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UL Lafayette research could yield critical information on global warming

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UL Lafayette research could yield critical information on global warming
Dr. Brian Schubert and Dr. Ying Cui in the School of Geosciences have received a $347,945
grant from NSF to study the connection between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and global
temperatures. This study aims to gain a better understanding of how sensitive Earth’s
temperature is to changing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas responsible for controlling global temperatures. Our
understanding of the link between temperature and carbon dioxide is based only on relatively
recent historical data and ice cores dated to less than 1 million years old, when carbon dioxide
levels were not much different from today. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that
Earth has experienced very large fluctuations in both temperature and carbon dioxide.
“For example, 55 million years ago, parts of the Arctic looked a lot more like southern Louisiana
than the tree-less tundra that exists today,” said Dr. Brian Schubert, an assistant professor in the
University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s School of Geosciences. “However, the amount of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere during this time is poorly understood.”

“We will use thousands of carbon isotope data and the known relationship between carbon
isotope fractionation and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration to reconstruct paleo-pCO2
during the Cenozoic” said Dr. Ying Cui, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Louisiana
at Lafayette’s School of Geosciences. Carbon has two isotopes – carbon 12 and carbon 13 - that
are used by plants during photosynthesis and are affected by the amount of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere at the time the plants were growing. When the plants die, this information is
preserved in the rocks as organic matter. By studying small changes in these two isotopes, the
researchers will be able to produce a precise record of how much carbon dioxide levels have
changed across the last 65 million years.

By comparing these data with existing temperature data, the team hopes to provide a better
understanding of the response between temperature and carbon dioxide. This approach will
provide important information for understanding how much temperatures will rise in the coming
centuries as a result of fossil fuel burning.

“These data are critical for implementing policies related to climate risk management,” said Dr.
Ying Cui. This project will also involve University of Louisiana at Lafayette students, providing
them with new tools and original research experiences. Results from this work will be
incorporated into course material and help fulfill the School of Geosciences’ mission to provide
education and research focused on Energy and the Environment.

NSF awards grants for research and education in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering.