Sherilyn Fritz began encountering the term “climate change” while working toward her doctorate more than 30 years ago.
Now, the UNL geoscientist whose research has advanced understanding of the phenomenon will co-direct an international organization that helps study Earth’s past to inform the management of its future.
Fritz, a George Holmes University Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, became co-chair of the steering committee for Past Global Changes on Jan. 1. Known as PAGES, the organization sponsors research groups and hosts meetings dedicated to exploring causes and consequences of the planet’s climate shifts across millions of years.
“Like PAGES, I’m interested in understanding how the environment has worked in the past in order to provide (input) on what might happen in the future,” said Fritz, who will serve as co-chair for two years. “The basic notion is that during the 20th century and 21st century — even going back to the 19th century — the Earth has exhibited really a small range of possible conditions and dynamics. Understanding the (distant) past helps us to get a fuller picture of how things can operate.”
Formed in 1991 with support from the National Science Foundation of both the United States and Switzerland, PAGES perpetually features a co-chair from each country. Fritz said the organization aims to foster a diversity of scientific, geographic and socio-economic representation that matches the complexity and magnitude of the global issue.
Her new role will entail greater say over the sponsorship of research groups that are proposed by scholars who often span multiple countries and disciplines.
“The steering committee tries to create a portfolio of working groups that represent a variety of topical issues in global change science,” Fritz said. “If there are things that we feel are part of an emerging global change agenda that we don’t presently cover very well, we try to encourage groups to form that would touch on those topics. For example, we’re trying to encourage more representation of groups looking at the history of biodiversity, global extinctions … and conservation-related issues.”
One existing group is studying especially warm periods of Earth’s history, particularly those that featured slightly higher concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide than what the planet currently exhibits.
“We’re at 400 parts (of carbon dioxide) per million,” Fritz said. “During the Pliocene (era), which was between 3 and 5 million years ago, carbon dioxide was about 415 parts per million. So we can look to that period of time to (ask), ‘How does the Earth system work in a warmer world? To what extent is there evidence in the fossil record that organisms adapt or move or go extinct? How do the oceans respond?’”
Fritz will also look to advance the organization’s push toward engaging more closely with stakeholders, including policymakers, resource managers and business leaders. Getting research results into the hands and heads of those who can use them has become an increasingly important priority in promoting sustainable practices, she said.
“Part of global change science involves not only understanding how it works but also how it can serve society,” Fritz said.
Fritz’s own research career has seen her travel throughout western North America and tropical South America to study lakes, which she called excellent “climate recorders” due to the sensitivity of their temperatures, water levels and microscopic organisms.
“The early 1980s was when climate change started to become a globally recognized problem, so I feel like I was in on the ground floor in terms of … using these archives of the past to look at global change,” she said. “In that sense, I was lucky because I’ve predicated a huge part of my career on that.”
While conceding that initiatives such as the recent Paris climate accord are “far from enough” to stem the effects of human-driven warming, Fritz said she’s optimistic that they are slowly generating the critical-mass momentum necessary to address the issue.
“I’ve seen enough to think that things do move forward,” she said. “I’ve seen lots of social and environmental issues that seemed intractable, and those things do change.”