Q: Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
A: "I'm writing up a recently completed project in Singapore. We have been establishing a method to generate insights into land-to-ocean transfer of dissolved organic carbon. This carbon flux is an important part of the global carbon cycle, impacting local coastal ocean water pH and adding to the atmospheric pool of CO2. Southeast Asia alone accounts for 10% of this flux, mainly from the peatlands of Borneo and Sumatra. It is thought that recent changes of peatland to palm oil plantations alters this flux. And it is not known to what extent recent efforts to protect the peatlands have been successful in reducing this flux. There are no long term observations to understand the impact of these changes, and to obtain such information, we instead use paleo techniques.
Paleo techniques involve looking for natural archives (e.g. ice cores) that preserve climatic and environmental information directly (e.g. CO2 trapped in air bubbles in the ice) or via proxies (e.g. oxygen isotopes which are a proxy for past temperature changes). In the case of tropical Southeast Asia, we are using coral have been establishing fluorescence from coral cores as a proxy for this land-to-ocean dissolved organic carbon flux. In a similar way, for other projects, I also use stalagmites from caves to get a better understanding of the expected variability of the Indian monsoon system in response to rising global mean surface temperatures. A growing number of such studies over the last two decades now means that we can combine forces as large international Working Groups to use global-scale datasets and model outputs to tackle some big picture climate questions.
In the day-to-day, my work involves field days on the boat or in caves to collect data, working in a laboratory, growing corals in an aquarium and using time series techniques for analyses."
Q: What would you say to others who are interested in working in the climate change arena?
A: "This question made me smile because I don't know if anyone can be outside the climate change arena anymore. What 2020-21 really exemplified is that global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic or climate change cannot be relegated to a single department (e.g. the Health department for a pandemic, or Energy and Environment for climate change) while our lives continue as normal. These massive challenges touch every aspect of our lives and require solutions from many different fronts. The goal has to be to make a reasonably informed decision of which aspect of the challenge you are best suited to tackle, something that grabs your interest and is within your subject expertise, and aim to move the ball significantly closer to the finish line through your work. You can pick your tools: science, activism, strategic consulting, engineering, home-making, community-building, literature, art, every bit is useful, and working together will allow us to make the difference we need to make.
It is also not all doom and gloom! I am a geologist, and what makes me so passionate about geology is the billions of years of history and drama of it: the formation of the Universe and planets, the make and break of continents, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, such a beautifully vast and complex system! It is hard to believe that human beings, who were born in the equivalent of the last odd minute of geological history, have been able to create such havoc! But a species that is able to do that, should also be able to work together and fix things. Just look at what we have achieved even through a global pandemic: supply chains could be largely maintained, work and studies could move online and did not come to complete standstill, vaccinations to prevent spread were developed and deployed, and it seems everybody now understands graphs and exponential curves! Now we need to maintain this level of urgency and leverage this spirit of knowledge, innovation and global political will to tackle another big challenge that is climate change."
Nikita Kaushal (India & Exeter 2012) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ETH Zürich, and specialises in the fields of paleoclimate and biogeochemistry.