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What We Do: Case Studies in Climate Change

Field trip lets students study climate change in the living lab of Eastern California.

Danielle Underferth
Photography by Madi Miro

When it comes to climate change, California provides an ideal case study. And Scot Miller wants his students to be where the science is.

Miller, an assistant professor in the Whiting School of Engineering, took students on a field trip to Death Valley this spring to round out their classwork for the seminar Case Studies in Climate Change. The trip was designed to give the group a thorough understanding of how the Earth’s climate has fluctuated over time, how those fluctuations can be traced in the physical environment, and how one state – California – is managing repercussions from the rapid, human-made changes underway now.

Studying the past to understand the present

Climate change is not a new phenomenon. Over the past several million years, the Earth's climate has changed dramatically, with periods dominated by roaming glaciers and even a “snowball Earth” phase, when the entire globe was covered in ice.

Death Valley National Park and Eastern California are excellent locations to observe evidence of these changes, says Miller. “The region is a hub of global research on past climate change.”

It’s also an ideal place to study and understand the impacts of current climate change, he says.

“There is arguably no state that is more heavily impacted by current climate change than California, and the state government has taken global leadership by enacting innovative climate mitigation and management policies.”

Learning across disciplines

male walking through a rocky valley

In order to understand climate trends and impacts, Miller’s students studied and did field work in the areas of geology, ecology, chemistry, meteorology, hydrology, and even public policy.

Activities included mapping and interpreting geological formations that show how the Earth swung from cold to hot climate extremes, measuring trees in different ecosystems to estimate how much carbon is locked up in certain ecosystems, and then modeling how carbon storage may change as those ecosystems adjust to a changing climate, collecting tree cores to observe variations in climate that stressed or benefited trees, and evaluating how California’s policies improve, or in some cases worsen climate stresses.

"The class was an amazing opportunity to learn about our climate not only through books and pictures but also through the experience of seeing the evidence of a changing climate in person,” said student Madi Miro. “It was definitely one of the best experiences I was able to have at Hopkins."

For Miller, it’s important for students to learn not just about how climate is changing, but also about how scientists track the magnitude and impacts of climate change.

“I strongly believe that field-based and experiential learning can bring academic material to life. While in the field, we can connect academic climate science and academic discussions of policy with real-world climate impacts that are already starting to occur,” he says. “Climate change is more than an abstract academic subject. It’s a phenomenon that’s happening in the here and now, and we can see these impacts around us if we know where to look.”

Environmental Health and Engineering is a cross-divisional department spanning the Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Whiting School of Engineering. This hybrid department is uniquely designed to lead pioneering research and prepare the next generation of scholars to solve critical and complex issues at the interface of public health and engineering.