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Spotlight on: The Axford Group

Modified: February 25, 2015
L-R, Lauren Farnsworth (student at Dartmouth), Everett Lasher, and Jamie McFarlin posing with Greenland's plains in the background

All Northwestern graduate students have stories about the interesting, unique, and just plain weird experiences they have had over the course of their research. Very few, however, can say that learning to defend themselves against bear attacks was a part of their academic training. The students in the Axford Group are among those few.

Everett Lasher and Jamie McFarlin are second-year graduate students in the Earth and Planetary Sciences program. Along with their advisor, Professor Yarrow Axford, they research climate change in northwest Greenland. Their fieldwork involves riding in military aircraft, camping in the arctic tundra and, yes, the (slim) chance of polar bear encounters.

Protecting themselves from polar bears, as well as protecting polar bears from them, involves every measure that could be taken to avoid any confrontation with bears, including protective fences with sirens around the field camp. Having to take these sorts of precautions might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s one of the things that drew Everett to the field.

“The desire to do fieldwork, to get outside, to be in remote places where nobody is ever going to get to go,” was one of the reasons that Everett wanted to work with Professor Axford. “[Her] research interests and lab group sat at a nexus of overlapping interests for me.”  Everett’s interests also include climate science and geochemistry.

Jamie was interested Professor Axford’s research because of the field’s interdisciplinary nature. “Her research was really interesting to me, and it is really collaborative,” she said.

Jamie’s research focuses on building climate records through the lens of the biologic system. “Really broadly, you could say that I focus on reconstructing paleoclimate and paleoecology: how temperature has changed over time, and how ecology and hydrology have changed over time in arctic environments,” she explains. More specifically, Jamie uses a taxonomic method, where she quantifies assemblages of subfossil Chironomid (non-biting midges) in lake sediment cores and uses that information to infer temperature.

Everett taking measurements is a lake in Greenland

“One of the things that’s really compelling about studying climate and the climate system is that it merges many different study areas. You can’t look at it in isolation,” Jamie says. “You have to take into account the ocean, the atmosphere, the biosphere, the cryosphere, all of which interact in ways that can impact global climate.”Everett’s research seeks to answer similar questions, but, in an illustration of the interdisciplinarity of the field, comes from a geochemical perspective. “I try to understand how changes in earth’s climate in the past can better inform what’s going to happen in the future, and I use chemistry and geochemical proxies to track climate change through time.” In practice, this involves tracking changes in lake sediment chemistry caused by temperature shifts. This allows Everett to know how the temperature in Northwest Greenland changed over the last 11,000 years.

The Axford Group’s current research project is an excellent example of the collaborative spirit that Everett and Jamie describe. “Our most recent trip [to Greenland] is part of a larger National Science Foundation-funded collaborative research project. [Professor Axford] is working with scientists at Dartmouth College and the University of Maine, and it’s bringing together a lot of really diverse disciplines – lake sediment scientists, glacial scientists, and climate modelers – all on the same project. We are working on improving our understanding of how the Holocene-- the last eleven thousand years-- looked in northwestern Greenland, a place that’s pretty poorly studied,” Everett says.

The Axford Group’s research isn’t only about past climate change; it’s also about “[understanding] how changes in Earth’s climate in the past can better inform what’s going to happen in the future,” according to Everett. This focus on the future of climate change is especially important when studying the arctic environments where the group’s fieldwork takes place.

“The reason this research is important is because warming is the strongest in high latitudes,” Jamie explains. “Greenland is particularly important because we need to understand how much and how fast that warming will impact the Greenland Ice Sheet.”

“The temperature records we generate up there will be used in climate models to help project future change in high latitudes,” Everett says, followed by Jamie’s addition, “And the influence those changes would have on the rest of the world.”

The members of the Axford Group not only study climate change; they also work to communicate their science to a broader audience.

“[Professor Axford] writes op-eds and participates in community lectures, and she encourages us to do the same. For example, up in Greenland we gave a talk to the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark because she felt comfortable with us sharing science with policy makers and politicians,” Everett said.

Jamie is particularly interested in the possibilities of sharing climate research with a wider audience. One of the reasons she chose to study at Northwestern was the University’s strong writing program. “I’d like to work on improving my ability to write for a popular audience as a complement to my research,” she said, adding, “I’m hoping to take some classes on narrative journalism. I want to focus on research and science, but I want to be able to communicate it in an effective way.”

Both Everett and Jamie have also done work with Project EXCITE, the program that brings elementary school-aged children to Northwestern to learn about science. “The children come back every year, and every year we teach them something new about the earth system, from craters on the moon to deep sea thermal activity to extraterrestrial planet bodies,” Everett explains.

Whether it’s presenting their research to politicians, writing for a popular audience, or teaching kids about the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature, the Axford Group is passionate about communicating the science behind climate change.

“It’s something that matters. Even if people aren’t thinking about it on a day-to-day basis, it matters,” said Everett.