UCI News

Pay dirt

Susan Trumbore discovers clues to global climate change in soil and plant life

by Sherry Angel | August 29, 2002

Susan Trumbore grew up at a time when people were just beginning to realize that human actions could have serious environmental consequences.

Even as a child in the ’60s, she was paying close attention, and she never stopped.

She participated — enthusiastically — in anti-litter campaigns. Earth Day and Love Canal made deep impressions on her. So did her father’s work as a physical chemist at the University of Delaware.

She chose a career that combines her love of science with her concern for the environment. And today, as a founding member and professor in UCI’s Department of Earth System Science, Trumbore is on the frontline of scientific efforts to understand the impact of human activity on the planet.

She admits that today’s environmental problems bring a sense of urgency to her work. But the Irvine resident, who still has energy for hiking and kayaking after long hours of research and teaching, has always thrived on challenge.

“I went into geology because it was a science I couldn’t memorize,” says Trumbore, who did her undergraduate work in geology at the University of Delaware and delved into geochemistry as a graduate student at Columbia University. “You had to think your way through a problem, and it was something that allowed you to go outdoors to do your work, which I thought was very cool.”

For Trumbore, “outdoors” means places like the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and boreal forests in Alaska and Canada.

Trumbore and her colleagues go to these isolated, far-off locales to conduct studies of soil and plant life that explore how natural carbon cycles are altered by human activity —and how these changes impact global climate.

They measure the emission of gases like carbon dioxide, looking for factors that control the capacity of soils to store and release carbon. Scientists know that widespread burning of fossil fuels is boosting the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but they don’t entirely understand what happens to carbon dioxide in the Earth’s system and how it affects the world’s climate and ecosystem.

Trumbore is determined to find answers, and she has her eye on even bigger questions: “What’s the future going to look like in 100 years? The world’s population has doubled since I was born. If it’s going to double again, how are we going to learn to live on this planet?”

She couldn’t have found a better place to explore these questions than UCI’s Department of Earth System Science. Among her colleagues are UCI Chancellor Ralph Cicerone, who founded the department in 1989 and is an internationally acclaimed atmospheric scientist, and F. Sherwood Rowland, who received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his findings on stratospheric ozone depletion.

“I have enormous respect for this generation of scientists,” Trumbore says. “They were the first to realize that humans were big enough to change the planet irrevocably.”

She was also drawn to UCI by its interdisciplinary approach to Earth system science.

She explains: “We don’t yet have a functioning Earth system model that couples changes on the land with changes in ocean circulation with changes in atmospheric chemistry and tells us how all this is going to influence climate in the future. UCI’s Department of Earth System Science is the kind of place where this can be done. People working in all these areas within our department are interacting, trying to make predictions for the next century.”

Trumbore’s contributions — which include developing innovative methods of studying the complex interactions between plants, soils and the atmosphere — have earned her a number of honors early in her career. She has been named one of the nation’s best young scientists by the National Science Foundation, and she received the UCI Distinguished Assistant Professor Award for Research. She is Bullard Fellow at Harvard University and was recently named president of the Biogeosciences section of the American Geophysical Union.

Trumbore is one of a number of UCI Earth science researchers who advise major governmental agencies and business organizations, providing scientific information that is used in the creation of environmental policy. She is a lead author on an intergovernmental assessment of land use impacts of the Kyoto Protocol, an international document establishing limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the Kyoto Protocol still must be ratified by a number of nations, Trumbore is encouraged by the international dialogue that it has generated and optimistic that it will eventually result in significant reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

“This is no longer a backwater issue. People have bought into the idea that pollution is a global issue and that we ignore it at our peril,” she says. “The difficult thing is that we’re always putting out short-term fires when we should be thinking about what kind of a world we are leaving our grandchildren.”

Trumbore welcomes the opportunity to make this point in the classroom. This is where she gets her chance to talk about that connection between human actions and environmental consequences that she became aware of at an early age and still thinks about every day.

“I often feel that teaching is the most important thing I do — the place where I have the most impact,” she says.

In the class on global change issues that she teaches for non-science majors, she reminds students that they make choices every day as consumers, and that their choices in such matters as what kind of car to drive and how much energy to consume have a significant impact on the environment. “We can no longer treat the atmosphere as our wastebasket,” she tells them.

This is a lesson she doesn’t want anyone in her classroom to miss.

“This is the next generation that’s going to have to deal with these problems,” she explains. “The better educated they are, the better it will be for future generations.”