On Friday, March 4, the Geology Department and the G. Arthur Cooper Lecture Series co-sponsored a lecture by Timothy Lowenstein titled “NASC Colloquium: Fluid Inclusions and Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere, Hydrosphere and Biosphere.” An alumnus of Colgate’s Class of 1978, Lowenstein currently works as a student mentor and geologist at Binghamton University, where he studies ancient bacteria preserved in halite crystals. As someone who has devoted his life to an incredibly understudied area of geology, Lowenstein concisely articulated his personal career goals.
“All of my career I’ve tried to make simple observations and measurements that have bigger meaning,” Lowenstein said.
Lowenstein frequently underscored this goal throughout the lecture.
Lowenstein started his talk by considering how fluid inclusions can educate scientists about the hydrosphere. Although geologists accurately identified that ion concentrations of seawater have been fairly uniform throughout Earth, Lowenstein revealed that it wasn’t until 2000 that geologists realized the composition of seawater has changed throughout history – a recent paradigm that Lowenstein was proud to have been involved in. After 14 years of quantitative data analysis, Lowenstein and his research team showed that fluctuations in seawater composition throughout Earth’s history can be described as systematic change, alternating between periods of high magnesium and low calcium and vice versa. As understood through analysis of fluid inclusions, this data has allowed geobiologists to better understand the evolving landscape of coral reefs throughout Earth’s history, shifting in response to Earth’s seawater composition.
Junior Austin Anderson expressed particular interest in these revelations about the importance of fluid inclusions.
“The idea that fluid inclusions provide a record of ancient sea chemistry, which can be used to explain why we see fluctuations in marine life over time, was my favorite part of the talk,” Anderson said.
As scientists consider the future of Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise, fluid inclusions also allow geologists to gauge the implications of these gas levels on the global climate. In this portion of the talk, Lowenstein referred to fluid inclusions dating about 50 million years ago to the Eocene period, a time where hardly any frost could be found on Earth’s surface. Fluid inclusions with a mineral called nahcolite from the Eocene Green River Formation revealed that the planet was about twenty degrees Fahrenheit warmer as a result of significantly higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This indicates a higher climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide levels than expected.
Junior Meghan McHale was shocked by these findings.
“While it’s comforting to know that the Earth has withstood even hotter climates, it’s pretty sobering to see how impactful atmospheric carbon dioxide levels can actually be,” McHale said.
Lowenstein’s final segment of the lecture referred to ideas that have attracted a significant amount of controversy over the past 15 years. In addition to providing significant insights into the Earth’s prehistoric environment, fluid inclusions have preserved microorganisms for thousands of years.
Lowenstein expressed his amazement as he described his research team’s ability to bring organisms that had been trapped for 34,000 years back to life. DNA sequencing of these “microbes buried alive” provided important evidence regarding the evolution of these salt-loving archaea.
Despite the fact that Lowenstein’s findings are grounded by fact-based evidence, respected scholarly magazines such as Science and Nature are refusing to publish Lowenstein’s work. Unfortunately, the first publication in 2001 referring to the use of fluid inclusions was ungrounded and discredited. Consequently, reputable magazines have been hesitant to revisit the subject ever since, making the work of geologists like Lowenstein more difficult to validate and publicize.