Collaborative Research: Reconstructing Temperatures during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period in the McMurdo Dry Valleys with Cosmogenic Noble Gases
Part I: Nontechnical Scientists study the Earth's past climate in order to understand how the climate will respond to ongoing global change in the future. One of the best analogs for future climate might the period that occurred approximately 3 million years ago, during an interval known as the mid-Pliocene Warm Period. During this period, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was similar to today's and sea level was 15 or more meters higher, due primarily to warming and consequent ice sheet melting in polar regions. However, the temperatures in polar regions during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period are not well determined, in part because we do not have records like ice cores that extend this far back in time. This project will provide constraints on surface temperatures in Antarctica during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period using a new type of climate proxy, known as cosmogenic noble gas paleothermometry. This project focuses on an area of Antarctica called the McMurdo Dry Valleys. In this area, climate models suggest that temperatures were more than 10 ºC warmer during the mid-Pliocene than they are today, but indirect geologic observations suggest that temperatures may have been similar to today. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are also a place where rocks have been exposed to Earth surface conditions for several million years, and where this new climate proxy can be readily applied. The team will reconstruct temperatures in the McMurdo Dry Valleys during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period in order to resolve the discrepancy between models and indirect geologic observations and provide much-needed constraints on the sensitivity of Antarctic ice sheets to warming temperatures. The temperature reconstructions generated in this project will have scientific impact in multiple disciplines, including climate science, glaciology, geomorphology, and planetary science. In addition, the project will (1) broaden the participation of underrepresented groups by supporting two early-career female principal investigators, (2) build STEM talent through the education and training of a graduate student, (3) enhance infrastructure for research via publication of a publicly-accessible, open-source code library, and (4) be broadly disseminated via social media, blog posts, publications, and conference presentations. Part II: Technical Description The mid-Pliocene Warm Period (3–3.3 million years ago) is the most recent interval of the geologic past when atmospheric CO2 concentrations exceeded 400 ppm, and is widely considered an analog for how Earths climate system will respond to current global change. Climate models predict polar amplification the occurrence of larger changes in temperatures at high latitudes than the global average due to a radiative forcing both during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period and due to current climate warming. However, the predicted magnitude of polar amplification is highly uncertain in both cases. The magnitude of polar amplification has important implications for the sensitivity of ice sheets to warming and the contribution of ice sheet melting to sea level change. Proxy-based constraints on polar surface air temperatures during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period are sparse to non-existent. In Antarctica, there is only indirect evidence for the magnitude of warming during this time. This project will provide constraints on surface temperatures in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period using a newly developed technique called cosmogenic noble gas (CNG) paleothermometry. CNG paleothermometry utilizes the diffusive behavior of cosmogenic 3He in quartz to quantify the temperatures rocks experience while exposed to cosmic-ray particles within a few meters of the Earths surface. The very low erosion rates and subzero temperatures characterizing the McMurdo Dry Valleys make this region uniquely suited for the application of CNG paleothermometry for addressing the question: what temperatures characterized the McMurdo Dry Valleys during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period? To address this question, the team will collect bedrock samples at several locations in the McMurdo Dry Valleys where erosion rates are known to be low enough that cosmic ray exposure extends into the mid-Pliocene or earlier. They will pair cosmogenic 3He measurements, which will record the thermal histories of our samples, with measurements of cosmogenic 10Be, 26Al, and 21Ne, which record samples exposure and erosion histories. We will also make in situ measurements of rock and air temperatures at sample sites in order to quantify the effect of radiative heating and develop a statistical relationship between rock and air temperatures, as well as conduct diffusion experiments to quantify the kinetics of 3He diffusion specific to each sample. This suite of observations will be used to model permissible thermal histories and place constraints on temperatures during the mid-Pliocene Warm Period interval of cosmic-ray exposure.
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