Ocean’s Role in Climate: Heat and Carbon Uptake in the Anthropocene

Lecture Series: Earth Transformed

Joellen Russell, 1885 Society Distinguished Scholar, Associate Professor, Department of Geosciences, College of Science, University of Arizona
Because it serves as the primary gateway through which the intermediate, deep, and bottom waters of the ocean interact with the atmosphere, the Southern Ocean has a profound influence on the oceanic uptake of anthropogenic carbon and heat. Yet it is the least observed and understood region of the world ocean because of harsh conditions. The oceanographic community is on the cusp of two major advances that have the potential to transform understanding of the ocean’s role in climate. The first is the development of new biogeochemical sensors mounted on autonomous profiling floats that allow sampling of ocean biogeochemistry and acidification in 3-dimensional space. The second is that the climate modeling community finally has the computational resources and physical understanding to develop fully coupled climate models that can represent crucial mesoscale processes in the Southern Ocean. Together with the observations, this new generation of models provides the tools to vastly improve understanding of the ocean’s ability to absorb anthropogenic carbon and heat both today and into the future.

Climate Change and Global Food Security

Lecture Series: Earth Transformed

David Battisti, Tamaki Endowed Chair, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Washington
By the end of the century, the season averaged growing temperature will very likely exceed the highest temperature ever recorded throughout the tropics and subtropics. By 2050, the increase in temperature alone is projected to cause a 20% reduction in the yield of all of the major grains (maize, wheat, rice and soybeans). The breadbasket countries in the midlatitudes will experience marked increases in year-to-year volatility in crop production. Increasing stresses on the major crops due to climate change, coupled with the increasing demand for food due to increasing population and development, present significant challenges to achieving global food security. This seminar explores the likely impact of climate change and volatility on food production and availability in the foreseeable future.

Ecosystem Resilience: Navigating Our Tenuous Connection to Nature

Lecture Series: Earth Transformed

Russell Monson, Louise Foucar Marshall Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, College of Science, University of Arizona
How can humans thrive within a natural world that holds the ingredients necessary for our survival, but at the same time is threatened by our domination of that world? Sustainability of the goods and services provided by Earth’s ecosystems is dependent on mechanisms of resilience that include maintenance of biotic diversity and avoidance of climatically-controlled ‘tipping points’. This lecture will explore how recent trends in land use and anthropogenic climate warming have exposed vulnerabilities in the mechanisms of ecosystem resilience, and revealed the potential for surprising shifts in the productivity and persistence of ecosystems. Recognition of the interactions between anthropogenic climate forcing and natural climate cycles, and breakthroughs in the fields of genomics and ecosystem modeling, provide opportunities for management of ecosystem resilience. With adequate foresight and focus, humans can learn to navigate toward a more sustainable future.

What is Life?

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, Planetary Scientist, Vatican Observatory Research Group

Throughout history, our definition of 'life' reflects our assumptions about how the Universe works – and why we ask the question. The ways different human cultures, ancient and current, have talked about life provide some sense of how we have defined life, and illustrate the aspects of life that fascinate us. Many cultures used life as an analog to explain the movement of winds and currents, or the motions of the planets. Today we use those mechanical systems as analogs for life. Ultimately, we may not really know what life is until we have discovered more than one independent example of it on places other than Earth – we need many diverse examples before we can generalize. But without a definition of what we're looking for, and why we're looking, we may have a hard time recognizing life when we find it.

Planet Formation and the Origin of Life

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Dante S. Lauretta, Professor, Planetary Sciences/Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

It is generally accepted that planets or their satellites are required for life to originate and evolve. Thus, in order to understand the possible distribution of life in the Universe it is important to study planet formation and evolution. These processes are recorded in the chemistry and mineralogy of asteroids and comets, and the geology of ancient planetary surfaces in our Solar System. Evidence can also be seen in the many examples of ongoing planet formation in nearby regions of our galaxy. Finally, the variety of observable extra-solar planetary systems also provides insight into their origins and potential for life. These records will be discussed and compared to summarize our current understanding of planet formation and the accompanying processes that may lead to the origin of life throughout the Universe.


Life on Earth: By Chance or By Law?

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Brian J. Enquist, Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Life on Earth is amazing and multifaceted. Ultimately all of life has descended from one common ancestor and has been guided by evolution by natural selection. On the one hand, the evolution of modern-day diversity and ecosystems may have been contingent on the initial chemical building blocks of life and the historical events that have characterized our planet over geologic time. On the other hand, there are numerous aspects of life pointing to regular and deterministic processes that shape the complexity and diversity of life. This talk will touch on those examples where the laws of chemistry and physics, in addition to evolutionary rules, have resulted in general properties of life. These properties ultimately determine how long we live, the diversity of life, the function and regulation of ecosystems and the biosphere, and how life will respond to climate change.

Complexity and Evolvability: What Makes Life So Interesting?

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Anna R. Dornhaus, Associate Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Life is particularly fascinating in its ability to create complex and ever-changing forms out of simple building blocks. How does such complexity arise, and what are the conditions that allow never-ending evolution of new and more intricate forms of life? We now know that one of the main processes that allows this is that life consists of modules that interact with and feed back on one another. In the history of life on Earth, new levels of complexity have often arisen out of new types of such interactions, and continued evolution has been driven by life interacting with other life. We even find that man-made systems can develop a 'life' of their own when such feedback interactions among many modules occur. Life, it seems, is more about rules of interaction than special materials. We have only begun to understand the power of this algorithmic nature of life.

Searching for Life in the Solar System

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Timothy D. Swindle, Professor and Head, Planetary Sciences/Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
When Renaissance scholars figured out that the planets are, like Earth, orbiting the Sun, an immediate assumption was that they are inhabited worlds. In the last 50 years, spacecraft have determined that life on the surfaces of planets and moons in the Solar System is rare – if it exists at all. However, there are places where a search for life in the Solar System may still be fruitful. Although the current surface of Mars is a hostile environment, early Mars may have been much more clement to life. Jupiter's moon Europa is almost certainly barren on the surface, but has an 'ocean' of liquid water underneath a crust of ice, where some terrestrial organisms might be able to thrive. Finally, Saturn's moon Titan would not be suitable for life from Earth, but has rain and seas of liquid hydrocarbons, raising questions about whether life needs liquid water, or just needs some abundant liquid.

Amazing Discoveries: A Billion Earth-like Worlds

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Laird M. Close, Professor, Astronomy/Steward Observatory

One of the most fascinating developments in the last two decades is humankind's discovery of alien worlds orbiting stars near our Sun. Since the first such discovery in 1995 there has been a truly exponential growth in the detection of these new planets. Scientists have been puzzled and surprised by the diversity and extravagance of these new extra-solar systems. For example, we now know the most common type of planet is actually missing from our own Solar System. Recently, the space-based NASA Kepler Mission has discovered thousands of new worlds and suggests that one in five Sun-like stars may harbor an Earth-like planet. We will take a grand tour of some of these amazing new worlds, specifically noting where life might already exist, beyond our Solar System. The latest developments and difficulties of direct imaging for life on an exoplanet will be discussed.

Intelligent Life Beyond Earth

Lecture Series: Life In The Universe

Christopher D. Impey, University Distinguished Professor, Astronomy

One question rises above all others when it comes to our place in a vast and ancient Universe, 'Are we alone?' With a billion habitable locations in the Milky Way galaxy, and more than ten billion years for biological experiments to play out, a search for intelligent life beyond Earth is well-motivated. Unfortunately, the single example of life on Earth gives no clear indication of whether intelligence is an inevitable or an extremely rare consequence of biological evolution. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is more appropriately called the search for extraterrestrial technology. So far, the search for intelligent aliens by their electromagnetic communication has met with half a century of stony silence. It's challenging to define life, and even more difficult to make general definitions of intelligence and technology. We'll look at the premises and assumptions involved in the search, the strategies used, and the profound consequences of making contact.