ARC's visiting professor discovers link between tropical fossils and polar ice

Antarctic Research Centre has hosted an American professor for the past six months, and her research in the tropics has secrets to tell about our neighbour, Antarctica.

Working with the university's Antarctic Research Centre, Dr Andrea Dutton's research into coral fossils shows how ice sheets behave during warmer times.

Unlike her colleagues at the university, who frequently visited Antarctica for their research, her research often took her far from the ice, into the tropics.

She will be presenting her findings for the 17th annual ST Lee Lecture in Antarctic Studies: Tropical tales of polar ice next week.

As a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, a Rolling Stone "25 People Shaping the Future", and  a MacArthur Fellow, she is well qualified to talk.

Her research is based on the idea that sea level is influenced by the melting and freezing of polar ice.

Coral grows near the surface of the ocean, near sunlight, so sea levels can be determined by the location of the coral fossils.

Andrea took fossil samples back to her lab, recorded the time period and location, and reconstructed sea levels over time to determine how fast the ice melted.

“We’ve never been around to see this,” she said. “We don’t fully understand the physics of that dynamic retreat. We can use the past to help predict the future.”

A professor in geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Andrea came to New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship.

New Zealand has a long history of working on the Antarctic continent, so surrounding herself with the experts at Victoria was great for her work.

In Wellington since the beginning of January, and due to leave at the start of July, Andrea and her two children, 10 and 13, hunkered down in the capital for the Covid-19 lockdown.

This threw a spanner in the works for her research, and it was frustrating to lose precious time at the university.

She was really pleased the public lecture at the university was able to go ahead.

The popular association between sea-level rise and pictures of penguins could make the problem seem “very distant, perhaps not so urgent”.

“This is going to unfold a lot faster than people expect, and impact human lives - not just penguins.”

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