When I leave school I want to be... a marine palaeoceanographer

When I leave school I want to be... a marine palaeoceanographer

Do you want to inspire your pupils about science? Why not tell them about science jobs they (and you) may never have heard about before?

Last week we mentioned the relaunch of the Future Morph website with its excellent careers advice section.  However, sometimes grabbing the attention of a class full of 13 year olds is easier if you have something strange or disgusting to show them.

Planet Science is here to help! Over the next few weeks we will be profiling some science jobs you may never have encountered before.  Some are relatively normal, while others are definitely not for the faint hearted.

These articles will also provide links to teaching resources and ideas for classroom activities and experiments.

1. Marine palaeoclimatologist

Who doesn't like playing in the mud? If your students really like getting their hands dirty then perhaps this is the job they should choose.

Everyone has heard of tree rings; those beautiful circles you find when a branch or trunk has been sawn in two. Each pair of light and dark rings represents one year of growth and the wider the rings, the more the tree grew that year.  Someone interested in how the Earth's climate has changed through time (a palaeoclimatologist) can take tiny samples of the tree from different rings and use them to find out things like the temperature, how much rainfall there was and how much CO2 there was in the atmosphere at the time.

Tree Rings

Growth ring from of a tree at Bristol Zoo, England (c) Arpingstone

Some people have also heard about ice cores from Greenland and Antartica being used to investigate climate chage from tens to hundreds of thousand years ago.  Each layer in the great polar ice caps contains information which can be used by scientists to research past climates.

Less well known, however, is the work of marine palaeoclimatologists who use mud collected from the bottom of the ocean to find out about changes in the marine environment over thousands and even millions of years.

The mud can be collected in a number of ways, including using a gravity corer from the deck of a research vessel.  This equipment is basically a long (up to 15 metres) metal tube with a large weight on the end.  It is carefully lowered of the deck of the ship until it is about 30-50m for the seabed, then dropped.

Gravity Corer

Gravity corer being lowered into the ocean (c) MBARI

When the corer is pulled slowly up to the surface, the metal tube will be full of layered sediment ready to be analyised with everything from your eyes and a sharp pencil to X-rays.

The collect samples contain rocks, sand and mud as well as large amounts of organic matter, mostly diatoms, foramnifera and other algae, which has settled slowly through the water to the sea floor.  Like all living things, algae collect information about the environment around them and store it in their bodies.  For example, looking at the different isotopes of carbon and oxygen in algae cells can give a marine palaeoclimatologist an insight into changes in sea-level, carbon dioxide levels, global temperatures and the changing orbit of the Earth around the sun.

mud cores

Scientists study sediment cores (c) NASA

So why would your pupils be interested in marine palaeoclimatology? Well, several reasons spring to mind:

  • Collecting them could mean going on research cruises to amazing places like Antarctica, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and Svalbard.  Sadly it might also mean collecting industrial waste from the mouths of rivers, but it might be best not to mention that...
  • The work can be exciting and dangerous. Working in the North Atlantic and Southern Oceans means dealing with some of the worst weather in the world with freezing temperatures and raging seas, not to mention polar bears and leopard seals
  • For children who like getting messy, the mud often stinks and it's hard not to get covered in it
  • Studying the sediments in the laboratory means dissolving it with highly-dangerous chemicals and analysing it with state-of-the-art instruments
  • The work palaeoclimatologists do is vitally important in increasing our understanding of how the Earth's climate system works and how human activity may be affecting it

More weird and wonderful careers ideas will be coming soon to Planet Science, so subscribe to our newsletter and we can keep you posted.