Marina Suarez, UTSA assistant professor of geology, has always loved rocks and dinosaurs. Her passion has taken her to places as far away as China and as long ago as the the Cretaceous period. Now Suarez has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award that may help policy makers (those who still believe in science) look into the future. A $478,259 grant to study paleoclimatology will hopefully reveal the effects of previous warming cycles similar to the one we are currently experiencing.
“The Department of Geological Sciences is very proud of Dr. Suarez’s accomplishments at UTSA,” said Lance L. Lambert, UTSA department chair of geological sciences. “This award will benefit numerous students as they work with Dr. Suarez, and will also advance our growing reputation in paleoclimatology.”
The Cretaceous Period, in particular a five-million year time slice within the Cretaceous, offers a window to the origins of our own environment. Flowering plants were emerging, and Dr. Suarez’s research will provide information to capture an accurate record of what life would be like for Cretaceous land-dwellers during an greenhouse environment. This is important to understand since humans are land-dwellers too, according to Suarez.
“Overall, it’s thought that the Cretaceous period was pretty warm,” she said.
The five-million year selection spans several carbon-cycle fluctuations, allowing Suarez to observe other changes coinciding with the changing levels of carbon, looking for consistent correlations. Researchers believe that the atmospheric carbon was likely a result of volcanic activity.
“When we have (this level carbon parts per million in the atmosphere) what was the climate like?” Suarez asked while explaining her research.
Rocks are the ideal record keepers for this information because they contain evidence of temperature and precipitation levels alongside deposits of carbon. For instance, oxygen isotopes are considered “paleothermometers” storing temperature data for millions of years. Suarez will compare tell-tale isotopes in rocks from four locations along a volatile latitude range (apx 20°N-35°N) where the climate varied between wet and arid throughout the five million year span.
One of those locations is close to home, near Llano, Texas. The Llano Uplift has high enough altitude to preserve its dry land geological record. What excites Suarez the most is the Hensel Formation, a cliff face that shows evidence of the exact rock formations (ancient soil carbonates) she needs to conduct her research. She hopes that fossils embedded in the rock alongside the pockets of carbonate will reveal even more about the climate and what life might have looked like.
Each of Suarez’s samples are relatively small to non-geologists. For Suarez, however, the samples allowed by a new analysis technique are luxuriously large, about the size of a pebble. The technique was developed at Cal Tech about ten years ago, and allows a more accurate understanding of the temperature at which the rock was formed. It takes about nine hours per sample, and with the collection Suarez has so far, it’s enough to keep her busy for a very long time.
About 2,500 of the samples come from a region of northwest China, where Suarez worked with Chinese graduate students to collect data. Other samples will come from the Escucha Formation in northeast Spain where researchers have recorded evidence of major changes in precipitation alongside fossils from the Cretaceous period.
Suarez’s last sampling location, just outside of Moab, Utah, will take her back to the scene of one of her first major accomplishments. As a graduate student at Temple University, Suarez, along with her twin sister Celina, discovered evidence of a new species of dinosaur. Geminiraptor suarezarum, named for the twin paleontologists, lived during the Cretaceous period, the actual time period of many of the dinosaurs associated with movies like Jurassic Park.
The CAREER award has a strong teaching component as well, which will allow Suarez to involve students in her research. In addition to her UTSA students, she will offer Alamo Colleges students the opportunity to work with her over the summer as paid assistants.
Geology is a great avenue for getting students involved in earth sciences, Suarez said. Field work is exciting and hands on, and helps make the microscopic samples in the lab seem more relevant.
Informing policy makers on the likely effects of carbon levels in the atmosphere, and the natural feedback cycles likely to kick in (warming, precipitation, etc), could be another exciting part of the research, though Suarez is realistic about the weight her research will carry.
“Scientists can try to inform policy makers, but in the end there’s always a debate,” Suarez said.
It will be a debate about relevance, or a debate about how similar the Cretaceous period actually was to our current situation. Considering that not all policy-makers even believe that there was a Cretaceous period, and others don’t believe the climate is changing in a major way, paleoclimatology faces an uphill battle.
That’s not stopping Suarez. Her passion for the Cretaceous period is long-standing, and she intends to inspire her students to see the same value in the rocks, paying close attention to the clues they contain.
*Top Image: Marina Suarez, assistant professor of geology at The University of Texas at San Antonio, received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award to support her top-tier research in paleoclimatology. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.