A college switch to geology led Andrea Dutton to research that may change city planning, farming and population shifts the world over
Andrea Dutton has an innate curiosity. Before becoming a geologist and assistant professor at the University of Florida, she planned to be a doctor. Before that she was a music major. It wasn’t until she enrolled at the last minute in an introductory geology course at Amherst College that she had her first brush with earth science.
She instantly fell in love.
“It was a discipline that combined all the sciences I had studied,” says Dutton, who was recently named one of Rolling Stone magazine’s “25 People Shaping the Future.” “At the same time, I got to go outdoors and be a detective to try and piece together stories of the past.”
What those stories of Earth’s past tell us is crucial in understanding the future of a threat already making its presence known: rising sea levels.
The phenomenon is being felt in Miami, where people call it “sunny-day flooding.” Even when skies are clear, water soaks the streets. High tide overflows into the city, strong winds blow waves across beaches and sidewalks.
And it’s felt far beyond Florida. In cities and countries around the world — Amsterdam, Brussels, Venice and Cairo; Bangladesh, India, Burma, Vietnam, Mozambique and Nigeria —it’s not a matter of if, but rather when communities will have to adapt to the impact of encroaching sea levels.
As co-leader of an international working group with interdisciplinary researchers, Dutton travels with her team to shorelines around the globe. From the Florida Keys, to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, to the beaches of the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa, the team surveys and gathers samples of fossil corals, ice cores and sediments to examine Earth’s geological record.
“If we know how the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will respond to sustained warming by looking at past warm periods in Earth’s history,” Dutton says, “we can use this information to project how much the seas will rise and how quickly that will unfold.”
The findings of Dutton and her team could influence city planning, population shifts and even farming.
In 2011, Dutton brought her research to Florida, where she is able to explore hundreds of miles of coastline on the doorstep of the Caribbean. The state, she says, is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise due to its low topography, porous bedrock that allows salt water to seep up, and an economic dependence on coastal economies and real estate.
“What is certain about Florida’s future is that the seas will continue to rise long into the future, and this will reshape the coastlines as we know them,” Dutton says.
Dutton’s hope for her children’s future, and their children’s future, is that people will be more proactive when it comes to environmental issues, and better prepare for and adapt to a changing world.
“We have learned so much about Earth’s system and the climate system in even just the last few decades,” Dutton says. “We understand in excruciating detail what is going on here, and that information is really impelling and applies to everyone.”
Q&A with Andrea Dutton
If you weren’t a geologist, what would you be?
Well, I was actually a music major in an alternate life. Perhaps I would have been a choral conductor.
When you’re not studying coastlines and sea-level changes, what are you doing?
Being a soccer mom. Planning meals, carpools, and marveling at my kids as they grow and learn. They are my greatest source of pride.
Your research has taken you all over the world. What’s been your favorite destination and why?
This is a tough question. I feel like I could never get enough of Western Australia. The outback has its own pace and way of life, and the landscapes, flora, and fauna are spectacular. Not to mention the amazing rocks.
If there was one thing you wish the public knew about geology, what would it be?
That it is more than just rocks. The Earth is a system, and to understand all of the information trapped inside those rocks you need to have an incredible depth of understanding in physics, chemistry, and yes, biology. Each rock has its own story just waiting to be told.
If you unexpectedly received $1 million to support your work, what would you do with it?
There is some equipment I would buy for my fieldwork, and I would use some of the money to fund fieldwork in remote places that can be very expensive. But I would be thrilled to be in the position to hire postdocs and students in my laboratory, too. Training the next generation of scientists is arguably one of the most important things I do.
What inspires you?
The people in my life. The endless devotion of my parents, the support of my family, the enthusiasm of my students and colleagues — the living network of everyone around me.