Hobart alum recently returned from two months at sea, helping to discover the effects of a massive release of methane that caused extreme global warming 55 million years ago.
(May 19, 2003) GENEVA, N.Y.—Scientists and technicians from around the world arrived in Rio de Janeiro earlier this month after spending two months at sea on the JOIDES Resolution near an ancient submarine mountain chain off Africa, known as the Walvis Ridge. Here they studied the effects of a massive release of methane that caused extreme global warming 55 million years ago. Among the 30 scientists on board was Micah Nicolo, a 2001 Hobart graduate who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in earth science at Rice University. He is a native of Horseheads, N.Y.
Nicolo and the crew set out on Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 208 to test a hypothesis that 55 million years ago roughly 2,000 gigatons of methane was released into the ocean and atmosphere. The additional methane in the atmosphere triggered a gigantic greenhouse event that resulted in extreme global warming. Geochemists speculate that methane escaped from submarine clathrates, ice-crystals that trap methane and are distributed in sediments on the outer edges of continental margins worldwide. For reasons that remain unknown, the clathrates suddenly began to decompose on a massive scale, increasing the amount of methane in the atmosphere and ocean. This decomposition process appears to have lasted for a period of 40,000 years, ultimately warming the planet by more than 5°C.
While at Hobart and William Smith Colleges Nicolo began to explore these interests. He majored in geology, completed an honors thesis, “Environmental Transition at the End of the Mid-Holocene Hypsithermal: Evidence from the Sediment of Seneca Lake,” presented his research at a meeting of the Northeastern section of the National Geological Society of America and attended a 12-week program through the Sea Education Association. His mentor and adviser is Leah Joseph, assistant professor of geoscience at Hobart and William Smith.
ODP is an international partnership of scientists and research institutions that study the evolution and structure of the Earth. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, with contributions from its international partners. The Joint Oceanographic Institutions manages the program. A press release and photos from the ODP leg are available on the Web at http://www.oceandrilling.org/Newsroom/Releases/208.html.