When Sharon Kanfoush multitasks, it’s on a global scale.
The UC geoscience professor has two major research projects underway – one extracting sediment from Adirondack lakes, the other pulling core samples from the floor of the South Atlantic. Though separated by thousands of miles, these very different environments offer potential insights into the effects of climate change. “Climate is kind of an overarching theme in a lot of what I do,” she says.
Preliminary evidence from her study of Adirondack lakes is providing a snapshot of how global warming is affecting that environment right now. Her work in the South Atlantic, on the other hand, delves deep into the past in an attempt to gain a better understanding of what the future may hold.
Kanfoush’s Southern Ocean research indicates that past warming intervals led to significant discharges of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet. If a similar process is underway now as a result of atmospheric warming, it could lead to rapid rises in sea level, threatening coastal cities and potentially displacing millions of people.
“There are very, very low-lying nations, including a number of South Pacific islands, where there are already negotiations going on between residents and relatively close larger mainland areas – talks about relocating people when the time is necessary, and it’s not that far off,” she says.
Kanfoush has partnered with colleagues at other institutions on some of the research she’s done, as well as officials from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
She’s also involved her students in her work. Her most recent paper was developed with a student co-author, Sarah Robinson, who is a geoscience major. The paper was accepted by the journal The Northeastern Geographer.
The work being done by Kanfoush, her colleagues, and students contributes to a growing body of research predicting an increasing number of climate-related population displacements around the globe, some of which are already underway.
“Whenever there is a spring high tide in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, they have severe flooding. Salt water has inundated their drinking water supplies. So the future is here,” says Kanfoush. “We’ve already seen the first relocated environmental refugees. It’s a global phenomenon.”
Despite the scale of the problem, news coverage of environmental refugees is spotty at best. Kanfoush hopes that the work she’s doing at UC might help to bring this issue more to the front of a very crowded media landscape.
“As scientists, we love the science of things, and we don’t need any compelling social or socio-economic tie-in to make it interesting. But if those connections exist, they may prompt the public to pay more attention to what we are doing,” says Kanfoush. “That’s why I try really hard to be the kind of researcher who makes science relevant to others.”