Darrell Kaufman: Taking the Long View of Climate Change

Darrell Kaufman 235 x 200

Regents’ Professor

School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability

Director, NAU Amino Acid Geochronology Laboratory

Co-editor, Quaternary Geochronology

Darrell Kaufman, PhD

NAU Regents’ Professor and earth scientist Darrell Kaufman has been studying geological evidence of past climate change for more than 30 years. He believes that “by looking to the past, we can put the present in perspective and think more clearly about the future.”

“From early on as an undergraduate, I wanted to apply my fascination about the earth to societally relevant issues,” says Dr. Kaufman. These dual interests continue to motivate and inspire his research and teaching.

Conducting Fieldwork in the Arctic

Among the many attractions of a career in geosciences is the opportunity for fieldwork. “Alaska is the most vast and unexplored territory in the United States,” Kaufman notes. “I was hooked on its mountains, glaciers, and braided rivers on my first romp there in 1979.”  After graduating from college, Kaufman ventured to Anchorage and landed a job with the US Geological Survey, where he mapped geological formations and studied the sediment exposed in river bluffs. Several years later, he reluctantly left Alaska but was eager to pursue graduate studies in geosciences. Kaufman received his master’s degree from the University of Washington and his doctoral degree from the University of Colorado. Since finishing his PhD in 1991, he has returned to Alaska every year to pursue his research, funded continuously by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

One of Kaufman’s longest-term projects has been to collect sediment cores from deep arctic lakes to reconstruct past climate change. As he explains, the sediment at the bottom of lakes has been accumulating for thousands of years and contains a storehouse of information. The mud in some lakes is marked by year-by-year layers, which provide a precise timeline. Back in the lab, the 20-foot columns of lake sediment are analyzed for a variety of physical and biological constituents that attest to past environmental and climate changes.

Leading collaborative projects internationally

Kaufman is active in the Past Global Changes (PAGES) project of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. Through PAGES, he has coordinated large international, multi-investigator projects aimed at summarizing information about past climate changes in the Arctic and globally. In 2009 Kaufman and researchers from more than a dozen universities published “Recent Warming Reverses Long-Term Arctic Cooling” in Science magazine, based on 2,000 years of reconstructed Arctic summer temperatures using the natural archives of tree rings, glacier ice, and lake sediments from locations across the Arctic.

The findings demonstrate that warming of the Earth’s climate has occurred abruptly during the 20th century while atmospheric greenhouse gases were accumulating. “The Arctic, in particular, has warmed at two or three times the rate of the rest of the world,” notes Kaufman. “This reverses the long-term, millennial trend toward cooler temperatures.” These results are consistent with climate computer models, which give scientists greater confidence in climate predictability.

In addition to the Science article, Kaufman has published more than 125 journal articles and book chapters. He is also the a founding co-editor of the journal, Quaternary Geochronology and the director of the Amino Acid Geochronology Lab at NAU. “Understanding the timing, frequency, and rate of geologic processes is fundamental to nearly all Earth sciences,” he explains. “The racemization of amino acids preserved in fossils provides geochronological information applicable to a wide range of scientific questions.” 

Teaching Climate Science at NAU

In addition to being an avid researcher, Kaufman is a caring and demanding professor. He has a passion for teaching about climate change and for mentoring students. Kaufman has been the primary advisor for more than 25 graduate theses, and he enjoys collaborating with several of his former students who are now university professors.

In 2009, Kaufman developed an introductory course for undergraduates called "climate change," which fulfills an NAU liberal studies requirement. The topic integrates a range of scientific principles that underlie the Earth's climate system, and it draws from a rapidly expanding field with important current events.

Kaufman is also a co-founder of the Climate Science and Solutions professional science master's program at NAU and a co-PI on the NSF-sponsored Climate Change Education Partnership, which created the Carbon Connections curriculum that targets high school students on the Colorado Plateau. In 2011, Kaufman received the Distinguished Professor award from the College of Engineering, Forestry & Natural Sciences.

Global climate change is among the most pressing environmental issues. The Earth is warming, and the potential impacts on natural systems and human affairs are profound. As he explains, “The issues surrounding climate change are fiercely geopolitical, and they relate to the most serious concerns of a diverse global community faced with the challenge of managing its ultimate common resource—the air.”

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