On the Rocks

Cris Sbarra

Undergraduate geology student Chris Sbarra gathers glacial samples in a mountainous region of Southeastern Alaska. (Photo: Alia Lesnek)

By ELIN HAWKINSON

Published January 2018

Jason Briner

Jason Briner in Greenland

As an undergraduate engineering student at the University of Washington, Professor Jason Briner, PhD, didn’t anticipate he’d have 50 trips to the arctic under his belt before the age of 40, or that he’d one day serve as mentor to the new wave of intensely-engaged earth science enthusiasts, many of whom land at UB eager to confront the brewing storm of climate change. 

It only took one freshman geology course for Briner to switch majors, and passion for earth and environmental sciences, plus the drive to address pressing climate problems, has kept him motivated ever since. 

“Students first need to understand that they can solve problems,” Briner says. “That’s what did it for me. I wasn’t a typical A-student until I found the thing I was passionate about.”

In the twelve years he’s spent teaching at UB, Briner has noticed a distinct uptick in the number of incoming first-year students interested in climate science. Responding to media bombshells like Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” as well as increasingly observable shifts in climate patterns, students arrive ready to save the world, but—as Briner points out—don’t always know how or where to start. 

“I think UB does a great job helping students transform this aspiration into a profession," he says.

A critical moment in this transformation occurs when undergraduate students discover the unique opportunities available to them in the geology department of a world-class research university. Briner lists mentorships with graduate students, access to state-of-the-art equipment like the mass-spectrometer, and trips to far-flung corners of the earth as valued members of faculty research teams. Not to mention the Buffalo landscape itself, with its rich deposits of glacial rock and mud. 

Alia Lesnek

Alia Lesnek (Photo: Chris Sbarra)

“Ice sheets came out of Canada, in and across Buffalo, during the last ice age, so I can take students to the bluffs of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario to learn about glaciers and glacier history,” Briner says. “It’s pretty inspiring to pick up a rock in our own backyard that has glacial scratches on it. It tells us that, in the past, serious climate change happened here.”  

At the graduate level, master’s and PhD students regularly accompany Briner on his Arctic campaigns, often branching off to lead pieces of the research expedition. Briner believes it’s essential training for students, helping them build confidence and learn the decision-making skills required of a professional academic or researcher. 

Two of Briner’s current students, undergraduate geology major Christopher Sbarra and PhD student Alia Lesnek, had an especially exciting summer, helicopter-hopping through remote areas of southeastern Alaska to collect glacial rock samples. Alia entered the department as a master’s student but was quickly promoted to the PhD track when her drive, talent and work ethic became obvious to Briner and other professors. Last summer’s research project was rooted in a proposal she wrote early on in one of Briner’s classes. 

From the field, Alia had this to say about her experience thus far: “Being a graduate student in the UB Department of Geology has been wonderful. I’ve been able to work on cutting-edge research, travel to amazing places and collaborate with some of the world’s top scientists. Professor Briner is a fantastic mentor, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had while working with him."

“Students first need to understand that they can solve problems. That’s what did it for me. I wasn’t a typical A-student until I found the thing I was passionate about.” – Jason Briner

Chris, meanwhile, took the initiative to approach Briner in his sophomore year about a lab tech position in Briner’s Paleoclimate Lab, and from there proved himself an asset to the department’s research activities. When the need arose for an undergraduate to assist Alia in Alaska, Chris was a natural choice. 

"There are countless opportunities here, and I’ve been fortunate enough to take full advantage of them,” Chris says. “Whether it's through lab work, independent studies or exotic field locations, the faculty in this department have guided me and enabled me to grow as a student. I’m confident I can translate my new skills into a promising career in geology."

After returning from Alaska, Alia had a short break before joining Briner in Greenland, alongside fellow graduate student Allison Cluett and incoming PhD student Brandon Graham, who was keen to get a jump on research. “What better way to teach a brand new student than to bring them into the field and show them: this is how we collect a rock sample, this is how we collect a sediment core, this is why we’re doing it," says Briner. 

Assistant Professor of Geology Elizabeth Thomas, former UB PhD student Nicolás Young (now a research professor at Columbia University) and University of Washington PhD student Jessica Badgely rounded out the research team. Freelance journalist Janet Babin from Public Radio International also hitched a ride, documenting the team’s progress along the Greenland Ice Sheet margin for a series airing on PRI’s The World.  

Primarily, Briner’s research focuses on collecting and interpreting data related to sea-level rise, a troubling symptom of global warming. Surface-level observations of ice sheet change is limited to the short span of satellite technology—microscopic in relation to the geologic past—so Briner applies his expertise in the history of Arctic climate change during the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs to predict ice sheet response in terms of current and future climate conditions. 

Map of Alaska field sites

Map of Alia and Chris's field sites in Alaska

Field sites in Greenland

Map of Briner's field sites in Greenland

A recent study published in Nature (conducted by a team of international climate scientists of which Briner was part) revealed the Greenland Ice Sheet may not be as stable as previously assumed, lying bare of ice for a period of at least 280,000 of the last 1.4 million years.

Glacial rocks

Glacial rock specimens gathered from near the Greenland Ice Sheet (right) and Lake Ontario beach in Buffalo (left). The surfaces of both rocks were worn flat from repeated sliding against flowing ice, and exhibit striations (scratches) from contact with the earth’s surface.

Speaking last December to UBNow reporter Charlotte Hsu, Briner stated: “If it happens again, this time due to global warming, it would raise sea level by about 24 feet. This would have devastating consequences, ranging from profound economic burden to a widespread coastal refugee crisis.”

It seems like cold comfort, but an upside to the emergence of this disconcerting conclusion is the attention it garners from researchers, academic institutions and funding agencies. As Briner explains, science is always evolving, but the increments by which it advances may differ widely year-to-year.   

“A steep curve can occur when, all of a sudden, new technology or a new way of thinking allows for more rapid evolution. One example is the burst in research on climate change, in reaction to the realization that this is a major problem facing society," Briner explains. 

There may still be time to address, though not entirely reverse, the effects of climate change on sea level rise, but it’s imperative that the next generation of dedicated climate scientists graduate with both the theoretical insight and firsthand experience to tackle the issues head-on. In the Paleoclimate Lab, Briner’s students are well-placed to do just that. They can spend up to a year processing rock samples using a variety of sophisticated dating methods, such as cosmogenic nuclide analysis, then present their findings at conferences. Throughout the process, return visits to field sites are common, in order to collect enough data to warrant publication. 

“The first time you visit a site, you don’t know all of its secrets,” says Briner. “You may come home with a large piece of the puzzle, but the beauty is returning and discovering the final surprise element that makes it a masterpiece.” 

Without the backing of a major research institution like UB, Briner adds, it would be difficult to involve students so closely in this effort: “Our students are exceptional people, and the fact that UB encourages them to engage with research on this level is very cool.”

To learn more about Jason Briner's work and view photos from his most recent trip to Greenland, visit the Paleoclimate Lab

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