Jacquelyn Gill is an ecologist at Brown University and the creator of The Contemplative Mammoth ( http://contemplativemammoth.wordpress.com), a blog exploring historical changes to the earth’s climate and ecology. Follow her on Twitter as @JacquelynGill. Answers have been edited.
Q: Your Ph.D. research focused on interactions between giant plant-eaters and their food. What sparked your interest?
I have to give the hat tip here to Tim Flannery’s fantastic book, “The Eternal Frontier.” It’s an ecological history of North America that starts with the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs and ends in the present. I was fascinated to learn that horses and camels were native to North America, but went extinct here due to a combination of human hunting and climate change. What I find so fascinating about these animals is that they coexisted with anatomically modern humans – they represent a slice of our ecological history that’s just out of reach.
Q: What experience from your fieldwork stands out in your mind?
I reconstruct ecosystems using material preserved in lake sediment cores – mud at the bottom, created by glaciers. To get these cores, we anchor a floating platform in the middle of the lake and take the core through a hole in the bottom. One day, we had a rather sudden tornado warning. Standing in the middle of the lake with a large metal pole, with lightning, is not a very good idea, so we had to get off the lake quite quickly. As I was ferrying gear back and forth with a canoe, a very frightened student stepped on the edge and tipped me over – exactly into the spot where a very large alligator snapping turtle liked to hang out. I’m sure it could easily have taken one of my hands or feet off. I have never moved so quickly. No one was bitten on that trip, and no one was struck by lightning either!
Q: How can studying the history of earth’s climate inform our approach to modern environmental problems?
First, placing modern climate change in the context of the past is how we know the modern rate and magnitude of warming are unprecedented. Second, studying past climate change helps us to understand the mechanisms of climate change and to better predict how the components of the Earth’s system – its living things, its oceans, its glaciers – will respond.