abundance of [the radioactive isotopes] gives an indication of [the material's] geological age," he explained. The team also uses computer models to simulate past glacial activity.
Laabs said his research helps him "teach more effectively." During the fall 2010 semester, he will teach two classes on climate change.