Stager receives NSF research grant

PAUL SMITHS A Paul Smiths College professor has won a $330,000 National Science Foundation grant to study ancient rainfall patterns in southern Africa work that might help others make better predictions about rainfall there in the future. Curt Stager, a professor of natural sciences at the college, said he hopes that by gaining a better idea of how climate change affected South African rainfall in the past, others will be able to forecast how global warming induced by the greenhouse effect will affect the region in this century. Here in the Adirondacks, the term climate change usually makes us think of temperatures, as in shorter winters, said Stager. But in most of Africa, coming changes in rainfall will be more important than temperature alone. If more droughts strike there, whole ecosystems could dry up and people could lose their crops. And if it rains too much, floods and disease could result. As part of the research, Stager will work with two Paul Smiths undergraduates in Africa next year to collect sediment samples from Lake Verlorenvlei, in South Africa. By analyzing the concentration of diatoms tiny, glassy-shelled algae in sediment cores brought from the bottom of the lake, he and the students will reconstruct rainfall patterns for the past 2,000 years. When combined with other, existing climate data, Stager will be able to determine how previous warming and cooling events affected rainfall in South Africa. Those rains fall in belts that stretch across the continent, roughly parallel to the equator. Depending on whether temperatures are warming or cooling, Stager suggested, the belts should move north or south. So far, though, computer climate models are at odds in their predictions about how warming and cooling affects precipitation: some models predict drier weather, others wetter. This research should help settle that debate. The computer models are contradictory, he said. So how can people prepare for the effects of global warming on African droughts or flooding if they don't know which conditions to expect? The four-year grant will also involve researchers from other institutions in South Africa and Britain, who will analyze the samples that Stager and his students bring back. The students will also assist other South African climate researchers while in the field, thereby gaining valuable first-hand exposure to international environmental research. Paul Smiths College is the only four-year institution of higher education in the Adirondacks. Programs, in fields including hospitality, culinary arts, forestry, natural resources, entrepreneurship and the sciences, draw on industries and resources available in locally and in the Adirondacks while preparing students for successful careers anywhere.

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