MacArthur Fellow Andrea Dutton Studied Rising Seas At The University of Florida

Sep 25, 2019

A professor who studies sea levels and global temperatures of the past has been named a 2019 MacArthur fellow.

The MacArthur Foundation on Wednesday announced its 26 fellows for 2019.

"From addressing the consequences of climate change to furthering our understanding of human behavior to fusing forms of artistic expression, this year’s 26 extraordinary MacArthur Fellows demonstrate the power of individual creativity to reframe old problems, spur reflection, create new knowledge and better the world for everyone,” said MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey. “They give us reason for hope, and they inspire us all to follow our own creative instincts."

One of the fellows is Andrea Dutton, a geochemist and paleoclimatologist who recently left the University of Florida for the University of Wisconsin.

“I think of myself like a CSI for planet Earth,” she told the MacArthur Foundation. “I'm a detective collecting clues trying to put together the puzzle of Earth's climate history so that we can better understand our future.”

Earth’s climate has historically swung between cold and warm periods, but scientific consensus says rapidly rising temperatures today are being driven by human activity.

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A lot of Dutton’s work thus far has focused on the last natural warming period, which happened about 125,000 years ago when the global climate was similar to today’s.

“We're looking at that because we want to understand the last time it was warm, how did the ice sheets respond? How quickly did sea level rise and how high did it rise? And that helps us to understand the dynamics of Earth's climate system,” she explained.

Andrea Dutton analyzing a coral fossil.
Credit John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

She collects fossil corals that lived near the ocean’s surface. Dutton said they contain clues about the rate of coral reef growth, an indicator of how fast the sea level rose.

“And that's the burning question that everyone wants to know about our future,” she said. “The data that we are collecting, using these fossilized corals to reconstruct past sea level, helps us to calibrate the models that we're using to project sea level rise into the future.”

“Sea level rise is impacting people's lives today,” Dutton said. “That is what drives me and motivates me not just in the research line of my work, but also to communicate the science to the people that it's affecting.

Dutton has become a prolific climate communicator, making TV appearances, giving TED talks, and presenting at events like Keeping History Above Water, a national conference on climate change and cultural heritage that took place in St. Augustine this year. 

“A lot of people think of my work as trying to save planet Earth. But I'm a geologist and the Earth has been here for 4 and a half billion years,” Dutton said. “I'm actually not worried about the planet. It will still be here. It'll be a different place. What I'm worried about is how we are going to exist in that new world.”

Photos used under Creative Commons license.

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.