Jeremy Bassis, an assistant professor of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering currently on sabbatical in San Francisco, says he was introduced to glaciology, the focus of his research, by several happy accidents.

As an undergraduate studying physics at Pennsylvania State University, he says he discovered climate and environmental research by walking into the wrong classroom.

“Penn State is a big campus, kind of like University of Michigan; it’s kind of spread out,” Bassis said. “The first day of class, I was late for my class, and I rushed in at the last minute. And one of the few seats available (in the classroom) was right at the front kind of in the middle. I kind of slinked into that seat and slouched down a little bit. Five or 10 minutes into the class, I realized it was not the class I intended to take.”

Bassis says the subject of the class, weather and meteorology, was not something he had thought of before as a point of interest. He approached the professor to ask about research opportunities on campus in relation to the subject, which he later became involved in.  

Bassis’s research as an undergrad led to his research as a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography as part of the University of California-San Diego. When Bassis arrived on campus, however, the professor under which Bassis wished to study was on sabbatical. In order to keep himself busy, Bassis began to look for a research project and was offered a research trip to Antarctica to study glaciers, specifically cracks in the ice, which led him to his current research today.

He says he did not anticipate the direction his study took him, as he originally had anticipated that, as a student of physics, he would “be playing with lasers in a basement somewhere.”

Bassis continued to study glaciers when he realized the research he was doing — on the ways global warming was affecting the ice sheets in Antarctica — would have a wide-ranging impact.

“When I first started, we knew about global warming,” he said. “We were not quite sure how the ice sheets were going to respond. And the big debate was whether or not we should even be worried about the way in which the ice sheets were going to respond within the next century.”

Bassis studies the way in which glaciers calve, or break apart. Bassis’s research on the way ancient glaciers affect sea level change was recently published in the research journal Nature Geoscience. Bassis worked on the study with Sierra Petersen, a University of Michigan’s National Science Foundation Ocean Sciences postdoctoral fellow.

Bassis said during the beginning of his career he “was at the right place at the right time.” Certain events, like the disintegration of a particular ice sheet in Greenland around 2002, triggered more investigation in his field.

His research, looking at the ways changes in glaciers affect the rise in sea levels and how glaciers are, in turn, affected by a changing climate, portrays a drastically different image of the originally predicted numbers for sea level change.

Originally, it was believed that the sea level would change only a small amount over time. However, Bassis’s recent research has created models to the contrary that show the sea level rise would be much higher, closer to 3 feet by the year 2100 than the predicted centimeters cited by scientists for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013.

In order to create this model, Bassis examined the ancient Laurentide Ice Sheet and found that, even when the last ice age was at its height, the Laurentide Ice Sheet was still disintegrating. Peterson, an expert in paleo climate, was able to help the research even further, as she could read the climate of the ancient oceans through plankton shells.

Bassis describes the phenomenon of the Laurentide Ice Sheet breaking apart as the result of Heinrich events, which are events when giant icebergs deposit large amounts sediments as they break off from the main glacier and traverse because of melting.

However, these events occurred when the temperature of the earth were rather low during the last ice age. Bassis investigated further because of the perplexing notion of cold temperatures and large deposits of sediments in the ocean signaling the melting of these vast icebergs.

“One of the things that observations were starting to show is that it seemed likely that the ocean had warmed prior to some of these Heinrich events,” Bassis explained. “And it turns out that is exactly the trigger that we and other people saw during these massive retreat of Greenland glaciers. We said, ‘Let’s see if that mechanism works to explain the disintegration of these portions of Laurentide Ice Sheet and these Heinrich events.’ And that’s essentially the genesis of this study.”

When asked about the future of his study, Bassis mentioned it is often difficult to predict the current ice sheets based on the past, but is helpful to explain them and predict them by incorporating these discoveries into the models he has developed in order to better accurately predict phenomenons like the Greenland Ice Sheet.

According to Peterson, “(The) main point of the research was to look at the mechanisms in which these Heinrich events and the disintegration of the Laurentide Ice Sheet operated.”

Petersen says this hypothesis for modeling the temperature can now be used to look at current glaciers and open up opportunities for other scientists to interpret the newly presented data.

In regards to the interpretation of his work, Bassis mentioned a freshmen seminar he taught this past academic year titled “Climate and the Media.” He says he is excited about teaching it in the future when he returns to campus this summer.

In the meantime, while on sabbatical, Bassis is currently interested in the ice formations in space, particularly on the different moons, such as Europa. He says he is interested in the ways this ice could be similar to Earth’s oceans and looking into the possibility of convection currents.

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