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Colleen Iversen: Climate impacts on the natural world

Representing the complexity of the natural world in global climate models is critical to enhancing models’ predictive capabilities. It takes extensive field work and large-scale experiments to gain insights into how ecosystem processes are changing in response to a warming climate. Through her research at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Colleen Iversen collaborates with colleagues around the world to add knowledge about climate-vulnerable ecosystems into Earth system models that predict the planet’s future.

DOE’s Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments Arctic project is one example. As deputy director for the ORNL-led project, Iversen works with a multidisciplinary team to better understand and model the effects of thawing permafrost on the Artic tundra.

Iversen and colleagues also study the boreal peatlands, which house vast carbon stores vulnerable to climate change. As part of the ORNL-led Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments experiment, scientists are exposing plots of Minnesota peat bog to hotter temperatures and elevated carbon dioxide and measuring the impacts. Iversen’s work focuses on a better understanding of the secret lives of roots hidden beneath the soil surface.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

The climate science problem I’m working on is trying to better understand the impacts of climate change on the natural world — in biomes from the tundra to the tropics. In some cases, that means tracking the pace of rapid climate change in places like the Arctic tundra, which is warming three times as fast as the rest of the world. In some cases, that means leveraging the technology of a place like Oak Ridge National Laboratory to build a range of possible futures in a peat bog in Northern Minnesota to better understand what the consequences might be for climate change and for our society’s future.

Why does the research matter?

One of the reasons I like to work at a national laboratory is because we have a mission, and that mission is to help society better prepare for the future based on decisions we make today. So even though I study and measure only a small part of the natural world, I can put those pieces together like a puzzle with the measurements that other people are making and use that to inform the mathematical models that run on supercomputers that can help us to do experiments with the entire world. Putting these pieces together in virtual space, we can run experiments with the globe and understand how decisions we make now could impact society’s future. So that understanding, that knowledge, that ability to predict what might be coming is something that I think can make a difference.

What keeps you motivated?

I have two kids, so I think about their future and the future that I want them to have and the world that I want them to live in. I’m a scientist and so scientists get excited about understanding things that they didn’t understand before, understanding the natural world. That’s something I’m really excited about, and one of the reasons that I like to be at the national laboratory is because I get to interact with so many different people who are studying different things in different ways.

I study a small part of the world — the belowground world, the soils and the roots tangled there — but other folks study greenhouse gases or soil carbon or plant photosynthesis. And other folks take those measurements and encode them into math that is used in these models in these supercomputers to predict the future. Getting to put all these puzzle pieces together to see the big picture is something that is really exciting for me and keeps me going.

What about the research keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night and thinking about science is about communications. Something I think a lot about is how to let folks know what we’re finding. We’re publicly funded. Your tax dollars are supporting the science we do, and I want that science to matter to people and to inform their lives and to help them better understand decisions we make as a society.

Also, what keeps me up is thinking about what we don’t know yet. We’re changing the world way more rapidly than it’s ever changed in the past. And so, what are the things that we might be missing: tipping points or thresholds we haven’t yet thought about? I want to reach that understanding as quickly as we can because I really want to help us to be better prepared for what the future might hold.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

You can study just about anything and be a climate scientist. We need folks who are physicists. We need folks who are mathematical modelers. We need folks like me who like to tromp around in the tundra and dig holes and look at the soil. There are so many different disciplines that touch on an understanding of climate change.

Because it is a global problem, we need folks from around the world who study all the parts of the world to help us understand and think about what the solutions might be. It is one of the biggest problems of our time, and so we need you to come and work on this problem. But you can work on any facet of it, and it will be helpful for thinking about our future.