UofA climate change researcher wins $1 million national prize

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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Dwelling on the past has earned University of Arizona researcher Jessica Tierney a prestigious $1 million prize from the National Science Foundation.

The Alan T. Waterman Award is the nation’s highest honor for early-career scientists and engineers, and recognizes outstanding individual achievement in foundation-supported research.

Tierney was singled out for her efforts to use prehistoric climate signals to reconstruct ancient conditions and help predict the future.

“Studying the past is important because it can refine our projections of what the climate will look like at the end of the century and what kind of impacts humans will face,” Tierney said in a statement.


The associate professor in the Department of Geosciences is the first AU researcher – and the first climate scientist in the world – to receive the Waterman Prize since Congress established it in 1975.

“Receiving this award signals that one of the nation’s top research funders recognizes the urgency of understanding the Earth system as humans drive climate change,” Tierney said. “It makes me feel like my research is important and really making a difference.”

She earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in geology at Brown before joining AU in 2015.

“Dr. Tierney has quickly made a name for herself in climate science, and we couldn’t be prouder that she won this prestigious award,” said Robert C. Robbins, president of the University of Arizona. “It’s a huge honor, and we’re lucky to have his incredibly valuable expertise at our university.”

Tierney was recently a lead author of the Sixth Assessment Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was released in three parts last year and earlier this year.

She specializes in finding organic climate clues from fossil molecules known as biomarkers preserved in sediments and rocks.

By combining this data with new modeling techniques, she can map past conditions and the dynamics of the system that produced them, redefining how scientists understand the influence of carbon dioxide levels on prehistoric changes in climate. .

For a 2020 paper published in the journal Nature, for example, Tierney and his team spent four years compiling and analyzing as many ancient climate signals as possible from the last ice age, with a particular focus on ocean temperatures.

The resulting cache of approximately 1,800 data points was then connected to state-of-the-art computer models at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, to produce a unique retrospective look at Tierney called a “Hindcast.”

Her pioneering work in “molecular paleoclimatology” earned her national recognition as a 2014 Packard Foundation Fellow and a 2015 American Geophysical Union Fellow. five years.

Tierney is one of only three scientists in the country selected for the 2022 Waterman Prize, which was named in honor of the National Science Foundation’s first director.

This year’s award will be presented May 5 in a ceremony at the National Science Board meeting in Washington, D.C.

In addition to a medal, each recipient receives $1 million in research funding over five years. Tierney said the money will help support his students, postdoctoral fellows and lab director as they pursue new areas of research.

“In particular, this award will allow us to explore high-risk, high-reward ideas that have the potential to transform our understanding of past and future climate change,” she said.

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