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50 Years of the Molecular Revolution: Ethics and Policy, September 29, daylong symposium, GSU Terrace Lounge

Week of 26 September 2003· Vol. VII, No. 5

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2003-04 Guggenheim fellowship winner
Maureen Raymo: studying 40 million years of climate change

By Brian Fitzgerald

Maureen Raymo


Maureen Raymo


Maureen Raymo has certainly received her share of awards — and her share of notoriety — in two decades of studying the causes of climate change.

The CAS research professor of earth sciences has been recognized repeatedly for her examination of past ocean circulation, ice volume history, and the role of orbital variations in the causes of the recent ice ages.

And the accolades keep coming: Raymo was recently named a 2003-04 Guggenheim Fellow. Her other honors over the years include the National Young Investigator Award, a Special Creativity Award from the National Science Foundation, and the Cody Award from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for outstanding contributions to earth science. She was even listed as one of the 50 most important women in science in the November 2002 issue of Discover magazine — in part because of her often-disputed 1988 “uplift hypothesis,” which maintains that the rise of mountain ranges such as the Himalayas may have triggered the start of the ice ages.

Her most recent award, however, the Guggenheim Fellowship, will enable her to expand from her specialized focus and reach out to a more general audience on the subject of global warming by writing a book that can serve as an easy-to-use reference manual on the phenomenon. Raymo says the project is a way for readers — as well as her — to learn more about the past and future climate of Earth.

This is not her first experience writing for a nontechnical readership. Written in Stone (Black Dome Press, 1989), authored by Raymo and her father, a professor of physics and astronomy at Stonehill College and a science columnist for the Boston Globe, compressed 500 million years of the geology of the northeastern United States into a 163-page narrative. The book was geared to the interested layperson and has been adopted for course work by a number of colleges. In fact, much of Raymo’s work has universal appeal. Her theories have been the focus of four television documentaries shown throughout the world in the last seven years — a segment from one is still shown many times daily in London’s Science Museum.

Controversial hypothesis

Raymo’s most talked-about research, resulting in the uplift hypothesis that she wrote when she was a graduate student at Columbia University, argues that about 40 million years ago, during the late Cenozoic period, the Earth was hit by a blast of air conditioning that lowered temperatures some 20 degrees — largely because of enhanced chemical weathering in the mountainous regions of the world, and the fact that India had slammed into Asia about 10 million years before. This collision raised the Himalayan-Tibetan plateau thousands of feet into the clouds, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Raymo’s idea has been examined and discussed by not only scientists working with deep sea sediments, but by those studying tectonics, geomorphology, river chemistry, weathering reactions, and carbon cycling modeling. To this day, debate continues on the hypothesis, especially because the data needed to definitively test it are not available.

Raymo’s hypothesis originally proposed that the marine strontium isotope record showed that chemical weathering rates had increased over the Cenozoic period. Reaction in the scientific community was mixed. But by 1992 this record was shown to be ambiguous and not suitable for testing. “The hypothesis is still being debated because there’s no record on which you can definitively test it,” she says. “We all came to agree that the record I was working with could produce multiple possibilities.” The hypothesis can’t be proven, but it can’t be disproven.

Climate change: answering the questions

While Raymo’s research has added to the possible explanations of the onset of the ice ages, her new book won’t attempt to answer questions arising from her hypothesis. She wants to focus instead on educating the public on the basics of climate change. “The field of climate science is vast,” she says. “It encompasses everyone from ecologists to climate modelers to oceanographers. We’re all working on the problem of future climate change, and each expert has his or her own specialty. But most of us can’t answer questions that aren’t directly related to what we’re studying. For example, people are always asking me such questions as, ‘What does the weather from this past winter mean in terms of global warming?’ And I don’t have an answer, because that’s not my subject of expertise.”

Raymo says the book, which she began writing this past summer, will try to bring all the different areas of climate science together and answer a wide range of simple, straightforward, commonly asked questions. “I don’t exactly want this to be an encyclopedia, which would necessarily consist of a large set of books, ” she says. “I want to write a book that you can pick up and quickly find an answer to a question, a convenient resource that’s written in a way that will appeal to middle school and high school teachers, along with journalists and even scientists who want a quick refresher on a topic.”

Inspired by Jacques Cousteau

Raymo first became interested in science as a seven-year-old second grader captivated by the television show The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. “When I was a kid I wanted to be an oceanographer like Jacques Cousteau,” she says. “The only time I drifted away from that goal was in high school, when I got into geology.” But as a college student at Brown University, she discovered a field that combined oceanography, geology, and studying the ice ages: paleoclimatology. “And the rest, as they say, is history,” she says.

Indeed, she went to graduate school at Columbia to study an important part of the Earth’s history — the ice ages in the northern hemisphere, and why they started. Since earning her doctorate in 1989, Raymo has taught at the University of Melbourne in Australia, the University of California at Berkeley, and MIT. She accepted a position at BU as a research associate professor in 2000.

The 2003-04 Guggenheim fellowship winners include 184 artists, scholars, and scientists selected from more than 3,200 applicants. Raymo was the only earth scientist to receive the award this year. “It was extremely gratifying to receive this appointment,” she says. “The fellowship provides a really exciting opportunity for me to write a book that I hope will have tremendous appeal for both scientists and nonscientists.”


26 September 2003
Boston University
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