30 July 2018

ERC grant for Peter Bijl to predict future sea level

“Accurately predicting future sea level rise is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” says Earth scientist Dr Peter Bijl from Utrecht University. Bijl is one of three Geoscientists from Utrecht University who were awarded a prestigious grant for early-career researchers by the European Research Council on Friday. With his ERC Starting Grant worth 1.5 million euros Bijl will reconstruct the role of ocean conditions on fluctuations in the size of the Antarctic ice sheet for past warm climates. His research will contribute to a better understanding of ice sheet melt behaviour in the future.

Current projections of future sea level rise, including those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are highly uncertain. “This is mainly because we don’t know how much of it is caused by melting of the Antarctic ice sheet,” explains Bijl. “Unlike what was initially believed, warming of the oceans strongly influences the stability of the Antarctic ice sheets.” In places where the Antarctic ice sheet melts most severely, it is not the warming atmosphere but the ocean water that contributes most to melting of the ice. According to Bijl, this points to a key role for the interaction between ice and ocean in the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet, and therefore global sea level. “Despite the importance of this interaction, it is poorly understood and therefore underrepresented in ice melt scenarios,” says Bijl. “This hampers adequate projections of future ice sheet melt on time scales of centuries or longer.”

Conceptual cross-section of the ice-proximal Southern Ocean showing preindustrial, stable conditions where brine rejection prevents basal melt (left) and recent oceanographic change leading to basal ice sheet melt and instability (right). Credit: P. Bijl

Past warm climates

The only way to understand the influence of oceans on ice sheets in past and future climates is by studying past geologic episodes with atmospheric CO2 levels similar to those projected for this century and beyond. So far, this was not possible due to a lack of accurate tools to reconstruct past ocean conditions near Antarctica. This is precisely what Bijl is going to do with his ERC Starting Grant in his research project named ‘OceaNice’. Bijl will develop new tools to reconstruct past oceanographic conditions based on organic cysts of dinoflagellates - a group of algae fossils - and organic molecular tools. He will apply these tools to two warm periods in the past that show analogy to future climates. He will then test these reconstructions with high-resolution ocean circulation simulations. “This combination of proxy-based reconstructions of past oceanic conditions will fast forward our understanding of the dynamics of ice sheet melt and break the barrier for more accurate melt scenarios for the future. In this way, it will contribute to reliable sea level projections for upcoming centuries,” says Bijl.

Peter Bijl. Credit: Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW

About Peter Bijl

Earth scientist Dr Peter Bijl (1983) is an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University. His research focuses on climatic and environmental evolution of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Last May, Peter Bijl won the Heineken Young Scientists Award in the Natural Sciences for his research into the relationship between atmosphere, oceans, and ecosystems in the Antarctic region over the past 80 million years.

Three ERC Starting Grants

Two other researchers from the faculty of Geosciences were also awarded an ERC Starting Grant on Friday. Dr Giuseppe Feola, Assistant Professor at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, won a grant for the research project 'Societal transformation to sustainability through the unmaking of capitalism? A comparative study of radical grassroots innovations'. Dr Simon Scheider, Assistant Professor at the department of Human Geography and Planning, received an ERC grant for his research on question-based analysis of geographic information with semantic queries.