Big goalMuch of Austermann’s work focuses on how that interplay influences changes in sea level. The global average sea level has risen more than 20 centimeters since 1880, and the yearly rise is increasing. But shifts in local sea level can vary, with those levels rising or falling along different shorelines, Austermann says, and the solid earth plays a role. “We think about sea level change generally as ‘ice is melting, so sea level is rising.’ But there’s a lot more nuance to it,” she says. “A lot of sea level change is driven by land motion.” Understanding that nuance could lead to more accurate climate models for predicting sea level rise in the future. Such work should help inform practical solutions for communities in at-risk coastal areas.
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Standout researchPrevious studies had suggested that this churning, known as mantle convection, sculpted Earth’s surface millions of years ago. “It pushes the surface up where hot material wells up,” Austermann says. “And it also drags [the surface] down where cold material sinks back into the mantle.” In 2015, Austermann and colleagues were the first to show that mantle-induced topographic changes over the last 3 million years. Near the ice sheet’s edges, ice retreated more quickly in areas where the land surface was lower due to convection.
What’s more, mantle convection is affecting land surfaces even on relatively short time scales. Since the last interglacial period, around 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, mantle convection has by as much as several meters, her team reported in Science Advances in 2017.
Building communityAustermann says the most enjoyable part of her job is working with her students and postdocs. More than writing the next big paper, she wants to cultivate a happy, healthy and motivated research group. “It’s really rewarding to see them grow academically, scientifically, come up with their own ideas … and also help each other out.” Roger Creel, a Ph.D. student in Austermann’s group and the first to join her lab, treasures Austermann’s mentorship. She offers realistic, clear and fluid expectations, gives prompt and thoughtful feedback and meets for regular check-ins, he says. “Sometimes I think of it like water-skiing, and Jacky’s the boat.” For Oana Dumitru, a postdoc in the group, one aspect of that valued mentorship came in the form of a gentle push to write and submit a grant proposal on her own. “I thought I was not ready for it, but she was like, you’ve got to try,” Dumitru says. Austermann prioritizes her group’s well-being, which fosters collaboration, Creel and Dumitru say. That sense of inclusion, support and community “is the groundwork for having an environment where great ideas can blossom,” Austermann says.
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