“Much of sustainable development is about where the world is headed in the future, anticipating the changes that are to come and evaluating the choices that we have available to address them. But understanding how natural and socioeconomic systems will change in the future, including the climate system, often requires that we look to the past as a guide.” True to form, Jason Smerdon is on an exciting career trajectory to understand climate variability and change on multi-decadal to centennial timescales. “We have to think about climatic changes in the past because our modern observations are not much longer than a century. This brief window of time is simply not sufficient for scientists to fully characterize how the climate can change and what surprises may lie ahead,” says Smerdon.
Smerdon’s discoveries and application of paleoclimate research to today’s and tomorrow’s most vexing climate questions brought him to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2005, and to the Earth Institute as a junior faculty member in February 2012. As a postdoctoral fellow at Lamont, Smerdon’s studies of paleoclimate reconstructions led him to work with Richard Seager, Mark Cane, and Alexey Kaplan. Smerdon recalls that “the collaborative experiences I have enjoyed speak to the magic of Lamont, an environment that makes for dynamic interactions and allows people from many disciplines and backgrounds to come together to foster transdisciplinary research.”
As an example of the kind of synergy that exists at Lamont, Smerdon recalls an impromptu discussion he had with, Seager, a climate modeler, and Rosanne D’Arrigo, a dendroclimatologist. What started as a casual discussion about the extremely cold and snowy winter conditions in New York and along the East Coast in 2009-10, eventually led to interesting connections between the modern winter and the volcanic eruption of Laki, an Icelandic volcano, in 1783. For many years the volcanic eruption had been pinpointed as the cause of the very harsh conditions in the United States and Europe during the winter of 1783-84. This in fact was the eruption that Benjamin Franklin used to draw the first connection between volcanoes and their climatic impacts.
Based on the research of Smerdon and his colleagues, however, the winter conditions in 1783-84 likely were not strongly connected to the volcanic eruption, but were instead caused by conditions in the ocean and atmosphere that were very similar to those that caused the extreme winter in 2009-10. These conditions involved the simultaneous occurrence of a strong negative North Atlantic Oscillation, which drives cold Arctic air south in the Eastern U.S. and Europe, and an El Niño event in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Smerdon and his colleagues found that the strength of these combined conditions in 1783-84 was second only to the 2009-10 winter over the last 600 years and their work provided historical context for how frequently these conditions combine to cause extreme winters on the East Coast. For Smerdon, it is the power of this historical context that highlights the importance of understanding past climate change and the use of such understanding to inform our projections of how the climate will change in the future due to increasing greenhouse gases.
Now as a Lamont associate research professor, Smerdon continues to explore near-term climate change and its effects. Environmental and socioeconomic changes will occur at different scales, and in order to think about how we will adjust to those changes, Smerdon is using climate models and paleoclimatic evidence to constrain and improve model projections of 21st-century climate change.
Smerdon has also played an important role in the expansion of the Earth Institute’s education programs, as a co-director of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development with Kevin Griffin and Ruth DeFries. He is also involved in the Masters of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs as a professor of climatology, where for the last five years he has thoroughly enjoyed teaching and engaging the diverse and energetic students in the MPA ESP program.
Smerdon grew up in Washington State and later moved to Minnesota, where he graduated with a B.A. in physics from Gustavus Adolphus College in 1998. In 2000, he received an M.S. in physics from the University of Michigan, where he also completed a Ph.D. in applied physics in 2004. His doctoral thesis focused on how interactions between the land and atmosphere generate climate signals in subsurface soils and rocks, which are used to reconstruct historical temperature changes hundreds to thousands of years into the past. For more information about Smerdon’s research and educational activities, please visit his website.
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