A much needed extension for climate researcher Dominique Jenny

PhD candidate Dominique Jenny came to Utrecht in late 2019, brimming with enthusiasm to make a meaningful contribution to climate research. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and her research was severely delayed. Dominique was lucky enough to receive an extension, but is still struggling to make up for lost time. Her story proves why investing in time and space for impactful research is worthwhile: “The predictions and climate models that are currently being made are based on data generated by people like me.”

Photo: Tristan Paalvast

Dominique, originally from Switzerland, studied earth sciences at ETH Zürich. There, she learned about palaeoclimatology, the scientific reconstruction of the climate and weather patterns of the distant past. “I’ve always been fascinated with paleoclimatology: you can use even the tiniest of organisms, such as fossilised algae, and reconstruct the climate as far back as the dinosaurs.”

Reconstructing the Oligocene

Dominique’s research project focuses on reconstructing the climate of the Oligocene, a time period of roughly ten million years, running from approximately 34 million years to about 23 million years ago. “In the Oligocene, the climate became cold enough for ice to show up on Antarctica for the first time. However, the records show it was warmer than it is now, and CO2 levels were higher – in fact the numbers are very similar to the predicted scenarios we have for the end of the 21st century. I’m trying to figure out what exactly happened at that time.”

What could this tell us about our future? Dominique: “We know that at times in the past, climates were too warm to sustain any ice on continents. All that water was in the ocean, so sea levels were much higher. The Oligocene is interesting, as it appears to be an intermediate stage: there was no ice on Greenland, but there was ice on Antarctica. So the questions I’m trying to answer are:  how warm was the Oligocene, how high were CO2 levels and how much ice was there exactly? This information might provide a perspective on our future. What might climate and ice sheets look like in such an intermediately warm situation, like we are heading for now?”

Photo: Tristan Paalvast

Complete lab shutdown

Dominique and other palaeoclimatologists base their findings on fossilized algae, the remnants of tiny, ancient creatures that are preserved in sediments on the ocean floor and are collected using a drill ship. “The species we find, but also their specific chemical composition give us an idea of the temperature and the general climate at the time.”

Studying marine sediment requires a lot of lab work. Which is why the pandemic stopped Dominique’s research, before she could even get started: “Right when I was supposed to start working in the lab, Covid hit and the lab shut down for several months.” Dominique was attending her first conference when everything was shut down in March 2020. “I was there with a lovely research poster. I was so happy. And then, mid-talk, someone came in and said: sorry guys, but we have to shut it down. The speaker couldn't even finish their talk. Actually, a lot of us caught Covid at that conference.”

Making up for lost time

Around August of 2020 Dominique finally gained access to the lab: “The labs opened with a limited capacity, which lasted for more than a year. There were specific time slots where you could go in, and not as long as you would usually do. And only one person was allowed on workstations. Because of the limitations, I’m nearly an entire year of work behind. Fortunately, I was granted a four-month extension, which I’m very glad for, although it’s still not quite making up for the time that I lost. So now it’s really about trying to get as much done as I possibly can.”

Dominique shares this experience with her fellow PhD candidates who started at the earth sciences department around the same time and were also granted an extension. “There were e-mails sent out about the possibility to apply. Depending on your research deadline, you could apply for an extension from anywhere between one and six months. In our department, everyone who requested an extension got one, on average for 4 or 5 months.”

Past climate as a roadmap for the future

Studying palaeoclimatology allows Dominique to combine her fascination for primeval times with looking to the future: “The predictions and climate models that are currently being made are based on data generated by people like me. It’s the data you see published in the IPCC Reports, that tell us how the climate is going to change until the end of the century. Current models predict a warming within a certain range. The way they narrowed that down is not only based on climate models but also on data from the earth’s past, that shows us how CO2 levels corresponded to the warming in a certain era’s in earth’s geologic history.”

However, the current range of predictions is still quite wide, varying from positive to less hopeful scenarios. More data is still needed to make the models more precise, Dominique explains. “At this point we know roughly what is going to happen, and now it's about figuring out: how precisely can we predict what our future is going to look like? What we are working on now is trying to narrow it down even more. Even one degree can make quite a difference in terms of climate, so the more details we know, the better.”

Photo: Tristan Paalvast

How to remain hopeful

How do the worst-case scenarios of climate modelling affect Dominique personally? “Every now and then you’re hit by the reality of climate change. But generally, I don’t think it helps our work, or anybody else if we go at it with a negative attitude. Climate research will hopefully help prevent worst case scenarios, and try to prepare people for certain things, like extreme weather events or the sea level rising. I’m hoping to make a difference by trying to narrow down the range of possible outcomes, which will help make even more clear what we can expect.”

Source: Nationaal Programma Onderwijs