The 2016 Tinker-Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica has been awarded to Professor Robert DeConto, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This recognition comes for his outstanding work on past and future Antarctic climate and for research integrating geological data with modelling to reveal likely consequences for future sea level rise from ice sheet melt.
Rob DeConto’s background spans geology, oceanography, atmospheric science and glaciology. He studied at the University of Colorado in the late 1980s and early 1990s before undertaking one of the first PhD studies on Earth System modelling to help understand warm climates in the geologic past. This was followed by post doctoral positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), before joining the faculty of the University of Massachusetts.
In the last fifteen years, Rob’s work has focused on the climate of Antarctica, the dynamics of ice sheets, and the sensitivity of the Antarctic Ice Sheets (and sea level) to conditions warmer than today. The need for model/field data integration was born in part from an international workshop he organized in 2002 that laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the SCAR Antarctic Climate Evolution (ACE) and SCAR Past Antarctic Ice Sheet Evolution (PAIS) scientific research programmes. His leadership has been instrumental in bringing ice sheet modelling and data acquisition communities together, enabling a data-constrained modelling approach to understanding the past and future behaviour of Antarctica’s ice sheets. This initially led to the now classic 2003 Nature paper with modeller David Pollard, Pennsylvania State University, which presented a new coupled ice sheet-climate model showing how atmospheric CO2 levels declining below ~3 times pre-industrial levels could initiate ice sheet growth on Antarctica.
Rob’s pioneering data-model integration strategy was also key to the success of the ANDRILL programme, central to SCAR ACE and PAIS, and eventually adapted by the International Ocean Drilling Program’s (IODP) science plan with an emphasis on the role of the South Polar region in climate evolution and sea level history.
Over the last decade, Rob has worked with colleagues to build on this basic methodology in a series of influential papers, incorporating new and significant ice loss processes that provide improved comparisons between model results and geological data. In their most recent article (DeConto and Pollard, Nature, March 2016), the models predict a doubling in the amount of sea level rise by the end of the century and beyond, compared with the 2013 assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This increased sea-level rise comes from melting ice sheets if atmospheric CO2 emissions continue to rise as at present. They also show that aggressive reductions in CO2 emissions in order to stabilize global warming at no more than 2 degrees C, agreed in the Paris Climate Change Accord, substantially limits Antarctic ice sheet melting and future sea-level rise.
Rob DeConto says, “I am thrilled to receive this award. Our work indicates we do still have choices in addressing climate change and sea-level rise. The award will stimulate my work with colleagues to improve the robustness of this new generation of models, hopefully leading to greater confidence in confronting the issue.”
Julie Brigham-Grette, Head of the Department of Geosciences. University of Massachusetts Amherst, and chair of the U.S. National Academy Polar Research Board, says, “DeConto has forged an international reputation through his work with colleagues toward understanding the processes and dynamic interactions of past ice sheets and climate. The latest article reflects his evolving research focus toward Antarctica’s future and global-to-local sea-level impacts, by informing international climate mitigation policy.”
The award will be officially presented to him at the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) 2016 Open Science Conference in Kuala Lumpur on August 23.