2018-2020 UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute Faculty Fellow
UF College of Liberal Arts & Sciences department of geological sciences
UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute faculty fellow Andrea Dutton stumbled into becoming a geologist. The former amateur gymnast and diver knew she was good at math and science. But, like many incoming college freshmen, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.
At her Amherst College, a small, private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, she took pre-med classes while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music.
One semester, Dutton needed an extra class and her friends told her to take introduction to geology because it was “really easy.”
“I just fell in love with it,” Dutton said. “I was hooked.”
Today the main focus of Dutton’s research as an associate professor of geological sciences in the University of Florida College of Arts and Liberal Sciences is to look at how sea levels have changed in the past to better understand future sea-level rise.
To do so, she looks at the chemistry of coral skeletons and limestone rocks to find out their age. When combined with information about how the elevation of the reef changed through time, she is able to see how much and how quickly sea levels rose during past warming periods. This information can also give clues into how much of the ice sheets melted and how quickly.
Dutton said that’s a big part of the uncertainty scientists have when predicting future sea-level rise scenarios. Did the ice sheets melt gradually? Or did they collapse and cause a sudden spike in sea-level rise?
“When we look at sea-level projections for the future, we don’t fully understand how the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are going to respond to this warming,” Dutton said. “We’ve never been around to watch them retreat past their present position.”
The ancient sea-level data Dutton is collecting can help scientists better understand the dynamics of those ice sheets. Her data is now being used to calibrate models that predict future sea-level rise scenarios.
“If the modelers can get their models to fit the data we’ve collected by turning the knobs this way or that way, they can then leave it in that position and run it forward,” Dutton said.
“That way they know they are reconstructing something reasonable in terms of the physics of rapid ice sheet retreat, making their projections more robust.”
As a faculty fellow with TESI, Dutton hopes to continue conducting public outreach to help Floridians understand the “bigger picture” of climate change, a concept that mirrors one of the Institute’s main goals.
“We can only understand what is going to happen by bringing scientists from different academic fields together,” Dutton said.
“We are working in the natural world and the natural world is complex. If you know your little piece, that’s great. But you can’t say something about the bigger picture unless you understand everything that’s acting on it,” Dutton said.
One message that Dutton tries to leave her audiences with is one of hope.
“Every time I speak to an audience, people come up to me and say to me, ‘I knew about this, but now I get how urgent the problem is,’ and then they go out and talk to a whole bunch of people,” Dutton said.
“Part of my hope for the future lies in delivering that message to a lot of people that can then, too, spread it from there.”