The Rock Whisperer

One geologist believes ancient rocks are the key to discovering the rate of glacial ice melt.

| October 03, 2012

  • Rock Whisperer 1
    Geologist Paul Hearty believes ancient rocks can tell us just how fast and how much polar ice will melt.
    Photograph Courtesy TED Books
  • Deep Water TED cover
    "Deep Water" by Daniel Grossman exploresthe science of sea-level rise and evidence that humans are upsetting the natural equilibrium. 
    Cover Courtesy TED Books
  • Rock Whisperer 2
    If Earth warms just a couple of degrees, massive glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica could melt substantially in mere decades.
    Photograph Courtesy TED Books

  • Rock Whisperer 1
  • Deep Water TED cover
  • Rock Whisperer 2

Global warming is defrosting the massive polar ice caps at an increasingly alarming rate. Water once safely anchored in glacial ice is now surging into the sea. The flow could become a deluge. Millions of people living near coastlines are in danger. Inundation could impact every nation on earth. 

But scientists don’t yet know how fast this ice will melt, or how high our seas could rise. In an effort to find out, a team of renowned geologists takes a 4,000-mile road trip across Western Australia. They collect fossils and rocks from ancient shorelines and accumulate new evidence that ancient sea levels were frighteningly high during epochs when average global temperatures were barely higher than today. 

In Deep Water (TED Books, 2012), veteran environmental journalist, radio producer and documentary filmmaker Daniel Grossman explores the new and fascinating science — and scientists — of sea-level rise. His investigation turns up both startling and worrisome evidence that humans are upsetting a delicate natural equilibrium.  

The Rock Whisperer, excerpted from Deep Water, a TED Book by Daniel Grossman, is available via Kindle, Nook, iBook, and TED Books app. 

In 2009 my friend Maureen Raymo, then a professor at Boston University, invited me to join her geology expedition to Australia. At first, the trip’s purpose seemed arcane to me: Raymo would study sea level during the geologic period called the Pliocene. I knew little about the Pliocene then, except its duration: from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago (find it near the wide end in this visualization of geologic time, from the U.S. Geological Survey). I flew to Melbourne. During the following month of work and travel, Raymo would tutor me in her studies. Later Raymo and I received a grant to work together and I made some videos about her research. Raymo, who has high, wide cheekbones, jet-black hair and a steady, soft-spoken presence, would be a stabilizing force among her crew.

Through Raymo, I met Paul Hearty, a geologist who’d joined her to perform the critical task of identifying Pliocene Age sea-level rocks. By looking at the rocks on past shorelines, Raymo and Hearty hoped to learn more about the correlation between average planetary temperature and sea level. Before long, Hearty, talented and cantankerous, had me both exasperated and amazed. He showed me ways that scientists are achieving better predictions of future sea-level rise — and gauging whether the increase will be merely very bad or absolutely catastrophic. As I followed Hearty’s work over the next three years, I’d find his conclusions compelling and important at first, but later I’d be dubious.


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